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Surprising names among Cowboys' most productive defenders in 2016

Using a production points system, we look at the most productive defenders on a per-snap basis - with surprising results.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We know that the Cowboys use a production points system to grade their defensive players. A production points system awards a certain number of points for each defensive play like a tackle, a sack, an interception or a defensive score.

We also know that points systems doesn't just add up the points for positive plays, they also deduct points for negative plays. In the Cowboys' case we know that players are deducted points for loafing on a play (you're not going to last long on a Marinelli defense with many of those), missed assignment, mental errors, penalties committed, and missed tackles. Unfortunately, those stats can't be found anywhere outside of the Star at Frisco, so there's no way to reverse-engineer the exact Production Points system the Cowboys are using.

But we can try a rough approximation anyway. We know the points Wilber, Carter, and Lee got for the three games above. We also know each player's defensive stats (which the Cowboys' compiled from their coaching film). Play around with the numbers a little, and we can arrive at an estimate of how much value each stat has.

And that's exactly what I did in the table below. I assigned each stat a value and the multiplied it with the available stats to arrive at the production points for each player. And as chance would have it, I came very close to actual production points as reported by the Cowboys with my calculated production points.

Stat Value Stat Count Production Points
Lee Carter Wilber Lee Carter Wilber
Assisted Tackle
2 4 2 3 8 4 6
Solo Tackle 3 10 10 4 30 30 12
Missed Tackle -5 - - 2 - - 0 -10 0
Tackle For Loss 5 2 1 1 10 5 5
Pass Defended 5 2 2 - - 10 10 0
Interceptions 9 1 2 - - 9 18 0
OSK 9 1 - - - - 9 0 0
Calculated Production Points 76 57 23
Actual Production Points 76+ 56 24

Missed tackles are not an official stat, and were only available from Pro Football Focus through 2015, which means we have to do without that metric going forward.

If we accept that the points system above is at least an adequate approximation of the Cowboys' system, we can add a few more defensive stats following the logic established above, which allows us to have a more comprehensive Production Points system:

Production Points scoring system
Stat Points
Assisted Tackle 2
Solo Tackle 3
QB Pressure 3
Tackle For Loss 5
Pass Defended 5
Sack 7
Forced Fumble/Fumble recovery
Interception 9
Defensive TD 9
ST: OSK recovery, Blocked Punt 9

Note that in no way am I inferring that the Cowboys are using the exact same production points system, or that they are using it for positions other than linebackers. And the way the scores for Wilber, Carter, and Lee come back so close to the Cowboys' total may be pure coincidence (or clever manipulation of too little data points). But I was intrigued enough by this coincidence to calculate the production points for all Cowboys defenders based on the stats we have available.

We know from previous statements that the Cowboys measure the effectiveness of their defensive personnel by how productive each player is per snap played, and if you combine the production points with the total snaps played, you'll get a metric which we'll call Production Points per Snap, or PPS.

Let's start with the linebackers. All stats for 2016 are taken from the Cowboys' own record-keeping, the snap counts come courtesy of Football Outsiders.

Player Snaps Tackles Pass Rush Pass Def Fumbles Prod. Pts PPS
56-J.Durant 263 33 21 1 1 6 4 191 0.73
50-S.Lee 910 120 54 12 4 2 1 557 0.61
59-A.Hitchens 533 61 43 4 1.5 5 2 324.5 0.61
57-D.Wilson 278 26 9 4 0.5 3 128.5 0.46

Sean Lee led the defense in tackling by a wide margin and the team lists him with 174 total tackles. At, Sean Lee is ranked fifth in the league in total tackles, but only shows him with 145 combined tackles. One of the reasons for that is that to this day, tackles remain an unofficial stat. Michael McKnight of explains why that's the case.

The reasons for this oddity are many, but they distill to this: A part-time statistician peering through binoculars from a less than optimally positioned skybox, trying to determine which super-fast defensive ant just tackled that darting offensive ant, without the benefit of a replay, might have an easier time running out and making an NFL tackle himself.

Was there one tackler? Two? The computer system in a stats crew's cubicle doesn't allow there to be three, even though there are dozens of instances each Sunday when three men appear equally responsible for a stop (or five men, in the case of quarterback sneaks on third-and-inches). Despite all these complications, says one exasperated team p.r. director, "when you go to, the guy leading the league in tackles has his picture at the top of the page, next to the QB who's leading in passing yards."

Be that as it may, Lee certainly dominated on the defensive side of the ball all season, but on a per snap basis, Justin Durant was the more effective player.

Durant had to be coaxed out of semi-retirement to play for the Cowboys, but since he'd played for them in 2014, the Cowboys knew what they were getting in Durant, as Rod Marinelli explained prior to the Week 8, 2014 in which Durant suffered a season-ending torn biceps.

"He’s a terrific linebacker. Everybody is seeing it right now," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "He is our captain. He’s a heck of a ball player. He’s aware, heady, fits our system to a T."

And the numbers bear this out. The most productive Cowboys defender on a play-by-play basis last year was Justin Durant. That's not to take anything away from Sean Lee, because the raw stats can only tell you so much. We know that Marinelli blitzed Durant a good amount relative to his snaps played, so his production points may be a little inflated.

Still, Durant certainly had value for the team last year, and he may just provide that value again this year, though probably in the reduced role he already had last year.

On to the defensive line

Player Snaps Tackles Pass Rush Pass Def Fumbles Prod. Pts PPS
95-D.Irving 444 4 7 5 4 26 5 4 1 217 0.49
92-C.Thornton 262 9 9 3 1.5 9 1 1 1 116.5 0.44
93-B.Mayowa 358 6 10 5 6 9 1 1 146 0.41
97-T.McClain 439 19 22 3 2.5 8 2 171.5 0.39
90-D.Lawrence 287 5 3 3 1 13 1 89 0.31
98-T.Crawford 597 14 7 6 4.5 17 2 182.5 0.31
96-M.Collins 620 18 13 1 5 14 1 1 176 0.28
58-J.Crawford 506 13 14 2 3.5 12 137.5 0.27
75-R.Davis 155 0 3 1 6 1 36 0.23

As football fans, many of us are completely fixated on sacks as the ultimate - and often only - metric by which to measure a pass rusher. But that can become problematic when you use a six or so individual plays to evaluate a guy who played 600 snaps in a season. Looking at the production score suggests that there may be more ways to look at defensive linemen than just sacks.

Having David Irving at the top of this list matches the eye-ball test. Irving may not have been consistently productive, but he was hyper-productive in spurts (he recorded three forced fumbles, one sack, and one pass defensed against Green Bay in Week 5). Whether his level of play is sustainable with more snaps remains to be seen, but the Cowboys have a chance to find out once he clears his suspension in Week 5.

Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa may not get a lot of love from Cowboys fans, but the production points suggest they were more effective than many thought. Mayowa in particular is an interesting case.

After increasingly struggling as the season progressed, Mayowa was eventually benched in Week 10, 11, and 12. Prior to that, he had played 222 snaps with just 0.25 production points per snap. For an edge rusher, that's a really bad value, and the Cowboys were right to bench him. But the three weeks off apparently did him a world of good, as he came back for 136 snaps which he played with a very strong 0.66 production points per snap.

Which version of Mayowa the Cowboy get back this season is anybody's guess, but wouldn't it be nice to get the guy who got four sacks in the last five regular season games?

In general, the edge rushers should rank higher than the inside guys on this list, as they get more chances to make plays, so it's disappointing to see that the edge rushers weren't able to get much separation from the defensive tackles in terms of PPS. That's something that certainly bears watching this season.

On to the secondary:

Player Snaps Tackles Pass Rush Pass Def Fumbles Prod. Pts PPS
42-B.Church 626 71 38 2 2 6 1 354 0.57
24-M.Claiborne 380 28 8 2 1 5 1 151 0.40
31-B.Jones 922 79 23 3 1 10 1 364 0.39
32-O.Scandrick 582 37 9 1 2 2 1 9 3 229 0.39
27-J.Wilcox 535 38 15 1 7 1 195 0.36
38-J.Heath 222 14 6 1 2 73 0.33
30-A.Brown 689 36 20 2 1 8 1 214 0.31
39-B.Carr 950 47 9 1 1 1 10 226 0.24

This metric is probably not particularly suited to assess defensive backs. As a rule, the DBs play a little further away from the ball, so it's no surprise to see lower overall production scores here, especially for the corners.

Barry Church played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage than any other DB did, which explains why he is ranked so high, and also why he'll likely be missed the most of all the free agent departures. In general though, note that this metric is biased towards the stats that show a player making a play, but it doesn't include all the mistakes a defensive player made, so it is what it is.

We've established that the Cowboys use a similar metric as the PPS as one part of their player evaluations. We also know that there is much more that goes into player evaluations than a simple youth football metric like the one I used today. But there is a natural limit to how accurately we can assess player performance without access to the team data on performance, assignments, technique, and more.

Yet even with those limitations, in many cases the data above can be a pretty telling indicator of a player's performance, even with sample size issues and the absence of negative plays to contend with.

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