As fans and media alike wonder which assistant coaches will end up where in the annual NFL musical chairs circus, most of those very same coaches, together with their front office staffs, are busy grading the performances of the last season.
We are not privy to the process going on behind closed doors at Valley Ranch, but we'll try to do a similar job here on BTB of quantifying and assessing the Cowboys performances of the last season. We'll start today by looking at how the individual Cowboys players have performed relative to the other players at their position in the NFL. To do that, we'll look at their positional rankings for the 2013 season, and we'll use the Pro Football Focus (PFF) player rankings to determine where a given player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position.
Example: PFF ranks 4-3 defensive ends by the cumulative grade they have received for the 2013 season. That ranking lists all 52 defensive ends playing in a 4-3 scheme who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team in 2013. On that list, DeMarcus Ware is ranked as the 8th best 4-3 DE in the league, George Selvie is 29th and Kyle Wilber is 41st (but more on him later).
Because each positional group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the wide receiver list contains 111 players, others position groups have more, others have less players ranked), to make the rankings comparable across all position groups, 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, Ware gets an 85 positional ranking [(1-8/52)*100], Selvie gets a 44 and Wilber gets a 21.
I repeated that calculation for all Cowboys players based on the overall ranking scale provided by PFF, and divided the results into quintiles, which results in the following positional ranking groups:
|100-81||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|80-61||NFL starter quality at position
|60-41||Average to slightly below average player
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 27 Cowboys players who played least 25% of the offensive or defensive snaps in 2013.
|2013 Cowboys Positional Rankings
Keep in mind that this table is based on the PFF player grades, and not some hard, quantifiable and verifiable set of stats. For example, many of the rankings would likely change if we excluded the grades for penalties, disregarded the pass blocking grade for wide receivers or sorted defensive ends only by their pass rushing grade. As such, 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, and each individual player, stands - based on the performance over the entire 2013 regular season.
This is an exercise we've done twice in previous years, so you may also want to look at the same table for the 2011 team or the 2012 team to get a better feel for how the team has developed over the last three years. For now though, we'll focus on the 2013 team, and start by looking at the players ranked at the bottom of the table.
Red Flags: Of the seven players that graded out as red flags in 2011 and 2012, four were let go, two (Doug Free and Danny McCray) were kept on but re-signed to lower contracts, and one (Phil Costa) stayed on as a backup.
That does not bode well for at least two players on this year's red flag list: Miles Austin has almost certainly played his last snap for the Cowboys, and Nick Hayden is not the future at defensive tackle. Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter both had very bad years, but the Cowboys will likely keep them on. However, their position coaches will have to answer some hard questions about the performance of these two highly touted players.
For James Hanna, the outlook is bleak. Even if we were to exclude his run-blocking grade (-9.2) and use only his receiving grade as a measuring stick, he'd still be ranked 52nd out of 64 tight ends for a positional ranking of 19. If you want your tight ends to be good blockers, and the tight ends you have can't do it, then you'd better find yourself some new ones.
Underperformers: The fact that Drake Nevis, who was signed when the season had already started and was released before it ended, even shows up on this list illustrates just how dire the situation along the defensive line was for the Cowboys.
The list of underperformers is headlined by three players who took their first NFL snaps this season: Terrance Williams, Ronald Leary and Jeff Heath. As many rookies do, all three struggled with consistency, showing both above average and below average performances over the course of the season. With a little more consistency, all three should do well for the Cowboys, and their snapcounts in 2013 are a clear indication that they'll remain a part of the team in 2014.
For Kyle Wilber the position move to SAM linebacker may have been a career-saving move. Wilber's ranking in the table above is based solely on his grade as a defensive end, which he played through Week 12. Once the team moved him back to linebacker, his grades improved, but because he didn't accumulate enough snaps over the last five games, he doesn't show up on the 4-3 OLB rankings. But over those five games, he graded out better than Justin Durant, and given Durant's price tag next season, Wilber will likely get every chance to claim that SAM spot next year.
Average Players: With the way the PFF grading works, most of the players in each quintile are just a few positive plays away from moving up into the next group. However, for the three defensive backs in this group (Church, Carr, Wilcox), this is probably as high as it reasonably gets: you can't be ranked 26th in defensive passer rating and expect to be ranked any higher than "average".
George Selvie is under contract for another year at a lowly $730,000 so he's going to stick around. The real question here is whether Selvie's seven sacks were a fluke or whether a repeat could reasonably be expected.
Starter-Quality: Although we've almost gotten used to it now, it's still a pleasant surprise to see three offensive linemen (Free, Bernadeau, Waters) in this group, even if Brian Waters' future with the Cowboys probably won't be decided until September next year.
Orlando Scandrick also finally gets some recognition. Interesting to note is that Scandrick graded out negatively against the run, but graded out very well as a pass defender. In fact, sorting the ranking by pass coverage shows Scandrick as the 17th best corner against the pass, with a positional rating of 85. In short: Despite playing on one of worst pass defenses in the league, Orlando Scandrick graded out as a blue chip player in pass coverage.
Blue-Chips: This quintile is populated by the usual suspects, with Travis Frederick probably the biggest surprise of this group - if you haven't been paying attention during games this season. Even though grades between different positions are not directly comparable in the PFF methodology, it is worth noting that Frederick finished with the third-highest rating of the 32 2013 first-round picks, behind only Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei. And while Fredbeard still has room to improve in pass blocking, PFF ranks him as the number one center in the league in run blocking. Kudos.
It is worth noting that in 2011 and 2012 the Cowboys had a combined total of 10 blue-chip players. This year they have eight. But with Jason Hatcher almost certainly gone and DeMarcus Ware's situation unclear, the Cowboys could face the departure of one or more blue-chippers for the first time in three years.
Summary: Overall, I think most of these rankings mesh nicely with the prevailing assessment and are probably not too far removed from how the coaches will end up grading their players. As such, these rankings provide a visual template for the Cowboys' offseason activities, much as they did in the last two years.
I'd expect that the Cowboys will probably focus most of whatever cap-room they have left on addressing positions and players that graded out below average. As you look at the red, orange and yellow quintiles, you'll understand that the front seven is in disarray heading into 2014: The Cowboys have no defensive tackle, are very thin at defensive end and it's completely unclear what the plan is at linebacker. And you also can't ignore the fact that almost the entire secondary graded out below average.
By contrast, the offense looks fairly set. The O-line appears to be finally fixed, the passing game is clicking, and the improved zone blocking by the O-line has brought the running game back from the brink of death.
Two or three free agents for depth on defense as well as the bulk of draft picks devoted to the defense should go a long way towards fixing the biggest issues on this team.