The Cowboys have 18 players who could become free agents this year, plus two restricted free agents. But those are not the only players the Cowboys will have to take a decision on. There are players still under contract who might not play out their contract in Dallas, might get an early extension, or could even be traded. 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 in the coming weeks.
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 that hasn't stopped us in the past from trying to do a similar job here on BTB, as we've tried to quantify and assess the Cowboys performances of the previous season.
The way we've done that in previous years (you may also want to look at the same data for the 2011 team, the 2012 team, the 2013 team, or the 2014 team to get a better feel for how the team has developed over the years) is by looking at how the individual Cowboys players have performed relative to other players at their positions across the NFL.
In the past, we used positional rankings based on the Pro Football Focus player grades to run this exercise. PFF no longer provides individual player grades. Instead, they've now begun looking at where a given player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position. So instead of showing individual grades, they now show where a player is ranked relative to his peers on a scale of 0 - 100, with 100 being the best score and zero the worst.
PFF divide their results into five tiers, the top two of which I've combined into one, so that I have four quartiles as summarized in the table below.
|85-100||Elite/Pro Bowl-level Players
|70-84||NFL starter quality at position
A player marked in blue is ranked in the top 15% of all players at his position group who've recorded at least one snap in 2015 on offense or defense; a player marked in green is ranked in the top 30% of players at his position, and so on. In the next few tables, I've summarized the results for all 26 Cowboys players that have played at least 25% of the offensive or defensive 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, especially with the lack of transparency about the PFF grades. 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, 65 and 75 than the numbers and the color code would seem to indicate.
And with all the preliminaries out of the way, let's get started with the top players for the Cowboys in 2015:
|Elite/Pro Bowl-level Players|
The names here shouldn't come as much of a surprise. All four players are ranked within the top three in the NFL at their position groups, Smith, Frederick, and Martin are Pro Bowlers, and Sean Lee is a clear Pro Bowl snub. The Cowboys' fourth Pro Bowler, Dan Bailey, isn't included here because PFF doesn't publish data for kickers anymore.
In principle, you would like to have more than four players in this quartile, but the Cowboys are right in line with the NFL average here. 120 players have a positional ranking of 85.0 or higher, the equivalent of 3.75 per team. As you would expect, teams with strong showings in 2015 have more players in this quartile. Denver leads all teams with 9 such players, Seattle (8), Carolina (7) have the next most.
The total for the Cowboys may look a little light, but keep in mind that injuries took their toll on the team at critical positions. Tony Romo, Orlando Scandrick, Dez Bryant, and even Tyrone Crawford sat out with or played through injuries, and all four of them were "in the blue" last year. There's no reason outside of injuries not to expect them to be back in the blue next year.
In terms of who stays and who goes, all eight players are no-brainers, they'll all suit up for the Cowboys next year. Importantly, none of them are free agents, so the Cowboys have their franchise cornerstones under contract, always a good situation to be in.
Also, there may be more players pushing to get "in the blue" next year, as we'll see in the next table.
|*Unrestricted Free Agent|
This table features starter-quality players who all graded out well by PFF's reckoning. I don't trust PFFs grading process enough to believe that the grades for the offensive players are independent of the QB throwing to them. As such, I have to assume that Williams, Witten, and even an injured Bryant would have graded out higher with a healthy Romo under center.
It's interesting to see that the Cowboys' front seven graded out well here. Linebackers Lee and McClain, along with rushmen Lawrence, Hardy, and Mincey graded out well. The Cowboys will have to decide how much of that unit they want to bring back next season.
Hardy got a strong endorsement from Rod Marinelli but not much of one from Jason Garrett. There's a strong chance he's played his last snap for Dallas.
Jeremy Mincey grades out well here, but he just turned 32, and was downgraded to the last man in the rushmen rotation over the last quarter of the season, even being made inactive in Week 16 against Buffalo. The Cowboys value the leadership Mincey has brought to the team, but are likely ready to move on.
Rolando McClain is one more joint away from a 10-game suspension. The Cowboys might bring him back on another heavily incentivized one-year deal. But they also have to prepare a Plan B for the eventuality of McClain not being available - so they may just as well decide to make Plan B their Plan A and not offer McClain another contract.
|Backup Quality Players
|*Unrestricted Free Agent **not on roster|
With the way the PFF grading works, most of the players in each quartile are just a few positive plays away from moving up into the next group, and Beasley, McFadden, and Crawford are just a few positive plays away from the next higher quartile.
Also, keep in mind that 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 8, the player with 16 games will have a grade that's twice as high, and would therefore rank significantly higher in the positional rankings. This is something that almost certainly affects McFadden's ranking.
McFadden played as the backup for the first five games, but only started receiving starter snaps in Week 7. For the first five games his position rank averaged out at around 55, but he averaged over 70 as the starter. And that's also something you can observe with more traditional stats. McFadden averaged 6.2 carries for 21.5 yards and 3.5 YPA over the first five games, and 18.4 carries for 87.3 yards and 4.8 YPA over the remaining 11 games. Had he played all 16 games at the level of the last 11, he'd have run for 1,400 yards over the season. Incidentally, McFadden's 4.8 YPA for 11 games (or 4.6 YPA for all games) is right in line with DeMarco Murray's 4.7 YPA average in 2014 - and that's without a healthy Romo and Bryant.
Further down the list, I'm not sure Tyler Clutts will get another offer from the Cowboys, and his roster spot will likely go to a third QB that the Cowboys will undoubtedly have on their roster in 2016.
Barry Church is only the second DB to make any of the lists so far. That has got to be concerning, especially as we review the next table.
|*Unrestricted Free Agent|
This list highlights two key issues for the Cowboys defense: the underwhelming play of the defensive backs and the sub-par play from the interior defensive linemen. The Cowboys are likely to look for additional talent for both units via the draft or via free agency - or both.
The key question the front office and coaches have to answer as they look at players in this table is which of these players are salvageable and offer any hope of improvement in 2016.
La'el Collins undoubtedly had his struggles as a rookie, but he is going to figure prominently in any Cowboys plans going forward. That's much more than can be said about J.J. Wilcox, who lands in the red for the second straight year. One of the reasons for the low grades for both Church and Wilcox is that PFF takes a pretty dim view of missed tackles, and wrong angles, 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. Wilcox will likely be relegated to the Jeff Heath/Danny McCray role as special teams ace, but his days as a starter are likely over.
Nick Hayden and Jack Crawford held down the 1-technique spot that could use an upgrade. Marinelli's defensive scheme doesn't value the position highly, and the team will have Terrell McClain back in 2016, but they'll probably look for some upgrades at the position via a mid-tier free agent or mid-tier draft pick.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have been below average corners for their entire time in Dallas. Keeping either player only delays the overdue rebuilding of the secondary, though the Cowboys may be forced to keep at least one of them simply because they need a certain number of bodies at the position.
Anthony Hitchens is not a PFF favorite, and finishes in the red for the second year. Is what he's shown so far his ceiling or is there some further upside? Interestingly, PFF has him with a 57.4 in pass coverage, but only at 26.4 against the run, not something I necessarily agree with. But with his low snap count a few missed tackles might be all the difference between a ranking in red and a ranking in green.
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 (which we can't do anymore, even if we wanted to), disregarded the pass blocking grade for wide receivers (not possible) or sorted defensive ends only by their pass rushing grade (can do). 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 quartile. But in total, I think it's a good approximation of where the team, and each individual player, stands - based on the performance over the entire 2015 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. Frankly, I don't see them retaining many of their free agents from the tables above (or below). The headlines over the coming months will be dominated by the search for backup QBs, but it's going to be just as interesting to see what the Cowboys plan to do with their secondary, their linebackers, and the interior pass rush.
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 quartiles 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 low snap counts for these players mean that highlight plays, both positive and negative, can have an inordinate impact on each player's ranking. Terrance Mitchell for example is probably is not a starter-quality player, though he played well in limited action.
|Backups & Role Players
|*Unrestricted Free Agent ** Restricted 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. It's good to see players like Brice Butler, Lance Dunbar, Randy Gregory, and David Irving grade out well, as these are players we expect to get significantly more snaps next year.