In a post on Friday last week titled "2013 Positional Rankings: Comparing Dallas Cowboys Players To Their NFL Peers", we used positional rankings to get a better understanding of where individual Cowboys players graded out relative to their NFL peers in 2013.
Based on the data, we found that for the most part, the rankings roughly matched the consensus assessment of team strengths and weaknesses: the defensive front seven is in disarray heading into 2014 and almost the entire secondary graded out below average. By contrast, 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.
In today's post, we're going to move away from individual positional rankings, and instead focus on the main position groups. To get a better feeling for how the different position groups progressed or regressed in 2013, we'll compare them to the 2012 Cowboys team. For this comparison, we'll look at five different position groups, the secondary, linebackers, defensive line, offensive line and receiving corps. This should allow us to do two things: see how the individual units developed versus last year and understand what that could potentially mean for any roster moves going forward.
Just as a brief reminder, the positional rankings are derived from the Pro Football Focus rankings and are adjusted so that the best player in the league at his position gets 100 positional value points and the worst at his position gets zero points. Overall, those rankings result in the following five tiers or quintiles:
|100-80||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|79-60||NFL starter quality at position
|59-40||Average to slightly below average player
A player marked in blue would be ranked in the top 20% of players at his position group, a player in green would rank among the top 40% and so on.
For the sake of convenience, all position groups will feature five players, as this will make the comparison across position groups easier.
|Total||233 (Avg: 47)||355 (Avg: 71)|
The O-line is easily the most improved unit on team, and that has been a season-long consensus not just from PFF but from almost every other reputable source. Most recently, Ben Muth of Football Outsiders was very complimentary of the 2013 O-line:
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the Cowboys offensive line this year. Considering the state of offensive line play in the league, I’d think you could easily slot Dallas into the upper half of offensive lines and I would push for the top 10. Considering where they have been in recent years, I think that has to be encouraging for Dallas fans.
Brian Waters, who does not show up on the table above, graded out in the 63rd percentile for the short time he played. If he decides to come back for another season, that would be a plus for the Cowboys. Similarly, while Ronald Leary lacked consistency in what amounted to his rookie season, the outlook is positive for him. Nevertheless, the Cowboys may want to bring in a young guy they can groom to eventually take over from Doug Free at right tackle, and there's an argument to be made that they need a little more competition and depth at guard.
|Total||284 (Avg: 57)||239 (Avg: 48)|
What the Cowboys do with their receiving corps depends a lot on what type of scheme they envision playing in 2014. Is the much-hyped and much-maligned Two TE Set still on the table or are they going to proceed with 11 personnel featuring three wide receivers, as they did for a large part of the 2013 season?
Gavin Escobar will be a key piece in making that determination, but is that a determination that can be made now? He'll need the offseason to bulk up, and even then, the Cowboys won't know before training camp whether 12 personnel is a realistic option. That leaves the three-wide receiver set as the base formation. But do the Cowboys have the personnel for it?
Dez Bryant's ongoing back issues have got to be a concern, and Miles Austin will be gone, which pushes Terrance Williams into the number two spot in 2014 and leaves Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris to battle it out for the third wide receiver spot. An injury to either Bryant or Williams would push Beasley/Harris into the number two spot. Is that a scenario the Cowboys would feel comfortable with? Probably not.
I am pushing as hard as anybody for a defense-only draft, but don't be surprised if the Cowboys invest in another wide receiver. It may not be the hip thing to say at a time when the D-line hype is has taken on a life of its own, but it is what it is: the Cowboys will be thin at wide receiver in 2014 if they don't do anything.
|Total||326 (Avg: 65)||219 (Avg: 44)|
Everything starts up front on defense, especially for this Cowboys defense which is predicated more than most other defenses on getting pressure on the passer. By now we know that injuries hit this unit hard, and the deficiencies along the defensive line had a knock-on effect for the rest of the defense, as we'll see later.
For 2014, the Cowboys will likely have to invest multiple draft picks in the D-line, but also add depth via free agency. Hatcher is most likely gone, Hayden will need to be replaced, and Ware's status is also up in the air. The Cowboys are hoping that Tyrone Crawford will be able to re-join the rotation, and hope that Ben Bass will be able to provide adequate depth. But will that be enough?
Last year, in this very same space, I wrote the following:
The Cowboys will need to get at least two, and probably three additional defensive linemen for 2013, and they will have to go after those 2-3 players both in the draft and in free agency with the highest priority.
One year later, I see no reason to change that assessment. As you look for defensive linemen in this year's draft class, put a premium on the lineman's ability to rush the passer - from any position. Always err on the side of the pass rusher over the run stuffer, especially in Marinelli's scheme. There's a reason Marinelli calls his linemen "Rushmen" and not "Fenceposts."
|Total||405 (Avg: 81)||172 (Avg: 34)|
Note that the players marked with (*) did not play enough snaps to appear on the PFF position rankings. The percentiles shown are where each player would rank with their current grade, had they played enough snaps.
In the 3-4, the linebackers were the crown jewels of the Cowboys defense. The move to the 4-3 defense made defensive ends out of the outside linebackers, so a straight comparison between 2013 and 2012 is probably not entirely fair. Nevertheless, there's is no denying that this is the unit with the worst year-to-year drop-off of any unit on the team.
The injuries along the defensive line received much of the headlines last year, but the linebackers were hit almost as hard: when the Cowboys sent DeVonte Holloman out to play middle linebacker, they sent out a rookie who was fourth on the depth chart at that position.
Bruce Carter's drop-off remains one of the biggest mysteries of the 2013 Cowboys, but Ernie Sims' level of play is not. When the Cowboys signed Sims, JasonB, then-lead blogger for Bleeding Green Nation, warned us about what to expect:
Ernie Sims is terrible. And the problem is a complete and total lack of instincts and football smarts. He’s a perfectly athletic guy and he likes to hit, but he chronically over-pursues and bites on every play fake the offense runs.
When the Eagles first brought him in 2 years ago we all made the same rationalizations fan bases do… This was a talented guy whose struggles mostly came from the fact that he was on a terrible team etc… Lions fans, of course, told us we were wrong… but they were just homers right? Every guy who leaves your team stinks right?
No. They were right. He’s awful.
Because Sims played both inside and outside linebacker in 2013, he doesn't have enough snaps at either position to qualify for the positional rankings. However, his cumulative -22.5 grade would place him last among all OLBs in the league and second-to-last among all ILBs. And as JasonB said, it's not like nobody saw that coming. Here are Sims' grades over the years:
This is not meant as a knock on Sims, and maybe his style of play simply isn't suited for the grading methodology at PFF, but it speaks volumes to the Cowboys situation at linebacker that they had to give Ernie Sims 391 snaps.
Ernie Sims probably won't be back, and Durant may find himself a cap casualty (though it's hard to imagine the Cowboys can get better and cheaper at the position via free agency). That leaves the Cowboys with Lee, a big question mark regarding Carter and some vague hope about Kyle Wilber and DeVonte Holloman. Here's linebackers coach Matt Eberflus on Wilber and Holloman:
Kyle came in because we really didn’t have a choice about who would play SAM linebacker position when we were going into the New York Giants game. He’s played the position for us back when we used to play the 3-4; there was a good fit for him. He knew how to drop, he understands reads, basic linebacker reads, and we just coached him up and he went in there and for the last three of four games really produced well for us.
Kyle works really hard and it’s certainly a pleasure to have him at that SAM position.
And DeVonte came in there and had to play MIKE. He was actually our fourth MIKE linebacker. He did a nice job of setting the defenses and in the last game, when he had a full week of preparation, he really pointed out well and produced well for us.
Note also that the linebacker play was a key reason why the Cowboys were the 26th-ranked pass defense in the league as measured by defensive passer rating. The linebackers allowed a combined 113.8 rating, the safeties a 110.4 rating and the much-maligned cornerbacks "only" had a 92.3.
Right now, it's not clear what the plan is at linebacker, but the Cowboys will have to shore up the position with quality depth somehow. Also, given how much better Carter played in a 3-4 in 2012 versus this 4-3 in 2013, the Cowboys must ask themselves whether Carter may be more valuable for another team than he can be for the Cowboys.
|Total||157 (Avg: 31)||222 (Avg: 44)|
You may find this hard to believe, but the 2013 secondary graded out better than the 2012 version. If you're looking to apportion blame for the historically bad pass defense, the secondary would be the most obvious culprit, but for the 2013 Cowboys, the issues in pass defense started up front with a pass rush that couldn't create pressure, and continued on to a linebacking corps that was routinely exposed in coverage.
Versus last season, safety play has improved, and could improve next season as the rookie duo of Wilcox and Heath have more experience under their belts. For Morris Claiborne, it's time to live up to his draft pedigree, and if he manages to stay healthy, that should be possible. Ultimately though, the fate of the secondary rests on the Cowboys' ability to get pressure on the opposing QB. Without pressure, even the best secondary will eventually get picked apart.
Position group summary:
In their totality, all those charts above can be a little overwhelming, so here is a basic summary of how the position groups have changed from 2011 through 2013.
|Position Group||2011 Avg Pts||2012 Avg Pts||2013 Avg Pts|
The Cowboys invested significantly in their offensive line and it's beginning to show results. Unfortunately, that's about it as far as the good news on a team that looks to have regressed versus both 2011 and 2012 - keeping in mind that the progress made on special teams isn't part of this analysis, and neither is the Cowboys' first 1,000+ yard rusher since 2006. The Cowboys finished 2013 with the same record as they did in the previous two years, and while they likely would have fared better without all the injuries, this is true of almost every team in the NFL.
The linebackers in 2013 were the weakest unit on the team, and Sean Lee only being available for eight full games and parts of two more contributed to that. The Cowboys defensive line is in shambles heading into 2014. With all of this in mind, investing the bulk of the 2014 draft picks into the defense makes a lot of sense.
What remains from the numbers above is that the offensive line is the only above-average unit on this team. The secondary improved somewhat versus 2012, while receivers, defensive line and linebackers regressed in 2013. You can put that down to injuries or any other pet theory you may have - but you can't deny that the Cowboys need an infusion of talent almost everywhere.