The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Potential 2011 Draft Pick: Akeem Ayers, ILB/OLB, UCLA

Jonathan Bales

In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, Sean Lee tallied the highest overall percentage (82.4).  Starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking (or Brookings, according to multiple media outlets) checked in with just a 81.3 percent and 76.7 percent, respectively.

In my opinion, we saw enough improvement from Lee over the course of the season for him to start in 2011.  He should undoubtedly take the place of Brooking, who, although still a great leader, is simply too slow at this point in his career to make a major impact.  James probably has a year or two left in him, but his play hasn’t been sensational of late either.

With so many holes to fill, however, inside linebacker will likely take a back seat on draft day. . .unless, of course, that inside linebacker has enough versatility to justify an early selection.  Versatility is the reason I love Illinois’ Martez Wilson.  He’s a beast who can play both inside and outside linebacker in Dallas.

To me, Wilson and today’s feature, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, are extremely similar.  Here is why I believe Ayers could be valuable to Dallas. . .

Scouting Report

There’s a bit of confusion about which position Akeem Ayers will play in the NFL.  Unlike other prospects, however, this confusion doesn’t stem from Ayers’ inability to fit a specific prototype.  Rather, Ayers has the potential to play three positions in the NFL–4-3 strong side linebacker and both inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4–at a very high level.

At UCLA, Ayers lined up all over the place.  In the same defensive series, you might see him five yards off of the ball in the middle of the field, then outside the tackle in a stand-up position, then with his hand in the dirt as a traditional defensive end.  Readers know I covet versatility.  Ayers’ upside is enormous because he has multiple positions at which he can succeed at the next level.

At 6’3”, 255 pounds, Ayers is large enough to play outside linebacker for Dallas, but quick enough to kick inside and pursue ball-carriers.  There were some concerns about his 40-yard dash time at the Combine (4.88), but he plays much, much faster in games.  Ayers also recently ran a 4.69 at his Pro Day to ease some concerns about his speed.

It is Ayers’ quickness, however, that makes me think his future in the NFL is as a 3-4 rush linebacker.  Whenever Ayers lined up at defensive end or blitzed at UCLA, he was a monster.  His first step was outstanding and he’s quite agile in space.  When he has that sort of “attacking” mindset, he’s unstoppable.

I have posted highlights from what I consider Ayers’ two best games below.

You can see that, despite a lack of extensive experience rushing the passer, Ayers is unblockable when he’s in attack mode.  When Ayers lines up as an inside linebacker or isn’t blitzing, however, that isn’t the case.

Although tremendous with his hand placement and positioning, Ayers doesn’t shed blocks well.  He doesn’t attack blockers in the same way he does when blitzing.  Ayers does do a very nice job of stringing out run plays, forcing the ball-carrier to the sideline.  Thus, he allows his teammates to make a lot of tackles instead of selfishly losing position.

Ayers is also excellent in pursuit.  When left unblocked, he frequently flies across the field to make plays he “shouldn’t” make.

Still, Ayers needs to maintain his aggressive mindset at all times.  If he can transition that aggression to his play at inside linebacker, his NFL versatility and upside will be incredible.

Here are Ayers’ two worst games. . .

Overall, I see Ayers as a rush linebacker in the NFL.  His experience at inside linebacker will certainly come in handy, but his upside as an outside backer is too great for a team to not give him a shot.  Once he develops a more diverse pass-rush arsenal, Ayers could be great.

Since releasing my initial 2011 Big Board, I have moved Ayers up to No. 23 overall–one spot behind Martez Wilson.

Projection

Ayers is probably going to be a first round selection.  He won’t get chosen by Dallas there, obviously, and he’s unlikely to fall to the Cowboys’ 40th overall selection.  Thus, Ayers probably won’t be wearing a star on his helmet any time soon.

If Ayers does fall, however, the Cowboys need to take a long look at him.  I wouldn’t recommend taking an inside or outside linebacker in the first two rounds, but a player who is a legitimate threat to thrive at both positions is a possibility.  I still prefer Martez Wilson by a hair, but I’m in the minority there.

The Cowboys won’t trade up from their No. 40 selection for a linebacker, but the potential value of a player like Ayers might be too great to pass up if he does happen to fall to their current pick.

Other Potential Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks in 2011

Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

Cameron Jordan, DT/DE, Cal

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, UNC

Cameron Heyward, DT/DE, Ohio State

Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

Tyron Smith, OT, USC

Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA

Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

Muhammad Wilkerson, DT/DE, Temple

Corey Liuget, DT/DE, Illinois

Martez Wilson, ILB/OLB, Illinois

Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon

Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College

Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois

Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

Brandon Burton, CB, Utah

Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn

Jaiquawn Jarrett, FS, Temple

Ben Ijalana, OT/OG, Villanova

Drake Nevis, DT/DE, LSU

Dontay Moch, DE/OLB, Nevada

Brooks Reed, DE/OLB, Arizona

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State

Sam Acho, DE/OLB, Texas

JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin

William Rackley, OT, Lehigh

 

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Potential 2011 Draft Pick: Allen Bailey, DE, Miami

Jonathan Bales

Thus far this offseason, I have done scouting reports on 14 players who played on the defensive line in college:

Cameron Jordan, DT/DE, Cal

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, UNC

Cameron Heyward, DT/DE, Ohio State

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

Muhammad Wilkerson, DT/DE, Temple

Corey Liuget, DT/DE, Illinois

Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn

Drake Nevis, DT/DE, LSU

Dontay Moch, DE/OLB, Nevada

Brooks Reed, DE/OLB, Arizona

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State

Sam Acho, DE/OLB, Texas

JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin

Despite all playing the line, there are quite a few differences between these players.  Only Taylor projects as a nose tackle in the NFL.  Paea is probably a three-technique, while guys like Watt, Nevis and Wilkerson played some defensive tackle in college but project as five-technique ends in Dallas’ 3-4 system.  Others, such as Quinn and Moch, would transition to outside linebacker if they are selected by 3-4 teams.

I would compare today’s feature, Miami’s Allen Bailey, to Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn.  Like Clayborn, Bailey was a mammoth 4-3 defensive end in college (285 pounds) who would uncommonly stay at that position even in a 3-4 system.

Scouting Report

Once considered a potential first round selection, Bailey has since fallen off the map a bit.  As I analyzed a bunch of his games, I think it is for good reason.  Bailey has the worst “get-off” I have seen in this class, by far.  No one is even close.  He is simply horrible at anticipating the snap and garnering a useful first step.

I checked out a few other scouting reports on Bailey, and they actually claim he possesses great quickness and explosiveness off the ball.  I have no idea what these people are watching.  Watch any game of Bailey’s, and you see a player who is so slow off the ball that it actually makes your jaw drop.  I literally said “What the hell is he doing?” aloud as I watched his tape.

So why was Bailey ever ranked so high?  Well, he’s an athlete.  Despite what I consider below-average quickness (even for someone his size), he does have good long speed (4.77 40-yard dash at 285 pounds).  He’s put together well and simply looks the part.  This will fool a team into selecting him too early.  It can’t be Dallas.

Bailey’s largest strength in college was his versatility.  He played all along the defensive line.  Ironically, it is tough to determine his future position in the NFL.  Since the Combine, Bailey has inexplicably dropped 10 pounds.  At just 275, he’s probably too light to fit into a 3-4 defense (particularly Rob Ryan’s two-gap scheme).  He’ll probably be utilized as a left defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but I don’t think his skill set is a particularly good fit for that either.

Bailey is capable of holding ground at the point-of-attack.  He does possess good overall strength and he won’t consistently get driven off the ball.  Still, he has trouble getting off of blocks and making plays for himself.  His 19 career sacks at Miami are good, but not great.  I’m actually surprised he tallied that many.

Overall, Bailey is an athlete who isn’t a particularly great football player.  He will be a project for whichever team chooses him.  Despite his athleticism, I don’t think he possesses very high upside.

Projection

Bailey is projected to go anywhere from the second to fourth round.  I think the low end of that is a real possibility due to Bailey’s current size and skill set.  He’s now too small to hold up as a five-technique, but he doesn’t possess the adequate first step or pass rush repertoire of a 4-3 defensive end.  I personally wouldn’t touch Bailey until the fifth or sixth (and not at all for 3-4 teams like Dallas).

By Jonathan Bales

Interview with Lehigh OT Will Rackley

Jonathan Bales

Yesterday, I published my scouting report on Lehigh offensive tackle William Rackley, a player the Cowboys seem to be targeting and one who would fit quite well in Dallas.  Last night, I was able to get in contact with Rackley and ask him a few questions about the upcoming draft. . .

Q:  How is your draft prep going?  What have you been doing?

A: Since my Pro Day, I have been doing a lot of private workouts.  Once those are over, I have some visits.  I have also been working out like a maniac to keep in shape.

Q:  Dallas showed interest in you at the Combine.  have you had any farther contact with them?

A: Yes, I actually have a visit scheduled with them on April 5.

Q:  How was that interview with Dallas at the Combine?  Did they (or any other teams) ask you any off-the-wall questions?

A: Luckily, I don’t have anything bad in my background that might make them put me on the spot.  I was happy to not really get any crazy questions like that.

All of the teams had me watch film, draw up plays and stuff like that.  All football-related.  Some of them teach you their plays and then test you on them.  They want to see how much you can remember.

Q:  Were you content with your overall Combine performance?

A: I thought my position drills went really well, but I didn’t run as well as I wanted.  I wasn’t really nervous or anything, but I just didn’t do my best in some of the tests.  I was really looking forward to the position drills though and I think teams were impressed with my work there.

Q:  You’re originally from Georgia.  What made you decide to attend Lehigh?

A: Well, I wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school.  I was mainly recruited by Patriot League schools like Lehigh.  Going pro was always a dream of mine, but when I came out of high school, I was really just focused on becoming the best college player possible.

Q:  Well you obviously made a good decision.  Those hills at Lehigh will kill you though.

A: (Laughs) Yeah, those hills get old really fast.

Q:  Have teams talked to you about moving to guard?  Would you prefer to stay at offensive tackle?

A: Some teams have brought it up.  Some want me to move to guard, some to center, and some think I can stay at tackle.  I don’t care where I play.

Q:  Do you have any experience at guard or center?

A: Yeah, I played guard my freshman year at Lehigh, and I also played center in practice.

Q:  How difficult is it to not constantly check mock drafts or watch television to see where analysts think you’ll get drafted?

A: I try not to worry too much about that stuff.  It can be hard, but I honestly don’t really pay much attention to it.  I know those things can change so frequently, so no sense worrying about it.

Q:  Know where you’ll watch the draft?

A: Just from home.  I just want to get selected as early as possible.

Q:  Last question.  Do you pattern your game after any current or former players?

A: No, I don’t really try to emulate anyone else’s game.  I do watch other players to see their technique and how they succeed.  I watch Jake Long a lot, for example.  But I don’t think I really try to pattern my game after anyone else.  I just do my own thing.  I didn’t really have any specific favorite players growing up or anything like that.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Potential 2011 Draft Pick: William Rackley, OT, Lehigh

Jonathan Bales

The majority of the tape I watch comes from recorded games during the college season.  Often, however, I have the opportunity to attend local college games (I am from Philadelphia, for those who didn’t know).  This is one of the reasons I was so high on Akwasi Owusu-Ansah last season (Indiana of Pennsylvania played at a number of local universities).

This past season, I was able to watch local teams Temple, Villanova and Lehigh quite a bit.  You may notice I’m rather high on some of the products from those schools–Muhammad WilkersonJaiquawn Jarrett, Ben Ijalana and William Rackley.  Am I simply biased?  I like to think I’m as objective as possible, but of course I realize some biases are a natural outcome of increased exposure.  However, I’m not automatically high on all local products.  You may recall I wasn’t thrilled with the selection of Penn State’s Sean Lee last season, for example.

My love for the prospects above may be the result of my general appreciation for small-school players.  To be mentioned alongside the blue-chip guys, you know a small-school prospect had to dominate his competition.  With the gap between the elite universities and the second-tier ones shrinking rapidly, I think small-school players can hold a ton of value for NFL clubs (and I think they’re beginning to agree).  By the way, a study of the recent success of small-school players in the NFL might be a cool project. . .let me know if that interests any of you.

Nonetheless, Lehigh offensive tackle William Rackley is a player I know more closely than any other in this draft.  I was actually recruited by Lehigh’s football coach out of high school, but chose to attend a different school nearby.  Thus, I know the program well, giving me a chance to study Rackley quite in-depth.

Unfortunately, the videos of Rackley which are available for me to post are scarce.  I have added a very short “highlight” film below, but for this particular scouting report, you’ll just have to trust me :)

Scouting Report

A pet peeve of mine is when small-school offensive tackles are automatically projected to transition to guard in the NFL.  This has already happened with Villanova’s Ben Ijalana, which is a joke to me.  Ijalana has the size and ability to play tackle in the NFL, and that is where he should stay.

Having said that, there may be some merit to the idea of moving Rackley to guard.  He’s rather short for an offensive tackle (6’3”), and possesses arms of just 33.5 inches–average at best.  If you talk to any scout or NFL GM, you’ll quickly realize the incredible importance they place on arm length among offensive linemen.  They generally consider arms of 35+ inches to be outstanding, and 34+ to be good.

I do think whoever drafts Rackley should at least give him a look at tackle.  He’s quite athletic for a 310-pounder, displaying great knee bend and quick hand movement.  His lateral movement and slide in pass protection are superb.

Rackley’s athleticism allows him to play with tremendous leverage.  He can easily get to the second level in the running game, which is something Dallas is missing right now at right tackle.  It sure would be nice to be able to run a toss or counter to the right side of the field, huh?

Rackley’s mobility is complemented well by his strength.  He has a very thick lower body, and his upper body strength is adequate (29 reps at the Combine).

Rackley’s largest weakness is a lack of explosiveness (he had just a 23.5 inch vertical jump).  You can see this in Rackley’s game, as he doesn’t ever really appear sudden in his movements.  His athleticism comes more in his technique and position than being explosive, i.e. he’s an athlete similar to a guy like Joe Thomas, not Bruce Campbell.

And of course I have to mention Rackley’s competition.  Facing teams like Colgate and Lafayette makes a proper evaluation rather difficult.  Further complicating matters is the fact that Lehigh runs a zone-blocking scheme that isn’t very similar to that in Dallas.  Thus, Rackley will have an adjustment period (which will happen anyway if he moves to guard).

The good new is Rackley’s very intelligent (3.4 GPA), so the cerebral aspect of the transition won’t be an issue.  When you speak to him, you can tell he’s a smart kid who loves football.  That’s important.

It’s worth noting the Cowboys were one of the teams to interview Rackley at the Combine.

Projection

Even if most teams view Rackley as a guard at the next level, I think interest in him will be high.  He had 13 interviews at the Combine alone, and his versatility makes him an attractive fit for a lot of schemes.  He has zone-blocking experience, but I think his transition to an offense like that in Dallas will be made easier by his intelligence and versatile skill set.

Rackley is projected to get selected anywhere from the late-second round to the fourth.  I currently have him rated No. 50 overall on my Big Board–the fourth-rated guard.  Rackley could be an option for Dallas in the third round, but if he’s still available in the fourth, the decision seems like a no-brainer to me.

Other Potential Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks in 2011

Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

Cameron Jordan, DT/DE, Cal

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, UNC

Cameron Heyward, DT/DE, Ohio State

Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

Tyron Smith, OT, USC

Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA

Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

Muhammad Wilkerson, DT/DE, Temple

Corey Liuget, DT/DE, Illinois

Martez Wilson, ILB/OLB, Illinois

Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon

Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College

Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois

Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

Brandon Burton, CB, Utah

Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn

Jaiquawn Jarrett, FS, Temple

Ben Ijalana, OT/OG, Villanova

Drake Nevis, DT/DE, LSU

Dontay Moch, DE/OLB, Nevada

Brooks Reed, DE/OLB, Arizona

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State

Sam Acho, DE/OLB, Texas

JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin

 

By Jonathan Bales

More evidence of the value of two-point attempts

Yesterday, I published a piece detailing why NFL teams could really help themselves by going for two far more than they already do–perhaps almost all the time.  If two-point tries yield more expected points than extra points (which I believe to be the case, particularly for a team with a potent offense and poor kicker, like Dallas), then teams should only kick an extra point in very specific game situations, such as a tie late in the game.

I did a little research and found Advanced NFL Stats published a similar article on why teams might want to go for two almost all the time.  In it, they mention the conversion rate for two-point tries from 2000-2009 was 47.9 percent.  Not stellar, but only because of poor play selection.  Teams passed the ball on 74.2 percent of attempts, despite an overall conversion rate of only 43.4 percent on passes.  On run plays, the rate jumps to 61.7 percent.

ANS goes on to suggest (as I did yesterday) that, even after an increase in rushing attempts, the Nash equilibirum for the two-point conversion percentage would equalize at a number over 50 percent.  They write:

In 2009, the success rate for extra point kicks was 98.3%, and so far in 2010 it’s 98.8%.  So for 2-point conversions to be the higher expected-value play, it would only need to be successful about 49.5% of the time.  A strategy mix that’s heavy on running would almost certainly exceed that rate.

Later, ANS suggests a two-point try should be attempted whenever the game is still one of point-maximization.  Isn’t the game always about maximizing points?  Well, no.  Early in the contest, teams attempt to secure as many point as possible.  Later, however, game situations dictate strategy.  It would be foolish to attempt a two-point conversion in a tie game with 20 seconds remaining, for example.  In that case, even if a two-point try yields more expected points than an extra point, the game is no longer one of point-maximization.

ANS suggests games are generally point-maximization contest until the fourth quarter, but I disagree.  While I don’t think there’s a set cutoff point as to when two-point tries should be automatic, I know I wouldn’t be looking to maximize points during a tie game late in the third quarter.  At that time, the chance of the game yielding no more scores far outweighs the expected points gained by going for two.  Thus, after scoring a touchdown to tie the game late in the third quarter (or even in the beginning of the third), I would attempt an extra point to take the lead.

The point-maximization cutoff point is less important, though, than the realization that two-point tries are almost certain to yield more expected points than extra points.  Thus, at least in the first half of games, the stats seem to indicate that two-point attempts should be a no-brainer.  And contrary to popular opinion, kicking an extra point is the “risky” play, only to be used in specific game situations.

By Jonathan Bales

2011 NFL Draft Team Notes

Jonathan Bales

Throughout this offseason, I have compiled a list of team and player notes for the upcoming draft.  The majority of them are from local newspapers, as beat reporters often gain a better sense of a team’s plans than, oh I don’t know, ESPN.  Keep in mind at least some of this information is bound to be “fluff,” but it’s still possible and valuable to get a sense of teams’ intentions. . .particularly those selecting ahead of Dallas.

1.  Carolina Panthers (2-14)
  • Mixed reviews on Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert…appears Newton is the guy and Gabbert “interest” has been feigned or a media creation
  • Nick Fairley not a legitimate option
  • If they go defense, it will be Marcell Dareus or Patrick Peterson (Dareus looking more likely), but quarterback still the favorite
2.  Denver Broncos (4-12)
  • Worked out Von Miller and Peterson also an option
  • Dareus looks like heavy favorite if he’s still on the board
3.  Buffalo Bills (4-12)
  • Quarterback looks likely, and they appear more interested in Newton than Gabbert
  • If not quarterback, they will go defensive front seven, and Von Miller looks to be the guy
  • Dareus, DaQuan Bowers, Miller, Newton, and Gabbert all in the mix, but Newton WILL be the pick if available
4.  Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)
  • Have eyes on Prince Amukamara, but probably too early
  • Prefer Julio Jones to A.J. Green
  • Quarterback might be favorite though…rumors they won’t let Gabbert past them
5.  Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
  • Quarterback interest…Gabbert seems to be favorite
  • Chris Mortensen said they WILL take him if they can
  • If not, they really like Von Miller
6.  Cleveland Browns (5-11)
  • Fairley a BIG option here,
  • Initially heard they WILL target D-Lineman, but apparently AJ Green still in play
7.  San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
  • Linked to Robert Quinn
8.  Tennessee Titans (6-10)
  • Quarterback an option
9.  Dallas Cowboys (6-10)
  • Cameron Jordan interest
  • Apparently LOVE Tyron Smith and he’s the favorite
  • Peterson atop their board and could make a move for him
  • Won’t take Amukamara
  • Interest in Gabe Carimi if they move down
10.  Washington Redskins (6-10)
  • No interest in running back
11.  Houston Texans (6-10)
  • Love Justin Houston
  • Amukamara probably the favorite
12.  Minnesota Vikings(6-10)
  • Heavy interest in Jake Locker, but at No. 12?
13.  Detroit Lions (6-10)
  • Interested in Nate Solder and Anthony Castonzo, but only if top CB isn’t available
  • Do they consider Amukamara or Jimmy Smith “top” CB?
14. St. Louis Rams (7-9)
  • Really, really high on Julio Jones
  • Word is they’ll take a D-Lineman or Mark Ingram if Julio is gone
  • Interest in Ryan Kerrigan and Corey Liuget, but is it too early for them?
15. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
  • Is quarterback possible?
  • Mark Ingram logical, but other needs
16.  Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
  • Heavy Kerrigan interest
17. New England Patriots- from Oakland (8-8)
  • Won’t take JJ Watt because of agent
  • Interest in Pouncey (maybe later pick)
18. San Diego Chargers (9-7)
  • Cameron Heyward a target
  • Almost 100 percent a DE or OLB
  • Interest in Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Watt
  • Also REALLY like Kerrigan, however, and he appears to be favorite if still on board
19.  New York Giants (10-6)
  • Appear set to take top-rated offensive tackle
20.  Tampa Bay Bucs (10-6)
  • N/A
21.  Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
  • Could be in market for OT if they move Brandon Albert to OG
22. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
  • Derek Sherrod interest
23. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
  • Really like Amukamara
24. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
  • Almost 100 percent to take Wilkerson
25. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
  • Not high on Locker
  • Really like Christian Ponder
  • VERY high on Jimmy Smith
26. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
  • Sherrod interest
  • Houston interest
  • Lots of interest in Wilkerson
27. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
  • Love Houston
28. New England Patriots (14-2)
  • Initially looked like WR here but now trade appears likely
  • Torrey Smith, Jonathan Baldwin still possible
29. Chicago Bears (11-5)
  • Sherrod and Carimi interest
  • Heavy contingent at Brooks Reed’s Pro Day
  • Liuget on radar
30.  New York Jets (11-5)
  • Almost certain to target pass-rusher
  • Interest in Phil Taylor
31.  Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
  • Cornerback?
32.  Green Bay Packers (10-6)
  • Seeking edge-rusher
  • Like Brooks Reed

 

By Jonathan Bales

Why the Dallas Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should attempt WAY more two-point conversions in 2011

Jonathan Bales

One of my favorite topics on which to write is football theory–why teams make the decisions they do and if they could become more efficient in their choices.  In the past, I’ve completed studies detailing why teams should go for it more often on fourth down, run more on third down, throw more deep passes, run more frequently to the weak side, pass out of ‘running’ formations, be far more aggressive on 2nd and short, and so on.

It is my view that, if a coach was to implement a perfect understanding of advanced statistics and game theory into his in-game decisions, the potential impact would far outweigh that of any single player.  A “perfect” record of fourth down decisions, for example, could be “worth” a handful of points to a team in any individual game.  With all of the statistically inefficient choices NFL head coaches make each and every game, there is an enormous opportunity for less talented teams to outperform superior ones based solely on statistics.  Now is truly a golden age for the NFL in that teams are just beginning to crack the surface of advanced statistics that baseball uncovered years ago.

One such statistical issue about which I feel very strongly is the use of two-point conversions.  I talked about this issue at length during the 2010 season, particularly after the Cowboys’ Week Seven loss to the Giants and their Week 16 loss to the Cardinals.  From the New York post-game review:

Later, the Cowboys did score a touchdown to close within 12 points.  They decided to go for a two-point conversion, and Tirico immediately went off about “awful” the decision was.  I normally like Tirico, but he needs to stick to play-by-play and keep his nose out of matters of football theory.  On this topic, he was again as wrong as could be.

You’ll often hear announcers say it’s “too early to go for two.”  But what does that even mean?  How is it ever “too early?”  The decision to go for a two-point conversion should be based on a variety of factors, including the score, a coach’s confidence in his two-point play, and so on.  Actually, if the probability of Team X converting on a two-point attempt is 50.1 percent, they should almost always go for two.  The expected points of 1.002 is greater than that of an extra point (which can obviously only be as high as 1, even with 100 percent accuracy).

Thus, you’d only want to go for an extra point in non-normal game situations.  Suppose Team X scores a late touchdown to tie the game.  They’d clearly want to attempt the extra point to secure the win.  Going for two points would be quite disadvantageous in that scenario.  If football commentators knew the statistics and theory behind two-point attempts, perhaps they’d be saying “It’s too early to try the extra point.”

There are more reasons that Tirico was unjustified in his stance.  Down 12, the decision of whether or not to attempt a two-point try is indeed a “no-brainer,” but Tirico is on the wrong side of the debate.  If you go for two points and succeed, you’re down 10 points and now know that a touchdown and field goal will tie the game.  If you go for two and fail, you now know that you need two touchdowns to win.  If you kick the extra point, however, you might later kick a field goal that will turn out to be meaningless.

The idea that you want to “keep yourself in the game” by kicking an extra point is preposterous.  You actually want to determine what scores you’ll need as early as possible.  If you kick the extra point, then a field goal, you’re down eight points.  If you then score a touchdown and fail on the two-point attempt, you’re still another score away from winning the game.  The field goal attempt in between touchdowns becomes all but meaningless, and this is due solely to the fact that you didn’t attempt the two-point conversion as early as possible.  Failing the two-point try earlier, as I said above, provides you with the knowledge that you need two touchdowns to win.

Tirico and Jaws used the outcome of the game as justification for their view, but that’s wrong as well.  If you roll a six-sided die and bet even money on a specific number coming up, your bet is a dumb one regardless of the outcome of the roll.  The fact that you will win money one time out of six doesn’t justify the decision ex post facto.  When I listen to the Monday Night Football crew, I feel like I am betting that an even number will come up on my roll of the die–but all the commentators, I mean numbers, are odd.

Later in the season, I criticzed Jason Garrett for his failure to attempt a two-point conversion in the third quarter of a game:

  • Down 21-19 in the third quarter, Garrett decided to kick an extra point. Huge mistake. I’ve talked all season about why teams should try way, way more two-point conversions. Over the course of any given season, kickers make around 98 percent of extra points, while two-point conversions are successful around 48-49 percent of the time. While the expected points of extra points is higher (.98 x 1 is greater than .48 x 2), the difference isn’t great enough that it should overcome all game situations. For example, Garrett never would have kicked the extra point in the fourth quarter, as he doesn’t know if the Cowboys will score again.
  • Further, two-point conversions are only statistically inferior to extra points because coaches tend to call the wrong plays down by the goal line.  Over the last 20 seasons, rushing the ball has yielded a successful two-point conversion over 60 percent of the time.  Even if a team went for two points after nearly every score and rushed the ball each time, I doubt the success rate would jump below 50 percent (the break-even level at which two-point tries are statistically equivalent to extra points, assuming a 100 percent success rate on the latter).  Thus, extra points should actually only be attempted in very specific situations, such as a tied game in the fourth quarter.
  • On top of all of that, let’s not forget Buehler is about as erratic as kickers come.  His extra point success rate is nowhere near 98 percent (probably closer to 94 or so), meaning the Cowboys would only need to convert on 47 percent of two-point tries to yield the same expected points.  And if you’re correctly running the ball, what does it matter if Stephen McGee is at quarterback?
  • I assume Garrett attempted the extra point because he figured Dallas would score again anyway.  That’s faulty logic, however.  Even if we assume two-point conversions yield less expected points than extra points, and we take into account McGee’s presence in the lineup, the difference between a two-point try and extra point is still small enough that, for an extra point to be the right call, we’d have to assume there’s less than a one percent chance the Cowboys wouldn’t score again.  While it’s likely the offense was going to put more points on the board, it certainly wasn’t greater than 99 percent.
  • I updated live from the game last night on Twitter, and a few followers claimed that it was “too early to go for two and the chart says the extra point is the right call.”  While I appreciate everyone who took the time on Christmas to read my thoughts, that reasoning is simply incorrect.  What does it even mean to be “too early to go for two”?  While you certainly have less of an idea of the final score in the first quarter as compared to late in the game, you should always side with statistics.  If the numbers say attempting a two-point conversion is the right call (which they did for the Cowboys in the third quarter–and it wasn’t even close), then kicking an extra point is the risky move.  Further, NFL coaches are just tapping the surface of advanced statistics and game theory, meaning most of their “infallible” charts are dead wrong.  It’s Garrett’s job to give the team the highest probability of victory, and whether a decision seems “risky” or not to the public, it needs to be made.

Later, Garrett issued a statement on his decision to kick the extra point (below).  I responded with this:

According to Jason Garrett, he didn’t go for two points when down 21-19 in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game because “What happens when you start making those decisions is sometimes you get a little hasty and say, ‘OK, if we get two here that will tie us up.’ But typically, what happens when you have another quarter to play, there are a couple more scores and the whole thing kind of plays itself out a little bit.”

Although I’d wager that the majority of NFL coaches agree with Garrett’s assessment, it is the wrong one.  I hate to be so blunt about it (secretly I love it), but he’s just dead wrong.  Garrett points out that there will typically be more points scored after the third quarter, which is correct, but somewhat irrelevant.

First of all, as I’ve already pointed out, two-point conversions may not even yield less expected points than extra points.  If that’s the case (which would be a virtual certainty if teams ran the ball more on two-point attempts), then going for two points should be the status quo, with an extra point only being attempted in specific game situations (such as tied late in the contest).

Even if extra points are generally statistically superior to two-point tries, however, Garrett still made the wrong decision.  While I agree with his notion that more points were likely to be scored, that fact is far from certain.  Actually, for an extra point to be the right decision in that scenario, we would have to assume that the chances of neither team scoring again was small enough that it wouldn’t account for the disparity between the expected points of an extra point (about .98) and a two-point attempt (.96 at worst).

As it turns out, Garrett would have to assume either that the chances of neither team scoring again were below one percent or that the offense’s chances of converting on their two-point try were closer to 25 percent than 50 percent.  Anyone believe either scenario to be the case?

Me neither.

I used a lot of old material here because I feel like actual game situations are the most effective way to state my case.  We can see real-world situations in which forgoing a two-point try has dire consequences for a club.

Ultimately, I believe an NFL team could secure a significant number of “extra” points by attempting two-point conversions after the majority of touchdowns.  As I stated above, NFL teams convert two-point attempts about 60 percent of the time when they run the football.  That number would certainly decline with increased rushing attempts, but the efficiency of two-point pass attempts would subsequently increase.  I see no reason why an NFL team (particularly one with an offense as potent as that of Dallas) wouldn’t be able to convert a minimum of 55 percent of two-point tries if they focused on improving their efforts.

Assuming the Cowboys score three touchdowns per game in 2011 (they scored 43 in 2009 and 46 last season), the “increase” in expected points would be 6.24 (assuming 97 percent accuracy on extra points, which is a stretch if David Buehler is still the kicker).  That might not sound like a lot, but there’s a solid chance those “extra” points would result in another win for the ‘Boys.  Assume a 60 percent conversion rate and that number jumps to 11.04.  Not too shabby for a philosophical decision that would require relatively little practice time.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Potential 2011 Draft Pick: JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin

Jonathan Bales

On my initial 2011 Big Board, I ranked Wisconsin defensive tackle/defensive end J.J. Watt at No. 30–far lower than the consensus.  This ranking was based on multiple live and taped games I had watched.  To me, Watt seemed to have a low ceiling.

After watching more of Watt’s games at the request of some readers, my opinion has begun to shift (a bit).  Perhaps I had witnessed some of Watt’s “average” games, but the new film I saw was rather impressive.  On my new Big Board (yet to be published), I have moved Watt up to No. 18 overall, just behind Muhammad Wilkerson but ahead of DaQuan Bowers (in a free fall), Adrian Clayborn and Drake Nevis.  Here is why. . .

Scouting Report

One of my initial concerns about Watt is that, contrary to other reports, he doesn’t seem that stout at the point-of-attack.  I still stand by that statement.  Watt obviously has great size and strength, but when asked to hold ground against the run, he’s an average player.  It’s a bit perplexing, as Watt generally plays with superb leverage.  I think his mindset changes when he’s not asked to get after the quarterback and he becomes more tentative.  That could make him a poor fit in Rob Ryan’s two-gap scheme

At 290 pounds, though, Watt seems to be a natural fit as a five-technique end.  For his size, Watt is incredibly quick and agile.  He finished in the top four among all defensive linemen in the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle at the Combine.  Quite impressive.

Watt uses that athleticism on the field in a diverse array of pass rush moves, including what I consider the best swim move in the class.  His rip move and bull rush are also solid, particularly because of his leverage.  Watt’s overall quickness is on display at the 3:25 mark below–this time from the defensive tackle position.

To go with his athleticism, Watt is also a high-motor player with a great work ethic.  This makes his floor rather high–he’s not tremendously likely to be a bust.  For a team that can’t afford to “miss” on its first round pick, that’s a great thing.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Watt is a serious candidate to go to Dallas at No. 9 overall.  In my opinion, his ceiling is still “average”–like my view on Sean Lee last year (who I think I was wrong on, by the way), I’m not sure how much better Watt will become.  He could be a Marcus Spears clone (albeit quicker, but less of a force against the run).  When compared to a player like Tyron Smith or, at his position, Cameron Jordan, Watt’s upside is far lower.

Overall, game tape such as that below made me alter Watt’s rating.  Keep in mind this is by far the best tape on him I could find.  The player the Cowboys would get is a cross between this one and the one I originally saw who is, at times, a second round talent with minimal upside.

Projection

Watt has moved up boards lately.  I now think he’s a late-first round talent who, due to his measurables and work ethic, will get selected in the middle of the first round.  If the Cowboys like Watt enough, they should probably make a move down for him.  There are rumors they like Cameron Jordan quite a bit as well, and one of them will almost certainly be available at, say, New England’s 17th overall pick.

Other Potential Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks in 2011

Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

Cameron Jordan, DT/DE, Cal

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, UNC

Cameron Heyward, DT/DE, Ohio State

Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

Tyron Smith, OT, USC

Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA

Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

Muhammad Wilkerson, DT/DE, Temple

Corey Liuget, DT/DE, Illinois

Martez Wilson, ILB/OLB, Illinois

Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon

Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College

Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois

Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

Brandon Burton, CB, Utah

Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn

Jaiquawn Jarrett, FS, Temple

Ben Ijalana, OT/OG, Villanova

Drake Nevis, DT/DE, LSU

Dontay Moch, DE/OLB, Nevada

Brooks Reed, DE/OLB, Arizona

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State

Sam Acho, DE/OLB, Texas

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys’ Top 15 Best/Worst Draft Picks Since 2000

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys have been been incredibly up and down in their drafting success since 2000.  The results of their draft classes have been extreme, from the ineptitude of the 2001 class (Quincy Carter, Tony Dixon, Willie Blade, Markus Steele, Matt Lehr, Daleroy Stewart, Colston Weatherington, John Nix and Char-ron Dorsey) to the sensational overall value of the 2008 class (Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice, Orlando Scandrick and Erik Walden).

I’ve previously ranked the top 10 Dallas Cowboys draft classes of all-time.  Below, I have listed my choices for the 15 best and worst individual Cowboys draft picks since 2000.  Note that the round in which a player was drafted contributes heavily to his ranking.  Seventh round busts, for example, aren’t nearly as detrimental as those in the first round.

15 Worst Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks Since 2000

  • 15. S Tony Dixon (Second Round–2001)

Dixon had just one more career interception than me.

  • 14. C Al Johnson (Second Round–2003)

Johnson played until 2008, but his time in Dallas was marred by injury and, well, a lack of talent.

  • 13. DT Willie Blade (Third Round–2001)

From 2001-2005, Blade racked up 18 total tackles.

  • 12. LB Markus Steele (Fourth Round–2001)

I honestly don’t even know who this is.

  • 11. WR Isaiah Stanback (Fourth Round–2007)

As a college quarterback, everyone knew Stanback was a project.  His five career receptions justify that.

  • 10. CB Bruce Thornton (Fourth Round–2004)

Thornton played on a different team each of his four years in the league.

  • 9. CB Derek Ross (Third Round–2002)

Ross had a promising rookie season with five picks, but he recorded just one more the rest of his career. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with drug trafficking.

  • 8.  CB Kareem Larrimore (Fourth Round–2000)

Larrimore was drafted in 2000, and playing arena football by 2002.  He was reportedly fined at least 12 times during his two years in Dallas.

  • 7. CB Jamar Wall (Sixth Round–2010)

Wall, a pure Cover 2 cornerback, made no sense from the beginning last year.  He was cut before the regular season.

  • 6. LB Jason Williams (Third Round–2009)

Williams was the first pick for Dallas in 2009, but he simply never fit into the Cowboys’ 3-4 scheme.

  • 5. CB Dwayne Goodrich (Second Round–2000)

Goodrich was in Dallas just three years.  In 2003, he was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

  • 4. OT James Marten (Third Round–2007)

Marten played just one season in Dallas before being released.

  • 3. OT Jacob Rogers (Second Round–2004)

At the time of Rogers’ release in 2006, he was the highest drafted player to be cut from the 2004 NFL Draft.

  • 2. QB Quincy Carter (Second Round–2001)

Not even getting into this one.

  • 1. LB Bobby Carpenter (First Round–2006)

Was Carpenter the worst player on this list?  Probably not, but his first round draft spot makes his horrible play tough to swallow.

15 Best Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks Since 2000

  • 15. CB Mike Jenkins (First Round–2008)

Jenkins regressed badly in 2010, but he should rebound in 2011 with a more potent pass-rush.

  • 14. LB Sean Lee (Second Round–2010)

I didn’t like the Lee pick at the time, but the Penn State product reminds me much of a young Keith Brooking.

  • 13. OLB Victor Butler (Fourth Round–2009)

Butler is one of my favorite players and I think Rob Ryan will give him an opportunity to flourish in 2011.

  • 12. RB Tashard Choice (Fourth Round–2008)

Choice’s value in the fourth round was outstanding, and he’d be higher on this list if Jason Garrett fed him the ball.

  • 11. RB Marion Barber (Fourth Round–2005)

Barber will probably be out of Dallas this season, but he had a few strong years as “The Barbarian.”

  • 10.  CB Orlando Scandrick (Fifth Round–2008)

Scandrick improved considerably in 2010 and, as a fifth-rounder, the value was superb.

  • 9.  WR Patrick Crayton (Seventh Round–2004)

Crayton’s explosiveness was always a concern, but his consistency never came into question.

  • 8.  WR Dez Bryant (First Round–2010)

The only person that can stop Bryant from becoming an All-Pro wide receiver is himself.

  • 7.  C Andre Gurode (Second Round–2002)

Gurode’s issues with snapping overshadowed his talent for awhile.  He’s still a productive player.

  • 6.  LB Bradie James (Fourth Round–2003)

James’ 582 career tackles are already fourth in team history.

  • 5.  OT Doug Free (Fourth Round–2007)

This ranking is based primarily on Free’s future.  He looks like he’ll be at left tackle in Dallas for awhile.

  • 4.  CB Terence Newman (First Round–2003)

Newman’s decline has been steep, but when healthy, he was one of the league’s top cornerbacks.

  • 3.  TE Jason Witten (Third Round–2003)

The future Hall of Famer is still the epitome of how a tight end should be put together.

  • 2.  NT Jay Ratliff (Seventh Round–2005)

Ratliff’s production from nose tackle, a position that doesn’t really suit him well, is astonishing.  He must be one of the better seventh round picks in NFL history.

  • 1.  OLB DeMarcus Ware (First Round–2005)

87.5 career sacks, five Pro Bowls, three-time All-Pro selection, and the NFL’s most feared pass-rusher.  He improves the Cowboys’ defense more than you can imagine.

Dallas Cowboys Times is on Twitter.

Subscribe to our free e-mail updates.

 

By Jonathan Bales

Jason Garrett Tipping Plays Via Formation: ‘Double Tight Strong’ Usage in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Note that my results also include "Double Tight I," which is the same as above with the fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback.

In my study on the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of ‘Double Tight Strong’ (left), I noted that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive 71.6 percent of the time they lined up in the formation (83 of 116 plays), including 85.7 percent of the time when they motioned into it (42 of 29 plays).

Defensive coordinators clearly caught on to this trend, as the Cowboys’ yards-per-rush on the strong side dives decreased from 7.8 over the first five weeks of the season to just 4.4 over the rest of the year (including only 3.2 against all teams but the Raiders).  Thus, the opposition was fully aware of this trend of Garrett’s coming into the 2010 season.  The Cowboys’ efficiency on “Double Tight Strong/I” plays is representative of that.

The Cowboys lined up in the formation 81 times in 2010 (35 fewer than 2009, at least), running the ball 82.7 percent of the time.   Of those runs, 52 (77.6 percent) were strong side dives.  The overall strong side dive rate (including passes) was 64.2 percent–down from 71.6 in 2009–but still way, way too high.  Once again, when Dallas motioned into the formation, the rate of strong side dives increased (to 72.7 percent of all plays).

Unlike 2009, however, the Cowboys did not find success on these strong side dives at any point during the season.  The ‘Boys averaged just 2.15 yards-per-carry on the 52 strong side dives in 2010.  On all other runs (almost all to the weak side), the Cowboys averaged 4.87 yards-per-rush.  In 2009, Dallas also found far more success when running weak side out of “Double Tight Strong”–averaging 6.7 yards-per-rush–indicating that defenders truly have been keying in on the strong side dive.

Of course, Garrett loves to use this formation in short-yardage situations, so could this be the culprit for the lack of yardage?  Not really, as the average yards-to-go on “Double Tight Strong” plays was 5.94–lower than the overall rate, but not by an incredibly large margin.  Actually, 37 of the plays from the formation came with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That’s 45.7 percent.  An additional 15 of the plays came with 5+ yards-to-go, meaning 64.2 percent of the plays came in situations that were clearly not short-yardage.

And it wasn’t as if the Cowboys were thriving on the short-yardage plays either.  Of the 29 plays from “Double Tight Strong” with four or less yards-to-go (and nearly all of them were with exactly one yard-to-go), the Cowboys converted a first down or touchdown just 13 times.  That’s only a 44.8 percent conversion rate on very short-yardage plays. Kind of sick.

One might argue that some predictability can be good if utilized correctly.  The 64.2 percent strong side dive rate might be less detrimental to an offense, for example, if they use playaction passes to take some shots downfield on the other plays.  Thus, an offense could “concede” a strong side dive or two (or 52, apparently) to set up big plays in the passing game.

That sounds great in theory, but Garrett didn’t call many “high-upside” plays out of the formation at all.  Actually, the average distance of the Cowboys’ passes from “Double Tight Strong” was just nine yards.

Ultimately, this formation will continue to haunt Dallas until 1) the strong side dive rate decreases dramatically or 2) Garrett utilizes the predictability from the formation to set up big pass plays.  Garrett has improved in a number of areas as a play-caller over the past few years, but focusing on improving “Double Tight Strong” calls (or scrapping it from the playbook altogether) should be high on his list of priorities.