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Cowboys season review: Grading the secondary

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How did the back end of the Cowboys defense hold up?

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Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

After each game during the Cowboys 2018 season we posted grades on each position group. Today we embark on a comprehensive review of the team, again looking at each position group. We start with the secondary.

As we know, the Dallas front-office initiated an aggressive youth movement in 2017, allowing veterans Barry Church, Morris Claiborne and J. J. Wilcox to all depart via free agency. They were replaced by three draft picks:

  • second-rounder Chidobie Awuzie
  • third-rounder Jourdan Lewis
  • sixth-rounder Xavier Woods

Veteran Orlando Scandrick was released prior to the season, leaving Dallas with one of the youngest secondaries in the league:

There was much consternation among fans and media when the team (seemingly) made no effort to upgrade the safety position (several veteran safeties were available such as Eric Reid and Tre Boston. There were an endless number of speculative articles about the team trading for Seahawks’ safety Earl Woods but the team’s decision-makers decided to trust in the team’s youth.

Statistics

Let’s start with the basics, number of snaps and tackles.

We see Byron Jones and Jeff Heath played pretty much every snap of every game (the Dallas defense played 1,024 total snaps on the season). Nothing really jumps out from this table. As a group, this is a good tackling unit but they did have some blown tackles along the way. Xavier Woods still looks to blow people up rather than wrap them up. Heath got run over a few times, which has been a problem throughout his career but he’s an overall good tackler. The corners all showed a willingness to tackle and all, at one time or another, missed tackles.

Bob Sturm of TheAthletic keeps track of splash plays and I’ve charted out his numbers from the season:

One thing we see is this group, as a unit, just didn’t make a lot of splash plays. Forty-seven of their 82 splash plays were defensed passes (Byron Jones leading with 15). One of the reasons the Cowboys defense overall struggled (yet again) to generate turnovers was the secondary netted the following:

  • six interceptions
  • three fumbles caused
  • two fumbles recovered

The Cowboys simply haven’t had a playmaker in the secondary in many years. This is a young group and there’s potential; notice Jourdan Lewis created one splash every 31 plays. Had Byron Jones or Jeff Heath created splash plays at that rate they’d nearly double their overall number. As a whole, this group is creating one plash play every 59 snaps; that translates to about one splash play per player per game.

Not all splash plays are equal. An interception is obviously worth more than a tipped pass and a fourth down stop more valuable than a run stuff. Let’s look at the unit’s splash points:

Again, look at Lewis. On a per-play basis he was much more disruptive than, say, Awuzie. Now, the numbers here are so small that we shouldn’t take these as being wholly indicative of the player’s performance but more a combination of opportunity, performance and luck. Overall, we can conclude that the one area this group needs to improve would be creating more splash plays.

Here’s how it looks in chart form:

One thing to consider when evaluating this (or any) group is what resources has the team invested in this group? The following shows each player’s:

  • Draft value (using commonly defined values found at places like Ourlads Scouting Services)
  • 2018 salary cap number
  • Number of defensive snaps played
  • Percent of defensive snaps played
  • Approximate Value as defined by Pro Football Reference (for an in-depth insight into this metric and it’s strengths and weaknesses I encourage you to read One Cool Customer’s great post)

We see the team hasn’t invested much in terms of either draft value or salary in the secondary. In addition to the three drafted in 2017, the team added Anthony Brown (sixth round) in 2016 and, of course, Byron Jones (first) and Kavon Frazier (sixth) in 2015. Add rookie free agent acquisition Jeff Heath and, overall, this is a young, low-pedigreed group.

With the exception of Jeff Heath, they’re also on their rookie contract. And thus the entire unit costs less than Earl Thomas ($10.4M) cost the Seahawks in 2018.

We also see the two highest-drafted players ranked in the top four of snaps played. In fact, the Cowboys enjoyed good health across this entire unit with none of the players missing significant time (Woods started the season injured and missed the first two games of the season). This was a nice development considering Awuzie and Lewis were both plagued by nagging injuries throughout their rookie campaigns.

Perhaps more importantly, the players all evolved into fairly well-defined roles. Jones and Awuzie played the two outside corner positions. Brown was the slot corner in nickel situations and Lewis was the sixth defender in dime packages. Heath and Woods were the two safeties every week.

This was a change from previous years where the secondary seemed to be in a whack-a-mole situation due to injury and and unwillingness on the Cowboys staff to simply put players into a role and leave them there (see Byron Jones).

We also see what PFR’s AV metric thought of the group. The following table from OCC’s article is a useful guide when looking at AV:

So, based on this grid, the Cowboys had one high quality starter (Jones) and a group of players who should have been backups. I’d take issue with this as it’s fairly clear that Awuzie, Heath, Woods and Anthony Brows all provided starter-quality contributions. We’ll see there were times when the unit struggled but all NFL secondaries struggle at times.

I’d argue this group provided the best, most consistent play of any Cowboys’ secondary we’ve seen since Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins both enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons in 2009.

The key number for me is “Regular’s Average AV” of 6.0. This indicates the regulars (those with >50% of defensive snaps) graded out at the bottom of the “starters” range. Again, that seems a little low to me as I’d take this group of regulars over the units that many NFL teams run out there week to week. I’d also argue you could do worse than having Jourdan Lewis as your fourth cornerback or Kavon Frazier as your third safety.

This is a good group that lacks that big impact player. If Dallas could add such a player through either the draft or (more likely) free agency this group could go from solid to downright dominant.

Weekly Grades

Now we’ll look at the unit’s weekly grades as assigned by yours truly. Obviously, these grades are only one man’s opinion and your mileage may vary. Here’s the grades and a “points” system I developed for this effort:

I’ve also included a rolling 4-week average once the team had four games under their belt. We see a wide range of grades. The team’s best performance came when the stifled the high-flying Saints defense all game with Jourdan Lewis ending the game with this key interception. Here, the secondary gets a splash play on an Anthony Brown blitz in that game.

The unit’s low point came against Tennessee when they allowed a Titans team that finished 27th in points and 29th in passing yards to score 28 points, compile a 119 passer rating and convert 11 of 14 third down attempts.

The following shows the team’s ups and downs:

We also see the team peaked in that November period when they enjoyed strong games against Atlanta, Washington, New Orleans and Philadelphia. But they struggled after that point with poor games against Indianapolis, Tampa and the Giants. They played well in the wild card round victory over Seattle. In the team’s final game against the Rams they weren’t torched for big numbers but they also couldn’t come up with plays to get the Rams off the field (scoring on eight of nine drives in the game).

In short, considering the relative paucity of resources invested in this group they probably did about as well as could be hoped. Better yet, because this is such a young, inexperienced group they should only get better moving forward. The cost of the group is going to go up as Byron Jones’ contract is set to increase to $6.26M next season if Dallas exercises the fifth-year option (as they’ll surely do). More likely the team’s extends Jones with a long-term deal.

Jones enjoyed critical acclaim through much of the season and received his first Pro Bowl award for his efforts. And he deserved it for playing sticky coverage. But he’s not a playmaker, recording zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles and zero fumbles recovered. He did finish with 15 passes defensed and added a couple tackles for a loss.

Add that all up and Jones had a solid year but not an “elite” year; something to keep in mind as the team negotiates with the youngster this offseason.

Final Grade: B-

If we average the secondaries grades across all 18 games we get 3.02 - which translates to a C+. That seems a little low to me so I’m going to give a final season adjustment to B-.

We’ll compare each group and add their numbers as we complete each evaluation:

One note: you’ll see that salary cap hit for the secondary was actually $10.2M. That’s because our earlier table, listing individual player salary numbers, didn’t include players such as Marqueston Huff ($700K), C.J. Goodwin ($445K) and Darrian Thompson ($222K).

Next, we’ll look at the linebacker group.