Grading the ‘Boys, Part IX: Outside Linebackers
It is no secret that the Cowboys have one of the best (if not the best) outside linebacker duos in the NFL. Demarcus Ware is perhaps the most valuable player on the entire team, while Anthony Spencer really emerged last year as a dominant pass-rusher.
Behind Ware and Spencer, however, the Cowboys are a bit thin. Second-year players Victor Butler and Brandon Williams are the primary backups, with Williams yet to have played a snap in the NFL. Butler showed some flashes last season as a pass-rusher, but he has a long way to go to become a complete outside linebacker.
That transformation is not impossible, though, as Spencer proved last season. Unlike Butler, Spencer was a naturally gifted run-defender. He was still solid against the pass, but had yet to “get over the hump” in terms of sacks. That changed a few weeks into last season as Spencer erupted, particularly over the final half of 2009.
Spencer’s emergence is proof that if you continue to do the right things and put yourself in position to make plays, the sacks (the glamor stat for 3-4 outside linebackers) will come.
Of course, defending the pass is a two-way street for 3-4 outside linebackers, as they must also drop into coverage from time to time. Spencer performs this task the most frequently of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers, dropping into coverage on nearly one-fourth (23.9 percent) of all pass plays (and 14.9 percent of all snaps in general).
Thus, our outside linebacker grades will be composed of three parts: run defense, pass-rushing, and pass coverage. Since pass coverage is a secondary focus of the linebackers, it will be weighted less in the final grades. The small sample size of of plays in which the linebackers were in coverage, however, means two things:
- The final grade will be weighted heavily toward run defense and pass-rushing (5:4:1 pass-rushing : run defense : coverage).
- Pass coverage grades will be one of the few grades we determine by the “eye test”, i.e. game film, as opposed to pure statistics.
As always, the charts below display the best statistics within a particular group circled in blue, and the worst in red.
- Demarcus Ware
Run Defense: A-
Ware’s run defense is often overshadowed by his incredible ability to rush the passer, but it is important to remember that his pass-rushing numbers are the result of his above-average run-stuffing skills. Ware missed 7.14 percent of all tackles–a solid number and just slightly worse than Spencer.
Ware had a “down year” by his standards and still racked up 15 sacks. That alone is remarkable. The most incredible statistic of Ware’s 2009 season (and perhaps the most dominant statistic in the entire NFL last season), however, was his 56 quarterback pressures. That was by far the best among outside linebackers. The NFL’s second-best pressure total last season? 36. Spencer had just over half the pressures of Ware and still finished 9th in the league. Simply incredible.
Pass Coverage: A-
Ware is actually very underrated in coverage. Although he understandably rarely drops back (only 8.1 percent of all snaps), he doesn’t allow big plays when he does. According to Pro Football Focus, Ware allowed just two yards in coverage in all of 2009. Two yards. Let that soak in.
- Anthony Spencer
Run Defense: A
Some of you may disagree, but we believe Spencer is superior to Ware (and perhaps the best 3-4 OLB in the league) against the run. Spencer racked up 67 tackles last season (28 more than Ware), while missing just 6.94 percent of all tackles he attempted. His ability to maintain his top-notch run defense while improving his pass-rushing skills was a major key to the defense’s success in 2009.
Despite pressuring the quarterback far less than Ware, Spencer actually tallied more hits on the quarterback. This is a bit of a “fluky” stat, but still important to his success. Spencer accumulated .055 hits-per-rush last season–1.77 times Ware’s rate. Expect Spencer’s sack total (9) to take a huge leap forward in 2010.
Pass Coverage: C
Spencer drops into coverage more than any of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers (14.9 percent of all snaps). Thus far, Spencer has been just about average when he is in coverage. Generally matched up against a running back, Spencer is understandably over-matched on just about every snap he drops back, but we’d still like to see him become just a bit more fluid with his hips. Similar to his early-career pass-rushing results, Spencer is just a hair away from making big plays in coverage.
- Victor Butler
Run Defense: D+
We all knew Butler would be a pass-rush specialist to start his career, so this poor grade in his rookie season comes as no surprise. Coach Phillips used Butler well last season, as he rushed the quarterback on a higher percentage of snaps (63.2 percent) than any other outside linebacker. Butler’s sample size of tackles is too small to generate meaningful conclusions regarding his missed tackle rate of 20 percent, so this grade is more a result of our film observations.
Butler did a solid job in his rookie season of getting to the quarterback. Although he only played 125 snaps, his .038 sacks-per-rush was best on the team. Expect his quarterback pressures and hits to rise in 2010. It is imperative that either he or Brandon Williams is able to give Ware and Spencer a breather from time to time. Both of their snap counts were far too high last season.
Pass Coverage: C
Again, Butler’s snap count was too low for him to accumulate meaningful coverage statistics (particularly because he dropped back on only 8.0 percent of snaps). He does have the athleticism to become effective in coverage, so right now it is just important for him to gain experience.
Final Outside Linebacker Grades
1. Demarcus Ware: A (94.0)
2. Anthony Spencer: A- (92.0)
3. Victor Butler: C (76.0)
The lack of depth (or at least experience) behind Ware and Spencer made us believe the Cowboys might address the outside linebacker position in the draft, perhaps as early as the first round. As it turned out, the Cowboys didn’t even select an outside linebacker.
The Cowboys obviously stuck to their board, taking the best player available at each spot. Thus, it is difficult to say whether the absence of a rookie pass-rusher is more the result of that strategy or their confidence in Butler and Williams. It is likely a combination of both.
If Ware or Spencer are injured for an extended period of time, we think the Cowboys could be in trouble. Butler has shown he can be an adequate pass-rusher, but those skills are only useful if you are able to stop the run. We have a feeling teams will run right at Butler if he is in the game, thus making his ability to get to the passer a moot point.
Butler does have the natural ability to become a solid outside linebacker, assuming he puts in the work. Brandon Williams is also a bit of an X-factor for Dallas.
Let’s hope that Butler and Williams are able to learn from Ware and Spencer and the mystery that currently surrounds them eventually transforms into confidence in their ability.