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By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part V: Safeties

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Jonathan Bales

So far this offseason, I have handed out grades to the Cowboys’ defensive line, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, and tight ends for their 2010 play.  Today, I’ll take a look at the safeties.

I have to be very careful when interpreting the secondary statistics gathered from my film study. For example, despite generally being superior tacklers, one might expect the percentage of missed tackles to be higher for safeties than cornerbacks because the latter is forced to attempt less open-field tackles.

For this reason and others, it is also unreasonable to compare statistics between cornerbacks and safeties. Comparisons can be drawn between players within a position, however, as long as we are aware of the possible limitations to such comparisons.

This season’s stats may be particularly difficult to compare because not a single one of the three safeties I graded (Alan Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Barry Church) played the same position.

Ball is a free safety who was almost always 15 yards off of the line of scrimmage.  Sensabaugh played much closer to the box at his strong safety position, and thus was targeted more often by opposing quarterbacks (he was in man coverage far more often than Ball).  Finally, Church received the majority of his snaps at the nickel linebacker position–a spot to which he needed to adjust as the season unfolded.  Nonetheless, we can analyze the stats and use what we’ve seen on film to provide (hopefully) fairly accurate grades for each player.

Notes

  • 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 my own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating. It incorporates the factors I believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a safety. 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 2:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.

Grades

  • Alan Ball

Pass Defense:  D

As a converted cornerback, Ball’s upside at safety seemed to be tremendous this season.  Although largely an unknown at the position, there were rumors of Ball being a bit of a ball-hawk in the back of the secondary.

As it turned out, those rumors couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Ball was horrendous in 2010, yielding a ridiculously poor seven touchdowns, despite being thrown at only 27 times.  Free safeties are rarely in true man coverage (which explains why Ball wasn’t thrown at as much as Sensabaugh).  This is also the reason Ball’s Pass Defense Rating (bottom of the page) seems so high (it’s actually poor for a free safety).  The 2.74 percent of snaps on which Ball was targeted are about average for a free safety.

Ball also yielded 10.07 yards-per-attempt–a terrible number.  Most importantly, it was just obvious on film that he was uncomfortable at free safety and simply doesn’t possess the skill set to flourish at the position.

Run Defense:  C-

Ball tallied the lowest missed tackle rate of any safety, so how did he receive a ‘C-’?  Well, Ball took such horrible angles to the football for the majority of the season that he simply wasn’t in position to miss (or make) a lot of tackles.  Anyone who watched a handful of Cowboys games saw that Ball was hesitant to make hits and rarely did his job as a tackler.

  • Gerald Sensabaugh

Pass Defense:  B+

I admit that I was pretty low on Sensabaugh going into the 2010 season.  Throughout the year, though, I noticed Sensabaugh becoming more comfortable in the defense and using his instincts to make plays.

Readers may be shocked to see this grade for a player many view as overrated, but I really believe Sensabaugh deserves it.  Despite being targeted about as often as in ’09, Sensy yielded a lower reception rate and completion percentage, fewer yards, and less yards-per-attempt and per snap.

Sensabaugh also decreased his touchdowns allowed from five to one, while increasing his interception total from one to five.  Many of you know I view interceptions as somewhat fluky and a relatively poor barometer for coverage ability, but Sensabaugh was actually usually in position to make plays in 2010.

Run Defense:  B+

More tackles, fewer missed tackles, and fewer penalties in 2010.  Sensabaugh was also one of the few players who stood out on film during the times of desperation as a player still giving it his all.

  • Barry Church

Pass Defense:  D+

Church’s sample size of plays (119) isn’t gigantic, but he played enough for the Cowboys to know he isn’t ready to receive more playing time.  He was targeted only four times on the season, yielding a completion on each pass.  His Pass Defense Rating is horrible, but some of that is the result of such a small sample size of plays.

Run Defense:  D

Church missed as many tackles as Ball despite playing only 12 percent of the snaps.  He has the skill set to be a solid tackler, but he didn’t show it this season.

Final 2010 Safety Grades

1.  Gerald Sensabaugh:  B+ (87.0)

  • 2009 Grade: C (75.7)

2.  Alan Ball: D+ (67.7)

  • 2009 Grade: C+ (78.3)

3.  Barry Church: D (66.3)

  • 2009 Grade: None

Conclusions

The Cowboys need a new free safety, point blank.  Ball was awful in every aspect of safety play in 2010, and there isn’t much of a reason to believe he will improve next season.  With no safety projected to be a first-round pick in the draft (other than CB/S Patrick Peterson, perhaps–who will be taken before the Cowboys’ selection), free agency may be the way to go.

Luckily, there are a lot of quality safeties on the market, including Michael Huff, Quintin Mikell, Eric Weddle, and (most likely) O.J. Atogwe.

It probably won’t be popular among fans, but I think Sensabaugh deserves an extension.  Other than Doug Free, he’s the top in-house candidate to receive a new deal.  How he will perform if he receives that deal is yet to be seen.

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20 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part V: Safeties

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I agree w/ the free agency idea for FS…

    Atogwe did sign a 5 yr contract this year but it can be voided by the Rams.
    Weddle was a starter on a very good SD defense but didn’t really shine. He did, however, play better than Ball did.

  2. willis says:

    I think upgrading the free safety position during free agency is a necessity. Look at the premier defensive teams in the league(Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the Jets) they all either have a great safety or a shutdown/elite corner. While we have some good talent, IMO, there is noone in our secondary who can be considered elite. I would like to think Jenkins can get to that level, but there is no doubt we need some help back there.

    Wait… so someone please explain the deal w/ Atogwe

  3. Scott says:

    Blogging the Boys’ OCC also did a review of the Safety play in 2010, also using PFF stats, and came to a very similar conclusion, so it’s good to see that echoed here with your own film study added in.

    http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2011/1/17/1936695/safety-first-dallas-cowboys-safety-position-review-preview

    We know the secondary was bad overall, and I’ve heard a lot of pundits just sort of categorically condemning the safeties and saying we need two new ones, so I am pleasantly surprised to see that Sensi actually grades out fairly well.

    Ball really was the weak link, and I think his poor play may have made the rest of them look worse than they really were, as they overcompensated for him. I know Hamlin was certainly not great in ’09, and we thought Ball could hardly be worse, but one thing Hamlin did well was guard against giving up big plays, and rarely let a team get over the top on him. He didn’t make a lot of plays, but he didn’t give up a lot of plays either. And at times I sort of argued that he had value as the “QB of the defense” but at the same time I figured that was probably overrated and another S could do that just as well. But I think in fact that he may have been underrated in both regards, as we saw how much the secondary struggled with Hamlin -> Ball being the only change.

    When a team really collapses like they did, we know it goes to the coaching, we have to ask, is it a coaching problem having to do with preparation and scheme, or having to do with talent evaluation? The former is a short-term, fixable problem. The latter is a long-term problem that is much harder to fix. But the way they bounced back under Garrett was a strong indication that overall it wasn’t the talent and the personnel, it was the preparation and the scheme, and relatively easy to fix. The exception to this, however, was the secondary. They continued to struggle throughout the season even after the rest of the team had bounced back. And that makes one think it is a personnel and talent evaluation issue. The coaching staff made two major changes that were high-risk, putting relatively untested players in starting positions last season, in Free and Ball. Free turned out to be a great call, and we should have a solid if not outstanding LT for years to come. Ball, on the other hand, turned out to be a big mistake. He is not the player they thought he was.

    I don’t think we need to cut Ball, I just think we need to move him back to what he was before, which is a 4th CB/utility DB and ST gunner. His versatility has value. But he’s not a starting quality FS. And finding a starting FS through the draft or free agency (if and when that happens) should be among out top priorities this off-season.

  4. Rick says:

    I like the idea of re-signing Sensabaugh to a 2 or 3 year deal, 5 or 6 million per year. Unfortunately, I think someone is gonna look at his 5 picks + 2 sacks and massively overpay him.

  5. Rick says:

    Oh, and my personal opinion on the topic: Re-sign Sensabaugh if you can, otherwise get a stopgap (George Wilson of the Bills is a solid player. Dallas should be able to get him for cheap because Buffalo is inexplicably infatuated with Donte Whitner).

    Free safety, ya gotta draft one. Enough of the shenanigans. There may not be a FS worthy of a first rounder, but, please, take one in the second or third.

    As for Weddle, every indication I’m getting is that he was absolutely phenomenal this year. I dunno if he leaves San Diego, but the guy was probably the 2nd best free safety in the league this year.

  6. willis says:

    I just saw they hav Barber and Roy W’s jersey for sale on DC.com for 39.99. I wonder if this is foreshadowing?

  7. starred4life says:

    Is the answer Ansah? We drafted him in the fourth last year. He’s a phenomenal athlete: 4.33 40 time at the combine, and 4.32 at his pro day. That’s blazing fast. He’s 207lbs, and from what the coaches have been saying, really smart. We were happy to get him in the fourth, and he’s had a year to learn, and adjust to the speed of the game/3-4 scheme. He went down with an injury in the middle of November. If Sensabaugh gets resigned, and Owusu-Ansah’s ability approaches his potential, our safety position might be lower on the list of “holes-to-fill” than we think. Also (I know this is wishful thinking), but Andrew Sendejo, was leading the UFL in solo tackles when we signed him to our practice squad. That might not blow your skirts up, but going into his senior year at Rice, he was leading the nation in solo tackles, before he went down with a high ankle sprain that required surgery. He has serviceable speed (4.5-4.6 range.) which would put him in the McCray/Church range.
    I’d say O-line/D-line, and CB are our most dire needs (in that order).
    What say you?

  8. JJ says:

    Jonathan- interesting assessment with good backup facts.

    Frankly, I’d give Ball an F. If he does not get a F, what does a F look like? Maybe a dead body? At least the dead body would not give up ground.

    I hear Campo now just as he did with Pete Hunter, “Boy, that kid can fly…he’ll make a great FS.” Uggh. Didn’t Huff have background with Ryan in Raider days?

    Ball, though, could still be a practical 4th CB.

    As for Sensabaugh, C+ for me. Plus side, he did a good job covering TEs. I did not think he was great in run support and no one is scared to go across the middle on the Safeties. He garners no fire and is “adequate.” WIth great talent around him, he’d be very serviceable and I wonder if he couldn’t have played the Nickel LB if we had better depth at safety. In other words, NFL caliber…sure. Championship caliber…nope.

    I’ve seen Church play in college and was hoping for more…maybe it’s still coming. Ansah is an incomplete although his kickoff returns really left much to be desired and McCray, once the darling of camp really fizzled in special teams.

  9. Vince_Grey says:

    I wouldn’t have given Sensabaugh that high of a grade, but I agree he’s not a “must be replaced” weak link. That said, I would be VERY cautious about giving this guy any sort of a long term contract for big bucks like we did Ken Hamlin, who had one pro bowl year and turned right back into the mediocre player he always was immediately after signing his big deal.

    I still like Church. Let’s see how he does this year.

    Ball, well, I didn’t exactly love him at CB either, but he’s clearly NOT an NFL safety.

    With ALL these defensive positions (Except Ware and maybe a few others), it’s going to be interesting to see how Ryan decides who’s salvageable and who’s got to go.

  10. Scott–I wrote a new article on 10 guys I’d like to see out of Dallas in 2011, and you’ll notice Ball wasn’t on that list. While I think he can assume he’s a failure as a safety, I think he still has value at CB, and he can even be moved back to FS if the team is in desperation mode. So I agree with your assessment there.

    Starred–You know I’m a big Ansah fan, so I’m rooting for him. I still think he’s a year away with his injuries last year. As far as needs, I actually think the top two needs are NT and RT. Right tackle is obvious, but a true NT might be a necessity if Ratliff moves to DE in “normal” game situations. Take a look at the other 3-4 NTs in the league–Ratliff is the lightest by 15 lbs and he’s 50 lbs lighter than some guys (Rogers). His talent allows him to do well at any spot, but I think the Cowboys could upgrade two positions by making the switch now.

    JJ–Frankly, I’d give Ball an F. If he does not get a F, what does a F look like? Maybe a dead body? At least the dead body would not give up ground. <—-That's good.

  11. john coleman says:

    I had to chew on this a while. Frankly I think we are still in trouble at both positions. Sensabaugh has been ok, but just ok.

    Church has had 4.6 speed his whole career and that can’t be changed. Does that mean he can’t be a strong safety? No. However I and most people expect the SS to be an enforcer.

    Alan Ball is not worth comment as a FS. He could possibly be the 4th CB and an emergency backup at FS. If you have Newman, Scandrick, Jenkins, and McCann, who are you cutting to make room for Ball at CB?

    I was hoping that Kenny Tate, FS, Maryland was coming out, but it seems he is returning for his senior season. He would have been my 1st pick. Now there is a kid from West Va., Robert Sands. He is huge, 6-4, 220 and could be a SS for sure and possibly a FS. A big, tall, rangy guy would be nice. His length will make up for a step or two. I think he is very willing in run support as well. I have not seen tape and I am not saying he would be my first pick.

    It will be interesting to see the impact of Rob Ryan on the draft and on this defensive unit. I bet Jenkins doesn’t shy away from anymore tackles.

  12. JC–Well if you think of Ball as a CB/FS, it’s easier to envision keeping him. Still, he will have to fight for a spot.

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