Will it be Takkarist McKinley? Charles Harris? TJ Watt? Kevin King? Chidobe Awuzie? Derek Barnett? Taco Charlton? Obi Melifonwu? Jordan Willis? Or will it be someone else or the combination of picks that the Dallas Cowboys draft this Thursday-Saturday that will make your heart race and get you excited about the 2017 Dallas Cowboys? If you want some ideas of who that might be, check out OCC’s pick selection article here.
I’m not here to talk about that. This article is intended to point out all the untapped value in players who are already on the Cowboys. Once again, we’re going to use Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric to give an idea of how much improvement there could be among current Cowboys.
Approximate Value (AV) method is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950).
We’re using this metric because it gives just what it says - an approximate value on a player’s year that can be used to compare players across positions.
We’ve already written about what the Cowboys might expect in terms of rookie Approximate Value gains in the draft. We’ve also looked back at the last seven Cowboy drafts to see what AV each of those draft picks have produced. Combining the two, the Cowboys will be lucky to get players who might produce 6s or 7s as rookies. Mo Claiborne scored a 6 AV as a rookie, as did Anthony Hitchens. Maliek Collins scored 7 AV, as did Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams. Travis Frederick scored 8 AV, Tyron Smith scored 9 AV, and Zack Martin scored 14 AV as rookies. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott topped them all with 16 AV, but those are historically great numbers, and can’t be expected.
To get those AV scores, any rookies will have to get enough playing time. On a crowded defensive line, that may be difficult. The Cowboys currently have nine defensive linemen, ranked in this order of AV from last season - Tyrone Crawford (7 AV), Maliek Collins (7), Benson Mayowa (4), David Irving (3), DeMarcus Lawrence (2), Cedric Thornton (2), Stephen Paea (1), Demontre Moore (0), Charles Tapper (0). That’s not imposing from an AV point of view, but many of those players will be ahead of any rookie and battle them for playing time. Plus, Rod Marinelli’s rotational system will suppress the snap counts of all defensive linemen.
In the defensive backfield, the Cowboys are thinner. But they still have Nolan Carroll (6 AV), Orlando Scandrick (4 AV), and Anthony Brown (4 AV) at cornerback, and Byron Jones (6 AV) at safety. Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier didn’t get enough snaps to do more than 1 AV each, and much of their value may have come from special teams.
So let’s look at some key Cowboys players and see where improvement might come from.
Defensive Front Seven
“He’s wiggling his toes!” What a funny thing to get excited about. Yet any evidence that Jaylon Smith is regaining the full range of motion in his leg is exciting news. Were he healthy, he would be a top pick in any draft. Anthony Hitchens scored 7 AV last year, so from an AV standpoint, there may not be a significant gain this season. But Sean Lee scored 16 AV, and a fully healthy Jaylon Smith is likely in that league, or will be with a little experience. If so, that would be a major leap forward for the Dallas front seven.
Lawrence scored 1 AV as a rookie, mostly because he missed half the season to injury, and then took several games to get up to speed. But he jumped up to 7 AV as a second-year player, when he led the team with eight sacks. Last year, he missed four games to a drug suspension, and three more to a back injury, which caused him to sink to 2 AV. He’s had another offseason surgery and should be much better physically. Is this the year he could rebound? He’s in a contract walk year, when his motivation couldn’t be higher. If he even returned to a 7 AV, or jumped up to an 8 or 9, he might be the edge rusher the Cowboys are hoping to get in the draft.
Irving has been an enigma. He went undrafted in 2015, which allowed Kansas City to sign him to their practice squad, from which Dallas swooped in and claimed him. He won defensive player of the week last year in the first game against Green Bay on only 19 plays. On the penultimate play in the re-match loss to the Packers in the playoffs, he got mugged, which should have negated the play the set up the win.
@jasonrmcintyre @Marcus_Mosher pic.twitter.com/nKgcDW7RYZ— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) January 16, 2017
Yet Irving only scored 3 AV last year, up from 1 AV in 2015. If he’s able to reach his potential, he should vie with Maliek Collins and Demarcus Lawrence for the supremacy along the defensive line.
The New York Giants had defensive linemen score ridiculous numbers last year - Damon Harrison 18 AV, Olivier Vernon 15 AV, Johnathan Hankins and Jason Pierre Paul 8 AV. They play their linemen a lot more snaps than Dallas does, but those are the kind of performances guys like Lawrence and Irving need to aspire to.
Thornton was a real disappointment last year. He scored 2 AV, while in Philadelphia, next to Fletcher Cox, he scored 8 AV in 2013 and 2014, and 5 AV in 2015. There is much room for him to regain his form.
Here’s another player who needs to find his former playing level. In Chicago, under Rod Marinelli, he had years of 8 and 6 AV. But he fell off to 1 AV last year in Cleveland and only 2 AV in Washington the year before. Pro football focus liked his game much more last year than Terrell McClain, who scored 7 AV. So perhaps there’s something there.
No one knows what Dallas might have in Tapper. But he has one big advantage over any rookie the Cowboys might draft - a year of experience in the Cowboys’ system. Even though Tapper didn’t play a down, he can hit the ground running this year having learned the system, and spent a year weight-lifting and rehabbing, as well as slimming down to improve his speed.
Mayowa started slow last year, getting benched for three games for Ryan Davis, but he ended up leading the team in sacks with six, scoring 4 AV. Can he notch up his game in his second season in Dallas?
That’s six guys along the defensive line who might add as much value this year as any rookie pass rusher. Maliek Collins also might make a leap forward from his 7 AV, given another year in the system and with the chance to strengthen his core.
Brown came out of the sixth round to score 4 AV and hold down both the slot and the outside cornerback positions when Orlando Scandrick or Mo Claiborne were hurt. He also started over Scandrick when the veteran returned. This year, he’s likely to capture a full time role and could up his AV.
Heath has never played a major role on the defense. He was re-signed primarily for his special teams’ prowess. Will he beat out Kavon Frazier and whomever the Cowboys draft for this position? If he does, it will be because he’s good, not likely because the Cowboys will be desperate.
This is the area where the draft has the potential to have the most impact. Any drafted cornerback will have to beat out a veteran for playing time. But any safety Dallas drafts likely has the best shot at stepping into the starting lineup, depending on when they get picked up. (Barry Church and Heath were both UDFAs.)
On this side of the ball, veterans rather than rookies are also more likely to make their marks.
Dez Bryant only scored an 8 AV, but has had years of 11, 12, and 14 AV. If he stays healthy and strengthens his bond with Dak Prescott, he’s likely to return to those numbers.
La’el Collins or Jonathan Cooper
Collins has the potential to be better than Ron Leary (5 AV) at left guard. He has greater mobility. The question is, has a year sitting and watching and bulking up made him a much better player, now in his third year?
Cooper will more likely be the backup interior lineman, as he can also play center. But who knows? His draft pedigree was higher than Collins, and given a shot, will he blossom in the Cowboys tight linemen’s room and win a starting job?
Chaz Green or Byron Bell
It’s very unlikely that Green can match Doug Free’s 8 AV, even if he can stay healthy through an entire season. But Byron Bell has come close, scoring 7 AV in four of the five years he started, and 8 AV in the fifth.
The NFL draft and post-draft pick up of UDFAs, where Dallas has often found gems, will obviously be critical to the Cowboys’ chances of improving this year. But it may end up being returning players stepping up their games who make the most impact this season, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.