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Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings: Who Stays, Who Goes?

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Making the right calls on who to retain and who to let go may be some of the most important personnel decisions the Cowboys will make this year. We look at what some of those decisions could be.

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For many NFL fans, the end of the regular season marks the beginning of preparations for the NFL draft. Not so for NFL coaches, who often have to first figure out who they'll be working for this year, and once that is clear they get down to grading the performances of the last season.

Jason Garrett has consistently argued that talent acquisition is a year-round process. From a fan perspective, the highlights of that talent acquisition process consist of free agency, the draft, UDFA's, and trades. But from a team perspective the current roster is just as important a source of talent - especially when you consider that the Cowboys have 23 players who could become free agents this year. Some of those players already are franchise cornerstones, some of them could become such cornerstones. Making the right calls on who to retain and who to let go may be some of the most important personnel decisions the front office and coaching staff will make this year.

I have no insight into how those decisions are made behind closed doors at Valley Ranch, and what kind of grading system the Cowboys use to arrive at their choices. But we can try to do a similar job here on BTB by quantifying and assessing the Cowboys performances of the last season. One way of doing that is by looking at how the individual Cowboys players have performed relative to other players at their positions across the NFL. To do that, we'll look at their positional rankings (or percentile rankings) for the 2014 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 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 regular season grade. That ranking lists all 110 wide receivers who played at least 25% of the snaps for their teams in 2014. Dez Bryant is ranked as the 2nd-best wide receiver in the league, Cole Beasley the 48th, and Terrance Williams as the 61st.

Because each position group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the QB list only features 39 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, Beasley gets a 56 positional ranking [(1-48/110)*100], Bryant gets a 98, and Williams gets a 45.

I repeated that calculation for all Cowboys players based on the overall ranking scale provided by PFF, and divided the results into quintiles, which delivers the following positional ranking groups

Positional Ranking
Description
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 2014.

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, 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 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.

This is the fourth time we're going through this exercise here on BTB, so you may also want to look at the same data for the 2011, the 2012 team, or the 2013 team to get a better feel for how the team has developed over the years. And with all the preliminaries out of the way, let's get started with your 2014 Dallas Cowboys blue-chip players:

Blue-chip Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Dez Bryant* WR 917 2/110 98
Jason Witten TE 1071 2/67 97
Travis Frederick OC 1082 2/41 95
Dan Bailey K - - 4/57 92
Tyron Smith T 1082 6/84 92
DeMarco Murray* RB 800 5/57 91
Zack Martin OG 1076 7/78 91
Orlando Scandrick CB 885 10/108 91
Rolando McClain* ILB 654 8/60 87
Tony Romo QB 988 6/39 85
Tyrone Crawford DT 536 13/81 84
Henry Melton* DT 433 14/81 83
*Unrestricted Free Agent

Blue-Chips: You shouldn't be surprised too much by the names at the top of this quintile. The top seven players here feature five Pro Bowlers and two Pro Bowl snubs (Witten and Bailey). Scandrick would also have been a Pro Bowler had he not lost his eligibility due to his suspension, and Romo also made the Pro Bowl.

Four of the players here, Bryant, Murray, McClain and Melton are unrestricted free agents, which is quite a high number. Teams don't usually let that many blue-chippers hit free agency at the same time. Having said that, the Cowboys did make a conscious choice on Bryant and Murray to wait until after the season, and that McClain and Melton would rank this high was not expected. But it does leave the Cowboys in a bit of a conundrum.

After the 2013 season, the Cowboys had Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware ranked as Blue-chippers, but let them leave anyway. The same could happen to DeMarco Murray, as the Cowboys may not want to match offers he'll get from other teams.

The Cowboys will re-sign Rolando McClain, and should find a way get Henry Melton back, provided his "deep bone bruise" allows him to play in 2015. Nobody is going to pay Melton the $9 million he'd get if the Cowboys were to pick up his option. And neither should the Cowboys, but there is a reasonable middle ground that both sides can agree on.

It is worth noting that in 2011 and 2012 the Cowboys had a combined total of nine blue-chip players. In 2013, that number increased to eight. This year they have twelve blue-chip players, and what's perhaps most remarkable is that outside of Romo, Witten, and Scandrick, all of those blue-chippers were joined the team in 2010 and later.

Starter-quality Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Sterling Moore** CB 713 22/108 80
Jermey Parnell* T 388 20/84 76
Ronald Leary*** OG 1013 19/78 76
Doug Free* T 716 21/84 75
Jeremy Mincey DE 724 16/59 73
James Hanna TE 337 21/67 69
Anthony Spencer* DE 384 21/59 64
*Unrestricted Free Agent ** Restricted FA, ***Exclusive Rights FA

Starter-Quality: The three remaining offensive linemen all narrowly miss making the blue-chip quintile, but their ranking here shows just how strong that line was last year. Getting Leary back is a no-brainer, and the Cowboys will want Doug Free back, provided he returns healthy from his foot surgery. That leaves Jermey Parnell as the odd man out. Despite only playing significant snaps in six games in Free's absence, PFF grade Parnell as the seventh-best right tackle in the league. Other teams will have noticed this as well, especially those needing a right tackle, and they'll offer Parnell starter money where the Cowboys are only willing to pay him backup money.

The Cowboys will likely try to sign Spencer and Moore to moderate contracts, though neither are the long-term solutions at their positions.

Nice to see James Hanna show up this high on the ranking after showing up as a red flag in 2013. Hanna caught just four passes last year, but the PFF graders like what he did as a run blocker.

Average Performers
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Chris Jones** P - - 15/37 59
Terrell McClain DT 329 34/81 58
Justin Durant* OLB 336 17/40 58
Cole Beasley** WR 443 48/110 56
Terrance Williams WR 830 61/110 45
*Unrestricted Free Agent ** Restricted Free Agent

Average Performers: 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. Another factor to consider are the snap counts.

Justin Durant's season was over after Week 8, and he had earned a +3.0 grade up until then. In a hypothetical scenario in which had not been injured, he potentially could have earned a +6.0 grade if he had continued playing the way he had for the rest of the season. That hypothetical +6.0 grade would have ranked him as the No. 12 OLB and given him a positional ranking of 70. Sure it's hypothetical, but those are the types of hypotheticals you'll have to play through as you decide which player to sign, and Durant will get an offer from the Cowboys, just as Beasley will.

Chris Jones will also get an offer, but I'm not sure he'll make it to the roster of the 2015 season opener. The Cowboys will bring in a punter or two to compete for the punting job, and those guys will be more than just camp legs, they'll get a shot at the job.

The most worrying player on this list is Terrance Williams. He had a positional ranking of 36 in 2013 and didn't improve much on that in 2014, and the promise he showed in 2013 didn't materialize in 2014. Sure, you can blame the running game for fewer opportunities, but a player of his pedigree can't let himself be outplayed by Slot Machine Beasley. Which brings us to another challenge for the front office: Beasley is unlikely to morph into the No. 2 receiver, Williams hasn't played like one, and Devin Street played in 16 games but caught all of two passes. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys bring in another WR to compete for that No. 2 spot.

Underperformers
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Barry Church S 916 55/88 38
George Selvie* DE 515 37/59 37
*Unrestricted Free Agent

Underperformers: This list is mercifully short, but highlights two key issues for the Cowboys defense: the sub-par safety play, especially in coverage, and the sub-par pass rush.

The Cowboys are likely to look for additional talent for both units via the draft or via free agency - or both. That probably makes Selvie the odd man out at defensive end, and it's unlikely the Cowboys will offer him anything beyond the veteran minimum, and no guarantee that he'll make the team come September. Even after a seven-sack season in 2013, Selvie only had a 44 positional ranking. That's okay for a bridge player, but not a long-term solution.

The Cowboys will also have to decide whether an improved pass rush will improve the pass coverage from the safety spots or whether they'll need to find a true free safety, leaving Church and Wilcox to fight it out for the strong safety spot.

Red Flags
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Tyler Clutts* FB 163 19/23 17
Brandon Carr CB 1,028 90/108 17
Bruce Carter* OLB 453 34/40 15
Anthony Hitchens OLB 455 35/40 13
J.J. Wilcox S 997 77/88 13
Nick Hayden* DT 585 81/81 0
*Unrestricted Free Agent ** Restricted FA, ***Exclusive Rights FA

Red Flags: The key question the front office and coaches have to answer as they look at the red flag list is whether these players are salvageable and offer any hope of improvement in 2015.

Bruce Carter had a positional ranking of 9 last year and 15 this year. In each of the last three seasons, he's had stretches where he's played brilliantly, and stretches where he was dowright awful. For some reason, he's never been able to put it together in Dallas, and it's time for a change of scenery for Carter. Like Martellus Bennett, he'll probably go on to be a strong player for somebody else. These things happen. Time to move on.

In his three years in Dallas, Carr has never had a positional ranking above 50. He's not suddenly going to get better in 2015. Carr is a good dude and all, but it's time to move on. Perhaps the Cowboys can get something in a trade for him (even though such a trade would incur a $12 Million cap hit in 2015), if not, make Carr a June 1 cut and start rebuilding the secondary. Getting Carr to take a pay cut may sound like a good thing to do from a salary cap point of view, but it only delays the inevitable cut that will come at some point. Keeping Carr means playing another season with an average to below average corner and only delays the overdue rebuilding of the secondary.

In Hayden and Clutts, the Cowboys know exactly what they're getting, which in itself has a certain value. Both are try-hard players with zero upside. Offer them one-year deals at the vet minimum and see if somebody else comes along who can force them off the roster during camp.

Anthony Hitchens will be fine, but J.J. Wilcox didn't progress as expected. Will that improvement come in 2015, or should the Cowboys start looking for extra safety help? One of the reasons for the low grades for both Church and Wilcox is that PFF takes a pretty dim view of missed tackles, which is understandable when you're talking about safeties, because a missed tackle will almost inevitably result in a big play, if not a touchdown. Both safeties have 15 missed tackles. As a starting duo, that combined total of 30 missed tackles is only surpassed by the Jaguars, whose two starters combined for 42 missed tackles.

Summary: Keep in mind that these rankings are 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 for 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 2014 regular season.

Overall, I don't think these rankings provide any shocking new insights. But they do provide a template for some of the Cowboys' offseason activities. I'd expect the Cowboys to focus on retaining their above average contributors as far as the salary cap allows. Then it's on to improving their pass rush, addressing some of the holes apparent in the positions that graded out below average, and above all, figure out a strategy for their secondary.

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To qualify for the ProFootballFocus rankings, players have to have played at least 25% of their team's snaps on either offense or defense, which means there are a number of Cowboys players who don't show up in any of the tables above. And since there are bound to be questions about these role players, I've included a table below showing which quintiles those players would belong to if they had played in at least 25% of the team snaps - and if their grade had remained as it is.

Keep in mind that the PFF grades are cumulative - if two guys were to get the same grade for each game, but one guy has 16 games to the other guy's 6, the player with 16 games will have the higher total grade.

In the table below, I show the 'projected position rank' for each of those role players. Let's take Joseph Randle as an example. Over 94 snaps, Randle accumulated a +3.7 grade. That grade corresponds to the 17th best grade among qualifying running backs, and gives Randle a projected position rank of 70.

Backups & Role Players
Player POS Snaps Projected Positional Ranking
Joseph Randle RB 94 70
Lance Dunbar** RB 140 68
Gavin Escobar TE 263 64
DeMarcus Lawrence DE 223 61
Dwayne Harris* WR 160 61
Tyler Patmon CB 74 56
Mackenzy Bernadeau OG 75 47
Brandon Weeden QB 94 46
Ken Bishop DT 66 44
Davon Coleman DT 53 41
Devin Street WR 150 35
Cameron Lawrence*** LB 80 33
Jeff Heath S 130 31
Kyle Wilber LB 216 30
Jack Crawford DT 143 25
Morris Claiborne CB 151 22
C.J. Spillman* S 74 22
*Unrestricted Free Agent ** Restricted FA, ***Exclusive Rights FA

Most of the players on this list have a limited snap count because they are backups at their position. And for a list of backups, these are pretty good results overall.