To write an article on underachievers, one first has to define how we are using the term. We are using it in three ways.
- Underachievement by contract. This covers guys who are not playing up to the expected levels of their current contract.
- Underachievement by draft pedigree. This applies pretty much only to high draft picks, as anything achieved by a low draft pick or UDFA is a bonus in the NFL.
- Underachievement by lack of consistency. This applies to players, regardless of contract or draft pedigree, who show they can excel in flashes, but then fail to do so consistently.
Underachievement by Contract
One would hope a player like Dez Bryant wasn’t on this list, but he is. He’s currently has the highest cap hit on the team: $17,000,000 for 2017. It declines only slightly to $16.5M in each of the next two years before he is a free agent again. He also has the highest cap hit of any wide receiver in the NFL this year. Yet in Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric, Dez scored 8 AV last year, good for a tie for 23rd with players like Jamison Crowder and Emmanuel Sanders. Dez wasn’t in the top 10 in receptions or yards. He tied for ninth in touchdowns with eight, and ninth in yards per reception with 15.9. Earlier this offseason, in Burning Question #9, we asked if he could become a monster again. To live up to his contract, he’ll have to.
Third on the team in cap hit at $10,350.000 for 2017, Crawford, like Dez, didn’t have a bad year in 2016. His 7 AV was as good as anyone else on the Dallas defensive line, matching Maliek Collins and Terrell McClain. But it was only good enough for a tie for 40th among defensive linemen in the NFL, while his salary ranked 18th. Continually jostled from end to tackle and back again, and beset by multiple injuries over the years, we’re all waiting for Crawford to put together a year to remember, but it may never happen. He’s still 27, however, so he has a couple of years to see if he can move his game up to at least match his contract.
Early in his career, as a fifth-round pick, Scandrick was a bit of an overachiever. He has lasted much longer than Mike Jenkins, who was picked in the first round, but is now retired. The problem is, since Scandrick got paid, he hasn’t lived up to his higher contract numbers. He scored a decent 5 AV in 2013 and 2014, but missed all of 2015 to injury, and scored only 4 AV last year, when rookie Anthony Brown passed him on the depth chart. His contract hit is $5,281,000, and with a dead cap over $6 million, the Cowboys won’t really be able to move on until 2019, when he’ll still have a $1.6 million dead cap number. Scandrick is the elder statesman (though he’s a month younger than Nolan Carroll) in the Cowboys’ secondary. He needs to play better.
Thornton was the big free agent splash for the Cowboys in 2016, and it turned into a bust. He finished eighth on the defensive line in snaps, at 277, yet he carries the second highest cap hit for that group this year, at $4,250,000. His dead cap is also atrocious, at $6.75M, which leaves the Cowboys no option but to keep him and hope he improves. He scored only 2 AV last year, after putting up 8 AV in 2013 and 2014 for Philadelphia. With Terrell McClain gone, the Cowboys need Thornton to perform much better inside this year.
Underachievement by Draft Pedigree
Though he’s only really coming into his first year for the Cowboys, once upon a time, Cooper was drafted seventh overall, higher than any of Dallas’s three All-Pro offensive linemen - Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. Injuries have derailed his career, causing him to shuttle from Arizona, to New England, to Cleveland, and now Dallas. The left guard slot is open for the taking if he can rediscover his game.
We largely covered Jones’ game in our recent down-roster battles post on safeties.
Jones led the safeties with 986 snaps, or 93%, second only to Brandon Carr in the secondary. He’s been a decent to good player, with an Approximate Value of four as a rookie and six last year. But he’s also been a disappointment. The Giants drafted Landon Collins six slots lower in the 2015 draft. And Collins scored AVs of five as a rookie and 13 last year, which tied him for 31st in the NFL with Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and others. Jones was also the player in coverage on the fateful penultimate play against Green Bay, not sticking with Jared Cook long enough to prevent the completion that set the Packers up for the winning field goal. See the play here. (Ironically, Jones had broken up the previous pass by Rodgers, also in coverage of Cook.) The Cowboys defense also struggled with tight ends — see Football Outsiders — ranking 30th in the NFL, while ranking 11th against #1 WRs, 18th against #2 WRs, and 8th against other WRs. There is still time for Jones to elevate his game, now that he’s locked in as a safety. The Cowboys need him to.
One thing to add is that, among Cowboys’ first-round picks on the team last year, Jones and the often-injured Mo Claiborne are the only ones who haven’t had seasons with double-digit AV scores. Claiborne is now gone. Will Jones earn a second contract in Dallas, or follow him out the door in another couple of years?
The Cowboys traded their second- and third-round picks to move up to grab Lawrence at the top of the second round. But he’s only had one decent year for the team out of three - with 7 AV in 2015. He’s lost plenty of time to injuries, with multiple surgeries, and four games to a suspension, which kept him at 1 AV in 2014, and 2 AV last year. There are some who think he might not recover. But he’s also in a contract year, and has the most sacks of any current Cowboys’ linemen in a year at eight. The Cowboys need him to step up, seize one of the end slots and be a force.
Since he’s suspended for the year, you probably had already put this player out of your mind. Yet he’s clearly an underachiever as a second-round pick. Believe it or not, he’s actually played 14 games in his two-year career, but has only 15 tackles and one sack. Even so, we saw enough late last year to project, if the NFL’s absurd marijuana policy were not so strict, that Gregory could be the speed rusher off the right side the team has craved since DeMarcus Ware left town. With his suspension, he’s the only one on this list who can’t step up in 2016. If he plays another down in the NFL, it will be a minor miracle.
Underachievement by Lack of Consistency
Irving won defensive player of the week last year in the regular season game in Green Bay. In only 19 snaps, he had a sack, caused three fumbles, one of which he recovered himself, a tackle for no gain, and an assist. He was also tackled by the Green Bay line on the penultimate play against the Packers in the playoffs, when Rodgers scrambled outside and hit the deep pass to Jared Cook (linked to above in the Byron Jones write up). Had holding been rightfully called, the Cowboys might well have won that game, and would have had a chance to reach the Super Bowl. He also dominated the end of the Tampa Bay game near the end of the regular season. He played both inside - in the Packers game - and outside - in the Tampa game. Yet Irving scored only 3 AV in 489 snaps, which was fourth most on the defensive line. So he had enough chances; he just didn’t make the most of them. He was also ejected for fighting in the first series of the game against Cleveland. He’s now suspended for the first four games of 2017, when the Cowboys face the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals, and Rams. He may have one of the highest upsides on the Dallas defensive line, but he needs to reach it.
He hasn’t underachieved for the Cowboys yet, but as a third-round pick for the Giants, he actually had a 5.5 sack season, then was cut because of locker-room issues. Might be a great find for Dallas if he can mature and rediscover his speed rush.
Like Moore, Paea hasn’t done anything for the Cowboys yet. He’s on this list because, after two years in Chicago (under Rod Marinelli) where he scored 8 and 6 AV, his last two years he’s put up 2 AV for Washington and 1 AV for Cleveland. He’s now on a cheap make-do contract for Dallas. Will he rebound and take over the 1-technique job?
Butler is a bit of a stretch for this list, because he’s never really performed well enough to be an underachiever. I put him here because he had the lowest catch rate on the team last year at 50%. So the consistency issue for him is to catch the ball.
Who is not on this list?
Jason Witten? A case could be made for Jason Witten not living up to his inflated contract, which is $12,262,000 this year. $4,862,000 of that is restructured bonus compiled by years of re-doing Witten’s contract to add cap room in previous years. We aren’t holding that against him. His $7.4 million base is still high, but not so high as to put him on the list.
La’el Collins? We thought about him because of his rocky second season, before he was hurt. But he didn’t play enough to rate last year, and his rookie season was pretty good. He’ll need to step up now that he’s been given the right tackle job.
Benson Mayowa? A free agent signee, he played inconsistently enough early last year to be benched for three games for street free agent Richard Davis. But when he returned, he was solid, and led the team with six sacks.
Overall, there is a lot of potential among these players. The Cowboys can’t expect all of them to rebound, but if enough do, they could be keys to the Cowboys’ success in 2017.