Grading the ‘Boys, Part IV: Cornerbacks
In Parts I-III of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we analyzed the production of the offensive line and running backs. We now swing over to the defense to critique the play of the Cowboys’ top three cornerbacks.
As is the case with every position in football, the success of the defensive backs is very dependent on the play of other positions, particularly those rushing the passer. Thus, it can become difficult when comparing CB’s from different teams because the efficiency of their respective pass-rushers is directly correlated to the cornerbacks’ own success.
It is easier to compare CB’s on the same team, particularly if they do not match up with specific receivers. This is the case on the Cowboys, as Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins generally play one side of the field regardless of where the opposition’s receivers line up.
Playing in the slot can be a bit different, and so we must be careful when comparing Orlando Scandrick’s stats with those of Newman and Jenkins. The percentage of snaps that Scandrick is targeted, for example, will be higher than the starting cornerbacks because he is on the field in all passing situations, but not necessarily on running downs.
Still, we can gather the numbers and effectively isolate a player’s success to the best of our ability. Below are the results of the Dallas cornerbacks’ 2009 play and the corresponding Dallas Cowboys Times grades.
- Chart Key: TA=Thrown At, Rec=Receptions Yielded, PD=Passes Defended, Yds/Att=Yards Per Attempt Thrown At
- The best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
- Some of the stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.
- The final chart details our own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating. It incorporates the factors we believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a cornerback. The amount of points a player scores in each category is less important than the difference between his score and the average score. For example, a point total of 20.0 in a category where the league average is 5.0 helps a player more than a score of 100.0 in a category whose league average is 90.0.
- The final grade is weighted 4:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.
- Terence Newman
Pass Defense: B+
So much has been made of Mike Jenkins’ progression in 2009 that people tend to forget how outstanding Terence Newman played. Newman’s health and ability to perform at his best was undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for the success of the Dallas defense.
Newman was the least targeted Cowboys’ cornerback in ’09, getting thrown at on just 9.49 percent of all snaps. This statistic is very representative of the way opposing coaches feel about a player. Newman may be underrated among general fans, but those in the league are very aware of his ability.
Newman recorded an impressive .728 passing yards allowed per snap, surpassed only slightly by Jenkins. The 7.66 yards-per-attempt against Newman was the worst of all three cornerbacks, but this could be due to the fact that quarterbacks do not generally test him. When Newman does get thrown at, there is a good bet his receiver is fairly open.
A common knock on Terence throughout his entire career has been his inability to make a play on the ball. It is a valid criticism, as Newman logged just three interceptions last season, and we see it as his biggest weakness. The largest difference between Newman and Jenkins in ’09 was this ability to make big plays. Nonetheless, Newman is almost always in position, which surely aids his teammates in their quest to force turnovers.
The statistic which we value most, our own Pass Defense Rating (below), has Newman ranked slightly behind Jenkins in terms of 2009 pass defense efficiency. Newman checked in with 236.39 points. In comparison, Darrelle Revis, the most dominant pass defender by far last season, recorded 336.38 points.
Run Defense: A-
The most underrated component of Newman’s game is his willingness to stop the run. He recorded the most tackles and missed the least of any cornerback on the team last season. In fact, his 8.5 percent missed tackle percentage was one of the best in the league.
- Mike Jenkins
Pass Defense: A-
No player on Dallas took as big a leap forward in 2009 as Mike Jenkins. Jenkins, remember, began the season in a rotation with Orlando Scandrick as the Cowboys’ starting cornerback. His play soon justified his stay in the starting lineup.
Jenkins gave up a completion on just 49.1 percent of passes thrown his way, leading the team. He also led all three CB’s in yards-per-attempt, yards-per-snap, pass deflections, and, most importantly, interceptions (six).
Because interceptions can sometimes be fluky and vary greatly from year to year, we do not put an extreme emphasis on them in our custom Pass Defense Rating. Despite this, Jenkins led the team with 267.96 points. Rankings among teammates, more so than among competitors, are very accurate because teammates deal with the same pass rush and game situations.
While we would rate Newman’s ability to purely cover as equivalent or superior to Jenkins’, the former USF cornerback gets the better grade because of his increased play-making ability.
Run Defense: C+
Jenkins was ridiculed for dodging a tackle against the Giants in his rookie season, and it was obvious he placed emphasis on improving his run support in 2009. Still, this part of Jenkins’ game needs work. He recorded less tackles than Scandrick despite playing significantly more snaps. He also missed 14.6 percent of all tackles he attempted. This is not horrendous, but it can certainly improve. Newman has proven that run support is more about “want to” than being physically-imposing.
- Orlando Scandrick
Pass Defense: C
Scandrick took a step back in 2009. The fact that he even had a chance to start this season after being drafted in the fifth round in 2008 is a testament to how well he played in his rookie season.
In ’09, however, Scandrick was one of the most targeted defensive backs in the NFL (13.91 percent of all snaps). Despite this and giving up completions on 62.9 percent of passes his way, Scandrick did a good job of limiting the yards-per-attempt to just 6.83 (Jenkins was only slightly better at 6.71).
Scandrick tallied only 151.90 points in our Pass Defense Rating, though, because of his high target rate and inability to make plays on the ball.
The problem with Scandrick was not that he was out of position or got beat a lot. As we watched the film, it was apparent Scandrick’s speed and quickness allowed him to cover well, but, for whatever reason, he got outplayed once the ball was in the air.
Thus, his number one offseason priority may be working to get his head turned around in coverage to locate the ball, then subsequently using his athleticism to make a play.
Run Defense: B-
Scandrick is slight of frame, but he doesn’t get manhandled in the run game. He actually recorded three more tackles than Jenkins This number could be inflated, however, because Scandrick lined up closer to the ball-carrier and also gave up a significant number of completions where he was able to immediately make a tackle.
Still, Scandrick had a lower percentage of missed tackles than Jenkins. Tackling from the nickel position is generally more difficult than it is for a cornerback lined up out wide because a nickel cornerback is in the open field and does not have the ability to utilize the sideline as an extra defender.
Final Cornerback Rankings
1. Mike Jenkins: 89.8 (A-)
2. Terence Newman: 88.2 (B+)
3. Orlando Scandrick: 76.6 (C)
So where do the Cowboys go from here concerning the cornerback position? It is obvious they are highly talented on the outside with Newman and Jenkins, but should they upgrade the nickel spot?
In our opinion, Scandrick has the ability to significantly improve his performance in 2010. It is quite apparent that he is very close to taking that next step. The most important aspect of his success will be gaining experience. With experience comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes success.
Sometimes it appeared as though Scandrick was a bit hesitant on the field in ’09, and the knowledge he will gain from more experience will allow him to “stop thinking” and let his natural ability take over. There is no doubt that he has the requisite talent to be an incredible cover corner.
We could also see the Cowboys addressing the position during the middle or late rounds of the draft. One player we are very high on is Alabama CB Javier Arenas. Arenas primary role in Dallas would be as a return man, but he could also push Scandrick for the nickel spot. Perhaps a little competition is just what Orlando needs to thrive in 2010.