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2013 Positional Rankings: Comparing Cowboys Players To Their NFL Peers

Positional rankings give the best player in the league at his position 100 positional value points and the worst at his position gets zero points. Want to see where the Cowboys players rank in such a comparison? Read on.

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In a previous post reviewing the individual player grades from the Redskins game, Tom produced a little table that showed how the five offensive linemen were ranked compared to their peers across the NFL. Over the last few weeks, we've done similar rankings for the top Cowboys players, for the Cowboys 2013 rookie class, and for the first-round offensive linemen. Six weeks into the season, were extending that ranking approach across the Cowboys roster and today take a look at the positional rankings (or percentile rankings) for the first six weeks of the 2013 season.

The idea behind positional rankings is to find a metric that makes all players in the league comparable. Currently, the only service that offers a metric for every single player in the league is Pro Football Focus (PFF), but instead of looking at the grades (no grades in this post - promised) they assign to the players, we're going to look at where a given player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position .

Example: PFF ranks wide receivers by the cumulative grade they have received so far this season. That ranking lists all 106 wide receivers who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team so far this year. Going by their receiving grade only, Dez Bryant is ranked as the 6th best wide receiver in the league, Terrance Williams is the 67th and Miles Austin the 77th.

Because each position group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the QB list only features 38 players, most other position groups have more), to make the rankings comparable across all positions, I've converted all positional rankings to a scale of 0 - 100. The highest ranked player at a position gets 100 points, the lowest ranked player gets 0. By that logic, Bryant gets a 94 positional ranking [(1-6/106)*100], Williams gets a 37 and Austin gets a 27.

I repeated that calculation for all Cowboys players based on the overall ranking scale provided by PFF, with the exception of tight ends and wide receivers, where I only used PFF's ranking by receiving grade, not the overall grade. And finally, I divided the results into quintiles, which delivers the following positional ranking groups:

Positional Ranking
100-81 Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
80-61 NFL starter quality at position
60-41 Average to slightly below average player
40-21 Underperformer
20-0 Red Flag

A player marked in blue is ranked in the top 20% of players at his position group, a player marked in green is ranked in the top 40% of players at his position, and so on. In the next table, I've summarized the results for all 32 Cowboys players who've played on at least 25% of the snaps in 2012.

As you review the figures and charts in the rest of this post, keep in mind that the numbers give a directional indication of how a player performed over the first six games, but shouldn't be seen as a definitive statement of a player's quality. While I'm confident that a player marked in blue had a better start to the season than a player marked in yellow, there is probably less of a difference between players with a value of, say, 75 and 85 than the numbers and the color code would seem to indicate.

2013 Cowboys Positional Rankings
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Doug Free OT 381 1/74 100
DeMarcus Ware DE 274 2/47 96
Dez Bryant WR 359 6/106 94
Jason Hatcher DT 317 4/70 94
Dan Bailey K - - 3/48 94
DeMarco Murray RB 292 7/54 87
Brandon Carr CB 415 14/104 87
Jason Witten TE 381 8/59 86
Sean Lee ILB 418 7/51 86
Brian Waters OG 222 11/74 85
J.J. Wilcox S 292 15/85 82
Tony Romo QB 380 7/38 82
Travis Frederick OC 381 7/34 79
Barry Church S 394 23/85 73
Tyron Smith OT 379 22/74 70
George Selvie DE 288 20/47 57
Ronald Leary OG 374 33/74 55
Will Allen S 170 49/85 42
Terrance Williams WR 245 67/106 37
Orlando Scandrick CB 406 67/104 36
Mackenzy Bernadeau OG 166 48/74 35
Kyle Wilber DE 140 34/47 28
Miles Austin WR 208 77/106 27
James Hanna TE 125 47/59 20
Bruce Carter OLB 344 26/31 16
Chris Jones P 6 30/34 12
Ernie Sims OLB 110 28/31 10
Morris Claiborne CB 334 95/104 9
Nick Hayden DT 326 67/70 4

This table is built using the PFF player grades. As such, many of the individual rankings are debatable, and there are probably good arguments to be made why a given player should be ranked higher or lower, and this is especially the case for borderline players who are just short of the next quintile. But overall, I think it's a good approximation of where the team stands - based on the performance over the first six games of the season.

The first thing that pops out in this view at the roster is the high number of players in the "Blue Chip" quintile. The Cowboys have 12 players who qualify for this quintile, only the Kansas City Chiefs have as many. Denver and Cincinnati are next with 10 players each. At the other end of the spectrum, the Vikings have only one player who's played at a blue-chip level over the first six weeks of the season - and it's not Adrian Peterson, but guard Brandon Fusco. Across the NFC East, the Redskins and Eagles have four Blue Chippers each, the Giants have two (Victor Cruz and DT Mike Patterson).

Blue-Chips: Most of the names in this quintile shouldn't really come as a big surprise. Doug Free is easily the comeback player of the year, and having Jason Hatcher up there is still pleasantly surprising, even if he has been playing at a very high level for a while now.

The two real surprises here are Brian Waters, who's managed to shoot up the boards with just a few games and after an 18-month break from football, as well as rookie J.J. Wilcox, who is already ranked as the 15th-best safety in the NFL - not bad for a guy who was a running back for the bulk of his college career.

Last year, Anthony Spencer was the top-ranked 34OLB. His absence, coupled with the recent injuries to DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray, drives home a powerful message about your blue-chip players: You may be able to scheme around the gap left by a starting-quality player on this list, you'll probably be able to adequately fill the spot of a player in the average group and any group below that; but there is no way you can replace a blue-chip player.

Starter-Quality: Over the season, we'll probably see some of the players currently ranked as blue chippers move down into this category. As it is, there are only three players in this group at present. Travis Frederick seems to be getting better every week, so his trajectory is definitely pointing up. Church had a very strong start to the season but his grades have declined over the last few games, while it's the exact opposite for Tyron Smith, who been grading out better recently.

Average Players: keep in mind that with the way the PFF grading works, and with just six weeks of data, most of the players on this list are few plays away from moving up or down into the next quintile. Will Allen has already been released, George Selvie has been a pleasant surprise regardless of whether he's ranked in the yellow or the green, and Ronald Leary has graded "in the green" in his last two games, so his trajectory is pointing upwards.

Underperformers: Much as I like to be the purveyor of glad tidings and good cheer, you don't end up at 3-3 without some issues with your player personnel. The player here have all underperformed to some extent this year. Williams and Wilber have picked up their performances more recently and still have the upside of youth going for them. Bernadeau was already taken out of the starting lineup, and Austin may be playing his last season in Dallas. Orlando Scandrick is a continuous source of bafflement for me when I do these types of analyses; frankly, I'm not sure that the PFF system is suited for evaluating slot corners.

Red Flags: After the 2011 season, there were four players listed as red flags. Of those four (Newman, Fiammeta, Brooking and Costa) only Costa remained with the team. After the 2012 season, four players again ended up as red flags (Jenkins, Sensabaugh, Free and McCray). Of those four, two were released, and two took a pay cut, with McCray relegated back to special teams duty only. The message here is you do not wan to get stuck in the red flag quintile for the entire season.

Again, it's still early in the season, so one or two bad games can see you dropping way down these rankings. Carter and Claiborne both had two particularly bad games in terms of their PFF grades, Ernie Sims had one really bad game; but Hanna and Hayden have received below average grades in almost every game they've played. All of these red flag players still have ten games to improve their performance. For some of them it will be harder than for others.

Summary: Overall, you've got to like how the roster in total grades out.17 of the 29 players listed in the table above grade out as above average, and the majority of those fall into the blue chip quintile. Also, somewhat hidden in these numbers is the fact that two positions groups that the Cowboys have historically struggled with grade out very well: The O-line and the starting safeties have turned from glaring weaknesses into strengths.

At the same time, we can't ignore the fact that injuries to key players have hit the Cowboys hard, nowhere more than along the defensive line. Also, while we can hope that the likes of Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne will improve over the coming games, there's no denying that their performance overall has been disappointing.

Later we'll look at the same analysis for the Eagles to better understand how the Cowboys quintiles compare to other teams.

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