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Just How Bad Is The Dallas Cowboys 2014 Defense?

A look at how the Cowboys defense stacks up league-wide.

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Hallelujah, the season is upon us. After an off-season full of angst, bad news, and injury, it's time for some actual football. But before the games start, it's nice to take one more look at our team and predict the product we'll see on the field. Now that rosters are (mostly) set, let's look at our 'Boys and see if we can answer the question of the year; just what can we expect from our defense?

To answer that question I've decided to compare every team in the league based on 3 measures; their starting defensive rosters combined weighted career Approximate Value, their roster's combined Pro Football Focus scores from 2013, and their roster's average draft round. Rosters were determined using rosters. Here's a quick rundown on what each of these rankings mean.

WCAV: According to's website, Approximate Value "Is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year". WCAV is a weighted average of a players career AV. An easy way to think of it is as a way to put a numerical value on a players total career. To find out more go here.

Pro Football Focus: PFF describes their grading system as a "gauge [on] how players execute their roles over the course of a game by looking at the performance of each individual on each play." I am using it as a counterbalance of WCAV; the latter shows a players value throughout his career, the former shows how well the player has played just in 2013.

Average Draft Round: Exactly what it sounds like. I've taken each starting defensive player's draft round, added them together, and divided by 11. For UDFA's I assigned a draft round of 8. We can use this ranking as a type of gauge for the potential talent on the team.

Paper Tigers?

In this first table, we can see each teams WCAV and average draft round. This table is a representation of how strong a team looks "on paper". Established star players, and veterans who have been around a while will have higher WCAV scores than younger up and coming players, and of course high ranking draft picks have more "buzz" and expectations than lower draft picks. Click on the blue column headers to sort the data.

Projected Wins 2014
Team WCAV Draft Round
Bills 227 2.36
Dolphins 311 4.36
Patriots 299 2.45
Jets 240 3.36
Cowboys 162 4.36
Giants 350 3.27
Eagles 270 3.27
Redskins 262 4.00
Ravens 337 2.45
Bengals 329 4.00
Browns 233 4.36
Steelers 252 3.00
Bears 462 3.45
Detroit 278 3.73
Packers 293 4.00
Vikings 157 2.90
Texans 195 2.90
Colts 256 4.00
Jaguars 179 4.82
Titans 253 3.64
Atlanta 216 3.55
Panthers 278 3.82
Saints 264 3.18
Bucs 234 3.91
Broncos 262 2.78
Chiefs 250 4.27
Raiders 414 3.27
Chargers 215 2.64
Cardinals 352 2.55
Rams 208 3.18
49ers 331 4.27
Seahawks 268 4.82

A few interesting things:

The Raiders are the leaders in WCAV by a wide margin. Two reasons for this; one they are a really old defense. And two, we also see something that's going to pop up often in this kind of analysis, namely how one outlier can distort stats with such limited sample sizes. In this case that outlier is Charles Woodson who posts the highest WCAV of any defensive starter by a pretty large margin (his 102 WCAV is nearly 25% higher than DeMarcus Ware's 88).

The Seahawks are tied for last in Average Draft Round. They currently have three undrafted free agents starting, and only one first-round pick. That's quite a testament to both the Seahawks scouting department and their defensive coaches.

Dallas isn't last in either category, but they are pretty darn close. Their two highest WCAV players are Justin Durant with 29 and Brandon Carr with 33. This isn't too surprising, as 6 of the 11 starters are still on their rookie contracts. It's an extremely young defense, but not necessarily a highly touted one with only four players picked in the first three rounds of the draft.

Dante Was Right....

Okay, so on paper Dallas doesn't look to good. We lack established players, and few of our players have a great draft pedigree. But that doesn't prove anything right? The same thing could have been said of Seattle a few years ago, and look at their defense! It just means that the Cowboys are full of young, hungry defensive players, ready to make a name for themselves!

And I really want to believe that. But if last year's play was any indication, it might be time to bring out the Johnny Walker Blue, because it's going to be a long season.

Team 2013 PFF
Seahawks 140.8
Chiefs 138.0
Broncos 103.4
Bills 101.5
Detroit 72.6
Texans 70.2
Bucs 58.0
Cardinals 50.4
Titans 45.2
Raiders 45.2
49ers 45.1
Panthers 35.3
Rams 30.9
Jets 30.3
Ravens 25.4
Bengals 24.3
Patriots 22.3
Steelers 19.9
Saints 16.7
Redskins 16.3
Dolphins 13.2
Atlanta -0.5
Colts -1.2
Vikings -4.1
Browns -4.7
Packers -12.7
Eagles -14.8
Giants -29.3
Jaguars -44.5
Bears -45.8
Chargers -54.2
Cowboys -66.2

A few interesting things:

For a defense that everyone was down on last year, this year's Broncos look really, really strong on paper. And it's not just the free agents, players such as Danny Trevathan and Von Miller played much better last year than generally given credit for.

I mentioned above how one player can really alter these statistics. There may be no better example than Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams. Quinn had the second-highest PFF grade of any starting defensive player, at 74.6 behind only J.J. Watt. The next highest score on the Rams? Rookie E.J.Gaines at zero. No other Rams defensive starter had a positive PFF score last year, despite their #14 ranking.

Dallas has the lowest PFF score in the league, but I was surprised how small the gap was. If Terrell McClain or one of the rookies beats out Nick Hayden and provides just below league average play, (say a -1.0 on PFF grades), and nothing else changes, then Dallas jumps the Chargers, Bears and Jaguars on the rankings.

Dallas is the only team in the league without a starter who posted a positive score last year. Our highest ranked starters are Barry Church and Brandon Carr at -0.2 and -0.3 respectfully. The lowest? Nick Hayden at -34.1, followed by Bruce Carter at -9.0.

Putting It All Together

So what does this all mean?

Teams with a low WCAV but high PFF grades are generally young teams on the rise. They are generally filled with younger players playing at a high level, like Seattle.

On the other hand, teams with a high WCAV but low PFF grades are generally filled with high priced veterans who aren't living up to their reputation (and probably not their contract hits). The Giants are a great example.

What Does it Mean For the Cowboys?

The first thing that struck me was just how bad the defenses are in the NFC East. The Cowboys lead the pack in this regard, but of the four teams only the Redskins have a positive grade, and theirs is only 16.3. That's one reason the NFC Beast has been the NFC Least the last few seasons.

The second thing that struck me was, yeah Dallas is pretty darn bad. We've got a bunch of players with no real track record of success (Melton and Carr had some with their previous teams), and mostly no draft pedigree. Also, none of those players played well last year, either because of injury, youth, or just lack of talent. This is a team with major question marks on defense.

With that being said, it's not all doom and gloom. As mentioned earlier, while this defense scores the worst on PFF grades, it's not like they're lapping the field in that area. Replace Nick Hayden with a league average player, and replace Carr's Detroit game with his next worst game, and the Giants are now the worst team in the division. And unlike the Giants and Redskins, Dallas is a young defense, so we should expect some improvement from natural progression if nothing else. Meanwhile the Giants are trotting out Mathias Kiwanuka, Cullen Jenkins, and Jon Beason, while the Redskins are trotting out Barry Cofield, Jason Hatcher, and DeAngelo Hall. Anyone think those players are on the upside of their careers?

There is a serious talent deficiency on the Dallas defense especially compared to the rest of the league. We shouldn't expect to field a top 10 defense. That being said, I don't expect our defense to be last in the league this year either. It is an incredibly young defense, in their second year of a new system. We can stop with the "worst defense in history" talk...there's really not much of a talent gap between our defense and say San Diego's. We will struggle, and the defense is probably going to cost us some games this season. But after examining every roster our defensive talent is not as lacking as I originally believed, and we may only be one draft away from fielding a top 15 defense.

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