The Cowboys have 16 players who'll hit free agency in some form or another in 2019, either as unrestricted or restricted 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 their 2019 Super Bowl run. 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, and we used the Pro Football Focus player grades to run this exercise. PFF no longer publish individual player grades but are instead grading where a player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position, which makes my job here a little easier. The PFF grades 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 grades into six tiers as summarized in the table below.
|Positional Ranking||Description||Qualifying Players|
|70-84||High Quality||108 (11%)|
|70-84||Above Average||272 (27%)|
|50-59||Below Average||177 (17%)|
To qualify for the Pro Football Focus rankings, players must have played at least 25% of their team’s snaps on either offense or defense. 1,024 players met that threshold last season, the players with a snap percentage below 25% still received a grade but they are not included in the rankings.
As you review the figures and charts in the rest of this post, keep in mind that the PFF grades 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.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of individual player grades, let’s start with what the 2018 Cowboys structurally look like across the six PFF grading tiers - and compare that to the two Super Bowl-bound teams, the Rams and Patriots.
The table above shows that structurally, the Cowboys are pretty much in line with the league average across the different grading tiers. You could probably quibble about a few percentage points here or there (“How the heck is DeMarcus Lawrence not an Elite player?”), but as I said, if you take this as a directional indication of performance, I don’t think this is an unfair look for the Cowboys. They are, by-and-large, a league-average team.
They were a below-average team that started 3-5, and then improved to a 7-1 team down the stretch, even if that improvement included a few lucky bounces that could have just as easily gone the other way and left them at 8-8 for the season. Average team with an average roster, even if that roster has youth on its side and therefore may have more upside than most other teams.
The comparison to the Rams and Patriots highlights where this roster is still weak. If you tally the players with a grade of “above average” and higher, you arrive at the number of players I called “quality starters” in the table above. And the Cowboys are quite a bit behind the Rams and Patriots in their percentage of “quality starters”.
Again, that doesn’t mean the Cowboys don’t have more players with the potential to be quality starters, it simply means that their 2018 performance - as graded by PFF - just wasn’t comparable to the Rams and Patriots.
And with all that out of the way, let's get started with the top players for the Cowboys in 2018:
|Leighton Vander Esch||LB||893||5/93||85.6|
The names here shouldn't come as much of a surprise. All four players are ranked within the top 10 in the NFL at their position groups, Lawrence, Vander Esch and Tyron Smith are Pro Bowlers, and Jaylon Smith is a clear Pro Bowl snub. Tyron Smith had a bit of an off year in terms of injuries, but the graders at PFF still saw him turn in a dominant performance.
In principle, you would like to have more than four players in this tier (or the tier above), and you could make an argument that many of the players graded as “above average” should actually be in this tier (“How the heck is the league’s leading rusher not a “high quality” player”?), but the graders at PFF don’t see it that way.
In terms of who stays and who goes, all four players listed above are no-brainers, they'll all suit up for the Cowboys next year. Demarcus Lawrence will get a new contract 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 into this tier next year, as we'll see in the next table.
This table features eight starter-quality players who all graded out as above average by PFF's reckoning and may or may not come as a surprise to some Cowboys fans. Byron Jones, Zack Martin, and Amari Cooper could just as easily have graded out a tier higher, and in Cooper’s case he probably did, if you were to look only at his time in Dallas.
How Elliott grades out as just the 23rd-best RB among 61 qualifying RBs is completely beyond me and highlights the limitations of PFF’s approach.
Cole Beasley will be a free agent in March and will likely sign with a team that values his skills more and will pay him accordingly. That team will not be the Cowboys.
Overall, the Cowboys have 12 players graded in the top three tiers. That’s a bit low compared to the Rams (17) and Patriots (20). And for a team built around its offense, only four offensive skill position players (Elliott, Prescott, Cooper, and Beasley) show up in the list of the top 12 Cowboys players. That, frankly, is a disappointment.
But perhaps the Cowboys will have more players in the top three tiers next year. And if they do, those players will likely be coming from this tier:
You can easily look at this list and bemoan the lack of overall quality on the Cowboys roster. If you’re so inclined, you’ve probably been moaning since the first table in this post. You could also look at this list and notice that 11 of the 12 players listed here are still playing on their rookie contracts. And you’ve got to like the chances of these young guys to move up on this list next year.
Given their contract situations, none of these young players are going anywhere next year. But that may not be true for Allen Hurns. Hurns is still under contract for 2019, but the Cowboys could save $5 million by cutting him. The optics of cutting a player recovering from a severe injury would look really bad, but paying $5 million for a receiver who was targeted a career-low 35 times is not going to fly either.
Look for the Cowboys to reach some kind of injury-settlement with Hurns at some point.
The key question the front office and coaches must answer as they look at players in this table is which of these players are salvageable and offer hope of improvement in 2019.
Connor Williams undoubtedly had his struggles as a rookie, but he is going to figure prominently in any Cowboys plans going forward. The same goes for Dorance Armstrong.
Joe Looney, to the surprise of many fans, proved to be a serviceable center. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but not a disaster either. The Cowboys are hoping that Travis Frederick will be back next year, but that’s by no means certain, so they’ll hang on to Looney for now. But that may change once Frederick is back, and then they have to figure out what the trade value of a serviceable center is. Probably less than the value of having a serviceable backup, so Looney likely stays.
Jeff Heath is what he is and that’s not going to change. If the Cowboys want an upgrade at the position, they’ll have to get active in free agency or the draft. I suspect they might do both, and that might make Heath expendable. Unfortunately, if you remember the market for safeties last year, I don’t think the 82nd-ranked safety in the league has any trade value worth speaking of.
Damien Wilson will be a free agent this year, and the Cowboys are going to let him walk. Despite his grade, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a landing spot somewhere, and Cowboys fans might be surprised at the size of the contract he’ll get. It won’t be Anthony Hitchens money, not even close, but he’ll get a nice payday somewhere.
That’s more than can be said of Su’a-Filo. He was an emergency signing after Week 1, I doubt he’s on the team once the 2019 season starts.
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 tier. 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 2018 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.
To qualify for the ProFootballFocus rankings, players must have played at least 25% of their team's snaps on either offense or defense, which means there are several Cowboys players that 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 tiers 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.
I did exclude players with less than 20 snaps for the season (Darius Jackson, Justin March, Lance Lenoir, Cooper Rush, Datone Jones, C.J. Goodwin, Darian Thompson, and Chris Covington) as grading them on just a handful of snaps is just silliness.
|Backups & Role Players|
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, this list doesn’t look that bad.
In limited snaps, Jourdan Lewis graded out better than Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. Noah Brown’s grade would put him in the top 30 among all wide receivers, just a few spots behind Amari Cooper. Add Tavon Austin and the Cowboys had four wide receivers “in the green”. Not bad.
Caraun Reid played himself into the lineup and will stay there, although he could face competition from a rookie in 2019.
Terrance Williams and David Irving are big question marks for 2019. Irving is a free agent and could move on. Williams is still under contract until 2020, but the Cowboys could save $2.3 million by cutting him, though with Beasley likely gone and Hurns a likely cap casualty, the team may choose to hang on to Williams for a little bit longer.
All other players marked in orange (apart from Sean Lee) are backups that failed to impress in 2018. The Cowboys will likely look for replacements for these guys, and they’ll likely succeed in most cases.
As for Sean Lee, nobody knows what the future holds. He’s a player that certainly has some trade value, but he’s also the type of player the team “will do right by.” But irrespective of whether the Cowboys cut him or trade him, he’ll provide $7 million in cap relief.