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Dallas Cowboys player rankings 2017: Who stays, who goes?

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.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys have about 20 players who'll hit free agency in some form or another in 2018, either as unrestricted, restricted, or exclusive rights free agents. But those are not the only players the Cowboys will have to take a decision on as they build a new roster for 2018. 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 in Frisco, 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 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.

Positional Ranking Description
85-100 Elite/Pro Bowl-level Players
70-84 NFL starter quality at position
60-69 Backup-quality player
0-59 Replacable

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 2017 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 30 Cowboys players that have played at least 250 of the offensive or defensive snaps in 2017.

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 2017:

Elite/Pro Bowl-level Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
DeMarcus Lawrence DE 672 3/111 94.0
Sean Lee LB 566 5/93 90.1
Zack Martin OG 950 2/80 89.6
Travis Frederick OC 997 3/37 89.3
Ezekiel Elliott HB 530 6/58 85.7

The names here shouldn't come as much of a surprise. All five players are ranked within the top six in the NFL at their position groups, Lawrence, Frederick, and Martin are Pro Bowlers, Sean Lee is a clear Pro Bowl snub, and Elliott's suspension meant he wasn't eligible for the Pro Bowl. Tyron Smith had a bit of an off year due to injuries, so he moved down one tier but got his Pro Bowl invitation anyway. In a regular year, Dan Bailey and perhaps even Chris Jones should probably be included in this tier as well, but PFF doesn't publish data for kickers and punters anymore.

In principle, you would like to have more than five players in this quartile, but the Cowboys are slightly over the NFL average here already. 127 players have a positional ranking of 85.0 or higher, the equivalent of four per team. As you would expect, teams with strong showings in 2017 have more players in this quartile. Philly leads all teams with 9 such players, the Chargers (8) and Falcons (8) have the next most.

In terms of who stays and who goes, all five players in blue are no-brainers, they'll all suit up for the Cowboys next year. Demarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin will get new contracts in one form or another, 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.

Starter-quality Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
David Irving DT 338 31/124 83.4
Tyrone Crawford DE 593 29/111 82.6
Anthony Hitchens LB 508 21/93 81.1
Dak Prescott QB 976 18/40 80.5
Jeff Heath S 821 34/88 80.2
Chidobe Awuzie CB 278 43/121 79.9
Tyron Smith OT 758 19/87 79.7
Jourdan Lewis CB 694 50/121 77.9
Xavier Woods CB 501 49/121 76.8
Dez Bryant WR 839 48/116 74.8
Benson Mayowa DE 381 63/111 73.9
Byron Jones S 865 59/88 73.7
James Hanna TE 254 21/71 71.7

This table features starter-quality players who all graded out well by PFF's reckoning, and may or may not come as a surprise to some Cowboys fans. David Irving is a borderline blue-chipper, as is the much underappreciated Tyrone Crawford.

But the biggest surprise (at least for me) is to see the entire Cowboys starting secondary of the second half of the season show up “in the green”: Heath and Jones, along with the three rookies Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods have got to give the Cowboys a lot of confidence about the defense going into 2018. And with four edge rushers (Lawrence, Irving, Crawford, and Mayowa) showing up in the top two quartiles, the Cowboys must like the results of their defensive rebuilding effort, even if it is not complete.

At the same time, the big concern here is that for a team built around its offense, only four offensive skill position players (Elliott, Prescott, Bryant, and Hanna) show up in the list of the top 18 Cowboys players. That, frankly, is a disaster.

Backup Quality Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
Cole Beasley WR 574 65/116 68.0
Jason Witten TE 980 26/71 67.3
Jonathan Cooper OG 805 35/80 64.3
Jaylon Smith LB 557 49/93 63.7
Taco Charlton DE 363 89/111 61.6
Terrance Williams WR 654 71/116 61.0

Beasley, Witten, and Williams all grade out as backup quality players, and while I have my doubts about the quality of the PFF grading for a position like tight ends, there's no denying that these players have had down years. Jaylon Smith and Taco Charlton are also graded in this tier, but at least they still have youth on their side, which the others in this tier don't.

Interesting point also about the passing game: while Prescott's overall grade is driven in part by a strong grade for his ground game, there is a clear disconnect here between the grade of the passer and the grades of his receivers, all of which rank below Prescott. And this type of disconnect is indicative of an issue with the receiving corps itself, not just a disconnect in the passing game.

Replacable Players
Player POS Snaps Rank/Total Positional Ranking
La'el Collins OT 997 53/87 53.7
Anthony Brown CB 803 93/121 52.0
Maliek Collins DT 657 110/124 48.6
Damien Wilson LB 310 64/93 45.9
Orlando Scandrick CB 614 113/121 41.5
Chaz Green OT 256 -/87 30.6

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 2018.

La'el Collins undoubtedly had his struggles as a right tackle, but he is going to figure prominently in any Cowboys plans going forward. That's much more than can be said about Chaz Green, who lands at the very bottom of this list.

I don't believe PFF understands how to grade the 1-technique spot in Marinelli's defensive scheme, so Maliek Collins probably grades out a little harsher here than he does in the Cowboys' grading system. Still, Collins did not improve in 2018 the way many expected him to, and outside of David Irving, the Cowboys still have too many question marks in the defensive interior. They will have to look for some upgrades at the position via at least a mid-tier free agent or mid-tier draft pick.

Anthony Brown was benched for his disappointing start to the season, but has since picked up his game. Damien Wilson is still under contract for another year, but he could easily lose his job to a newcomer anyway, especially if the Cowboys start looking for ways to shore up the LB unit should Sean Lee miss games again next year.

Orlando Scandrick played hurt, so that must figure into his performance this year. And while the Cowboys like him as a locker room leader, he will be 31 next year, and the Cowboys will have to start making some tough decisions about their 30+ year old players like L.P. Ladouceur (36), Jason Witten (35), Justin Durant (32), Sean Lee (31), and Dez Bryant (30 in 2018).

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 2017 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. The headlines over the coming months will be dominated by the efforts to improve the passing game, but it's going to be just as interesting to see what the Cowboys plan to do with their their O-line, 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.

Backups & Role Players
Player POS Snaps Positional Ranking
Justin Durant LB 158 74.2
Geoff Swaim TE 159 74
Alfred Morris RB 196 73.2
Charles Tapper DE 37 71.6
Rod Smith RB 233 69.7
Noah Brown WR 137 67.3
Ryan Switzer WR 65 52.8
Brice Butler WR 242 52.8
Joe Looney OG 56 52.4
Kavon Frazier S 212 51.1
Brian Price DT 150 50.9
Datone Jones DT 88 49.7
Kyle Wilber LB 39 48.1
Keith Smith FB 117 42
Byron Bell OT 175 30.5

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 bad results overall: When many of the players well called on as the “next man up”, they weren't able to deliver.

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