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Cowboys offensive line projected to be middle of the pack in pass blocking, but there’s a catch

Sounds like the Cowboys line is being underestimated.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of days ago on these pages we took a look at a projection from Pro Football Focus that had the 2021 Dallas Cowboys offensive line as the sixth-best in the NFL. Obviously this was just a projection, and was dependent on the health of the Cowboys big three, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Zack Martin, but the ranking felt right if their health was normal. Those three players are among the best offensive linemen in the league.

So when ESPN recently ranked offensive lines on a projected outcome for 2021 based on just pass blocking, you would expect the Cowboys to fare pretty well. But they didn’t even make the top ten in the ESPN rankings. They ended up a decidedly middle-of-the-pack 15th. ESPN used their pass block win rate (PBWR) metric to make their rankings.

15. Dallas Cowboys

Projected PBWR: 59%

Projected offensive line: Tyron Smith (DNQ), Connor Williams (38th), Tyler Biadasz (13th), Zack Martin (2nd), La’el Collins (DNP)

The talent is there, certainly. But Smith playing only two games in 2020 and Collins missing the entire year ups the uncertainty for this O-line. Dallas ranked 26th in PBWR last season, so even if it finished in the middle of the league, it would be a big step up from 2020.

The Cowboys projected PBWR for 2021 is 59%. But if you look at their PBWR for 2020, a season that saw Brandon Knight and Terence Steele play a large number of snaps, and saw the interior of the line go through a lot of shuffling besides Connor Williams, they still measured out at 51%. So adding a healthy Tyron Smith and La’el Collins to the mix only bumps them up 8%?

Something seems amiss, especially when you see Zack Marin had the second-highest win rate among guards and Tyler Biadasz had the 13th best win rate among centers in 2020. Surely adding Smith and Collins to that should push the Cowboys line much higher.

The answer to this middling rating lies in the methodology they used to create the forward-looking rankings.

To achieve this we used a regression model that considers every projected starter’s individual pass block win rate over the past two seasons. Players who did not play in either or both seasons (including rookies) were assigned a below-average PBWR for their position, and anyone who failed to meet the qualifying threshold had their win rate regressed toward that below-average target.

Based on that, both Smith and Collins were assigned a below-average PBWR since they missed the qualifying threshold for last season. It’s unlikely that either will have a below-average PBWR if they are healthy for the 2021 season.

In this case, the Cowboys are being penalized for being hurt in 2020. The Pro Football Focus rankings assumed they would be healthy this year and did not penalize the players for the previous season.

If you beleive that Smith and Collins will be healthy in 2021, it seems like the PFF ranking is closer to the truth.