PFF and DVOA Quarter 1 marks for the 2021 Cowboys

While sample size limitations make it a bit much to dive into football analytics week to week, it can be illuminating to investigate at major checkpoints. Week 4 is no longer the exact quarter mark of an NFL season, but it's close enough to serve as a first marker.

For the uninitiated, DVOA is arguably the best single measure of team and unit performance. Explained in detail here, it examines the performance on plays relative to a baseline and factoring in elements such as down and distance to go. Note that it is a rate measure, not a counting one, and thus speaks to the quality of performance independent of volume. Individual player performance will involve looking at the now-famous Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades; while PFF grades are without a doubt imperfect, they are worlds more accurate than basic perception or simple base stat analysis. Take them with a big grain of salt, but with the confidence that they are the best single baseline available to us.

[Note: I started this early in the week, but was unable to finish until just before publication during Dallas's Week 5 context. Sorry for the less-useful timing here, but hopefully this will still serve its purpose as an overview of the team and players a quarter of the way through!]

Without further adieu, let's dive into the numbers!

Full Team and Unit Analysis, Courtesy of DVOA

Overall DVOA - 33.5%, 2nd in NFL
Estimated Wins - 3.3, tied for 3rd
Schedule Strength So Far - 7.2%, 7th toughest in NFL
Remaining Schedule Strength - -0.5%, 20th toughest in NFL (aka 13th easiest)
[Bonus] Remaining Schedule Strength, NFC East - WAS 9.6% (1st toughest), NYG 6.3% (5th toughest), PHI 0.8% (17th toughest)

So far, so good for the Cowboys overall. After the victory against the Panthers, the national media in general shifted the Cowboys into the fringe of the best teams of the NFL, a view DVOA approves of and then some. Note that while all DVOA measures include an adjustment for strength of opposition, that adjustment is noted to currently be only at 40% of its eventual full strength due to the inherent uncertainty of only four games played. It's heartening to note that Dallas has had a fairly tough road thus far and an easier path from here, and even better to see that the rest of the division has a steeper hill to climb!

Offensive DVOA - 27.8%, 3rd in NFL
Pass DVOA - 46.4%, 5th in NFL
Rush DVOA - 15.1%, 1st in NFL
Variance - 2.2%, 6th in NFL
Opposing Defensive SOS - -3.5%%, 12th toughest in NFL

It's likely that few are surprised to see Dallas's offense rebound to expected high levels with the return of Prescott as well as OL performance. It's that second element that particularly helps relative to last season before Prescott was injured. What's nice to see is that the offense's excellence has not been fueled by easy opposition, and a low variance and elite performance on the ground and through the air speaks to how well-rounded this unit is. Note that only 7 teams have a positive Rush DVOA value, and Dallas's mark puts in the realm of the best-performing ground games in recent seasons.

Defensive DVOA - -6.3%, 10th in NFL
Def Passing DVOA - -4.7%, 9th in NFL
Def Rush DVOA - -10.4%, 19th in NFL
Variance - 2.5%, 11th in NFL
Opposing Offensive SOS - 6.5%, 7th toughest in NFL

Now this is the pleasant surprise! Many have caught on that the defense has been performing better, but on the edge of the top 10? And with plenty of key defenders having missed time? Perhaps there is some small sample size at work here (knock on wood!), but it should have been readily apparent from even game 1 that this was an improved defense compared to last season's. Some doubted that the unit's good work in the first couple of games was for real, and pointed to below average DVOA marks at that stage, but that overlooked two straight road games (not factoring in to DVOA) and a likely tougher opposing offense SOS that wasn't factored in until now. And this unit too has been rather consistent game to game! The biggest challenge to come for this group? While DVOA normalizes fumbles to an average recovery rate (and thus a defense with good fumble luck will be rated worse than the unadjusted numbers speak to), it does not adjust for interceptions, something the Dallas defense has greatly benefited from so far (2nd highest INT rate in the NFL). It is unlikely the D will continue to pick passes off at this rate, so it will have to buckle down on the yardage allowed to make up for a probably regression towards the mean in this area.

Special Teams DVOA - -0.6%, 17th in NFL

There isn't a lot to note here, except that the DVOA of the special teams started off very low in the first couple of weeks and has climbed since. This unit was a mess two years ago and bounced back tremendously in John Fassel's first season with the team, so early hand-wringing about this portion of the team might have been premature. Sometimes, there are kinks to iron out at the start! On the surface, the biggest hits have come from kicking (both for points and kickoffs) and the return game has been ordinary at best, but the punt unit has been doing the heavy lifting.

Notable Individual Player Grades, Courtesy of PFF

Dak Prescott - 76.0

As hoped for following last year's tough injury, Dallas has enjoyed the Prescott show here, with nothing to note from any other players. The grade isn't notable, which might seem strange at first glance given the performance of the offense. What that speaks to is a combination of how good of a job other parts of the offense is doing, setting up less for folks like Prescott to do, and Prescott doing the job at a high rate without having to make a lot of perfect or "big time" throws. In other words, he hasn't particularly elevated the offense so far, but he also hasn't had to.

Running Backs
Ezekiel Elliott - 73.3
Tony Pollard - 90.6

Elliott has never graded out all that well in the eyes of PFF, even when putting up big production, but that's because PFF understands to not give major kudos to the bulk of Elliott's production that comes from jogs through big holes that most starter-caliber NFL RBs would do just as well on. He isn't one to create a strong play out of nothing or fully break a lot of tackles, but he rarely fails to find the hole that's there and when given some momentum runs hard and works to consistently pick up 1-3 yards to finish the play. Some are making the mistake of wanting to slot Pollard ahead of Elliott, forgetting that big performance in the second RB role does not reliably translate to RB1 performance. That isn't a knock on Pollard, and perhaps he would impress if shifted to starting, but the only thing the eyes and metrics all agree on is that he has been gangbusters in his current role.

Wide Receivers
Amari Cooper - 71.8
CeeDee Lamb - 73.3
Michael Gallup - 71.9
Cedrick Wilson - 66.5
Noah Brown - 64.8

As with Prescott, the so-so grades of Dallas's receiving corps may surprise and disappoint at first glance. I can't say this for sure, but I suspect that this is a function of the receivers likewise doing their job without performing at crazy-high efficiency or making catches that few would make. It's also notable that the group is spreading out the love in terms of getting others involved and everyone being solid or better. Gallup has never been the highest grading guy, but keep an eye out for Cooper and Lamb to have some explosive, high-grade performances that could spike their full-season grades as the weeks go by.

Tight Ends
Dalton Schultz - 89.8
Blake Jarwin - 62.2
Jeremy Sprinkle - 79.2

Welcome to a breakout year thus far, Schultz! Even counting his loose hands last week, he has been tremendously efficient all year long, building on his first breakout last year from roster afterthought to decent starter with Jarwin out. Speaking of Jarwin, he hasn't had many of his patented "the defense forgot about me" medium-sized plays that seem to make up the bulk of the positives in his annual grades, but even still he has been useful in his pass-catching, TE2 role. Sprinkle has performed when he has seen the field.

Offensive Line
Tyron Smith - 91.6
Connor Williams - 76.7
Tyler Biadasz - 54.5
Zack Martin - 93.4
La'el Collins - 72.3
Terence Steele - 71.6
Brandon Knight - 59.8
Connor McGovern - 88.6

In a 2016 callback, this group has been the beating heart and engine of the offense overall, with it at times taking over with its run blocking while generally being a reliable screen ahead of Prescott in the aerial attack. By far the most notable development on the offense in 2021 has been the unqualified return to All Pro form of Smith. For good reason (a long history of such statements by NFL players not amounting to anything), few put much stock into Smith's talk that he felt truly healthy for the first time in ages, but it appears he has indeed been choosing the safe, avoid-surgery route for years instead of rolling the dice on a corrective procedure - and corrective procedure very well might have done the trick! And it took a story of this degree to overshadow Martin once again being one of the best at his position in the NFL.

Beyond those two top players setting the tone, RT has managed to be somewhere in the net positive even with Collins having missed most of the season to sudden suspension, a credit to Steele seemingly emerging as a worthy swing OT. Once again, Williams has been the target of an inordinate amount of criticism, and once again he has only gotten better, this time grading in his position's top 10 in the early going. It seems that his profile of rarely giving up negative plays but having them stand out big-time to even casual viewers skews the perception of his performance downward. Biadasz has been the weak link and needs to step up, but McGovern would be getting a starting try for most teams. Note that McGovern's grade was in the 70s after he picked up a start, and nearly all of his snaps this year at OG, in Week 1, and his grade has spiked almost to 90 as he has wiped some defenders out as a limited-snap FB.

Interior Defensive Line
Osa Odighizuwa - 64.8
Quinton Bohanna - 33.1
Carlos Watkins - 41.4
Justin Hamilton - 58.6

What leaps off the page at this position is how few names there are listed, and each of the bottom three are more intended part-timers than anything. Even Odighizuwa, who has been a revelation in his first pro season, has been moved around on the line and thus hasn't been a totally-dedicated IDL. Bohanna has struggled at times getting moved from his spot, but he's also gotten more exposure than expected or should be the case so that's not on him at this stage. Hamilton has helped hold the fort in the absence of those intended to be playing more.

Defensive Edge
DeMarcus Lawrence - 91.4
Randy Gregory - 64.0
Tarell Bashem - 56.3
Brent Urban - 49.7
Chauncey Golston - 70.5
Dorance Armstrong - 69.3
Bradlee Anae - 43.5

Perhaps it's fitting that Lawrence was lost to fluke injury after one week, as he was once again getting the job done and living up to his contract and once again not being treated as such. The grades for Gregory started off low but have been climbing, and the debut of Golston after missing all of training camp and the start of the season has gone well. Believe it or not, Armstrong was also not half bad before getting hurt, so he might prove to be an overlooked missing piece whose return will help more than expected. The major disappointment so far has been Urban, though he was brought in to be a force against the run and most likely has seen more pass-rush snaps than he should due to the injuries to others.

Micah Parsons - 75.4
Leighton Vander Esch - 42.7
Keanu Neal - 46.6
Luke Gifford - 87.5
[Edit] Jabril Cox - 65.2
Jaylon Smith - 69.5 (no longer on team)

For one last time, we can feature Smith as part of the Cowboys, as he was on the team for all four of the games played to this point. Interestingly, he was actually grading out solidly, and my guess is that this was done in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, giving up some easy plays due to bad reads while mixing in a good share of positive plays too. Clearly, that wasn't enough for the Cowboys, and thus he is now gone. It will be on LVE and Neal to step up next to rookie superstar Parsons (no need to elaborate on his story here as it is well known), and so far they have they looked better on casual observance than they have graded. Cox will also be in the mix, and a rise in snaps would help flesh out an early grade that doesn't have enough plays behind it to say much. The high grade of Gifford comes over a very small sample. This might be the portion of the team with the most potential to drag things down or offer an even greater boost than what has already been seen.

Trevon Diggs - 67.9
Anthony Brown - 73.6
Jourdan Lewis - 51.8
Maurice Canady - 54.8
Nahshon Wright - 30.4

The Cowboys could really, really use the rookie Joseph in the mix, even in a depth role, as Wright isn't ready yet and Canady has not lived up to a promising training camp. Diggs lit the NFL on fire with his many interceptions, leading to NFC Defensive Player Of The Month followed by NFC DPOTWeek right after - though his grade doesn't quite align with those accolades. Some of that might be putting too much negative credit on him for catches given up, but the tape does say there is room for improvement in his coverage - a scary proposition given that he is helping the defense plenty already. With CB1 figured out, the search in on for a dedicated, confident CB2. Brown has filled the role thus far, and his grade actually says he has been acceptable, but fans have rightly noted too much plays surrendered that should have been avoided. He would be more than fine in the CB3/4 role where he belongs.

Damontae Kazee - 67.1
Jayron Kearse - 69.4
Donovan Wilson - 69.5
Malik Hooker - 48.0
Israel Mukuamu - 60.3

While the grades don't pop off the page here, this is the group that has been perceived as having stepped up the most - and the grades concur. While none crack 70, three grades just short of that mark means rock solid play (confirmed on tape) and the effective three-safety defensive formations that have made a difference. If offered the option to lock in these grades for the rest of the season, Cowboy fans would be wise to take it! Kazee has been more than useful in coverage, while Kearse has moved around and made plays in many spots. The x-factor will be Hooker, who hasn't graded well thus far but also has a lot of rust to shake off between missed time to injuries in recent seasons and the late date when he signed with Dallas.

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