The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football Links: Running Backs, Consistency, and Torrey Smith

Jonathan Bales

Over at RotoWire, I took a look at how to draft running backs:

Draft slot in the first half of Round 1

Choosing in the first six picks, you will be able to acquire an elite running back. Unless your league starts more than one quarterback or rewards six points for a passing touchdown, running back should almost certainly be your choice here. It’s difficult to bypass a “sure thing” like Aaron Rodgers, but it may be even more difficult to forgo a player like Ray Rice, miss out on a running back in the second round, then be left with a guy like Frank Gore as your top runner.
I have Arian FosterLeSean McCoyRay RiceRyan Mathews and Chris Johnson listed as elite options in my rankings. There is a significant drop after those five running backs, so if you bypass one in the first half of the first round, you probably won’t be able to make up for it down the road.

Coming back in the second round, you can look at elite quarterback options like Drew BreesCam Newtonand even Matthew Stafford. I’m a little low on Stafford, but all three players are reliable options. Tight end, the most consistent position in fantasy football, is also an option here if you can grab Jimmy Graham orRob Gronkowski.

In rounds three through five, the value at wide receiver is outstanding. You can jump on a running back if one falls (I like Doug MartinReggie Bush and Roy Helu in PPR leagues), but wide receiver is consistently providing the most bang for your buck.

At Pro Football Focus, Austin Lee posted a two-part series looking at the age of running back decline:

No one should be surprised that quarterbacks and running backs have highly contrasting rates of decline, but the divide in their productivity is even wider than I would have guessed. I’m not seeing the infamous 30-year-old wall that many people think running backs hit. Instead, their decline is pretty dramatic and consistent after 26.

Also at PFF, I took a look at how to use wide receiver efficiency in your draft:

  • The top receiver on this list is no surprise, as Jordy Nelson’s 2011 efficiency was unprecedented. Despite a probable decline in 2012, I still think his ADP of 14 among receivers is a bit too low.
  • With the way the Saints spread around the ball, Marques Colston has always been a very low-risk receiver without incredible upside. With Robert Meachem out of town, perhaps Colston will see a slight jump in targets that could propel him into stable WR1 territory.
  • The efficiency of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald is remarkable. Notice that the majority of the receivers around them (Nelson, Antonio Brown, Percy Harvin, Jerricho Cotchery) didn’t play nearly as many snaps in 2011.
  • Currently getting selected as the 57th receiver, perhaps Doug Baldwin is worth the risk. He had a highly-efficient rookie campaign, has a path to increased targets, and possesses a potentially legitimate quarterback in Matt Flynn.
  • Perhaps most surprising on this list is Michael Crabtree, who totaled the 17th-highest PFF grade in 2011 despite playing only 693 snaps. With free agent acquisitions Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, rookies A.J. Jenkins and Chris Owusu, and a necessarily limited offense, however, it’s tough to like Crabtree’s long-term potential.
  • Even in Denver and St. Louis, Brandon Lloyd garnered a top 20 receiving grade from PFF. He has serious WR1 upside in 2012.
  • Vincent Jackson was already a bigger name than fantasy producer in San Diego, and I think that trend will continue in Tampa Bay. With the 30th-worst efficiency as the Chargers’ No. 1 option last year, Jackson’s production figures to decrease with the Bucs.

Like Torrey Smith this year? Frank DuPont takes a look at Smith at Fantasy Douche:

I’m interested in Smith again this year because I think his rookie stats are in the range of stats that you would look for from a player would could break out.  Smith was targeted quite a bit for a rookie, did enough with those targets to warrant more usage, and he’s playing opposite Anquan Boldin, who I think is basically keeping things together with smoke and mirrors at this point.

But a review of Torrey Smith’s comparable players does further cement the idea that there are always a range of outcomes.  Similarity does not equal destiny.  My quick takeaway from looking at the list of Smith comparables is that I could see things going either way.

Robert Littal at Black Sports Online was kind enough to let me post a sample chapter (the intro) from my book Fantasy Football for Smart People:

The reason temporarily bypassing maximum “value” can be beneficial deals with position scarcity and starting lineup requirements. Let’s starts with the latter. In fantasy football, you are obviously required to start a specific number of players at different positions. If you could simply start your highest-scoring players, quarterbacks would fill the first few rounds of drafts.

Since fantasy football requires you to start players at positions that naturally score fewer points than other positions (think kickers), at some point in your draft, it is necessary to bypass a high-scoring position for a lower-scoring one. The best fantasy football owners understand how to balance that delicate task.

Of course, the “best” time to take a quarterback, or a running back, or any other position changes based on a number of factors, including the season, your league, your previous draft picks, and so on. One of the factors that can help us determine which position to take at each spot is standard deviation. Standard deviation is the measure of diversity in a group of statistics.

For fantasy football owners, standard deviation means identifying “outliers” within each position. For example, assume the top quarterback in the NFL scored around 1,000 fantasy points each season. Gotta grab him in the first, right? Not necessarily, even if you know with 100 percent confidence which player will be the top quarterback in such a hypothetical league. If quarterbacks 2-12 scored about 990 points each year, the value of the top quarterback is miniscule. In that example, there is no outlier; the top signal-caller’s projected total is almost identical to the 11 quarterbacks behind him.

I’ve been playing a lot of poker because I think there are a ton of similarities between the game and fantasy football. The implementations of game theory and the notions of risk/reward are strikingly similar. Anyone ever play poker at www.partybingo.com?

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Why Dallas Will Be Improved In 2012

Jonathan Bales

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Cowboys improved in the offseason. They signed who I think was the top free agent cornerback in the NFL (I was actually making a plea for the team to sign Carr back in February). They grabbed the top defensive player in the draft. Carr and Morris Claiborne alone will upgrade the Dallas defense in a big way, combining to form what could be one of the NFL’s better cornerback duos.

Moving Tyron Smith to left tackle and Doug Free back to the right side should help the Cowboys’ pass protection efforts. Miles Austin is healthy. Dez Bryant, despite still needing to mature in a big way, looks primed for a breakout year. Bruce Carter and Dan Connor will be huge upgrades over Bradie James and Keith Brooking. The only major question mark is the interior line, but it shouldn’t be exceedingly difficult for Nate Livings and either Mackenzy Bernadeau or Ronald Leary to play up to the level of Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland.

Yup, there’s a lot of reason for optimism in Big D. Just posted at DallasCowboys.com, check out my top five reasons the Cowboys will improve in 2012.

3. The pass rush will improve.

A couple of months ago, I projected team sacks using a combination of pressures and sack rate. Even if nothing at all changes in Dallas, the defense is in line for more sacks. If the ’Boys pressure the quarterback just as much as they did in 2011, they should record right around 50 sacks this season – eight more than last year.

Ware is going to get his sacks, but the Cowboys are likely to see more sacks from the defensive line andAnthony Spencer. I’ve even gone on record as saying I think Spencer, who pressures the quarterback at a rate right in line with the league’s top-10 outside linebackers, will post at least eight sacks in 2012.

Now throw in another year in Rob Ryan’s scheme, and you have the recipe for a whole lot of headaches for opposing quarterbacks.

2. Tyron Smith will thrive on the left side.

Smith was sensational in his rookie season. I tracked the Cowboys as rushing for 5.43 yards-per-carry behind the youngster, compared to only 3.26 when running behind Doug Free. Smith also allowed only six sacks and an overall pressure rate of just 2.5 percent, ranking him as the third-best pass-protecting right tackle in the NFL.

As a lean, athletic offensive tackle, Smith should prosper on the left side of the line. Plus, the Cowboys can move Free back to his more natural right tackle position where he can face inferior pass rushers and potentially get more help from Jason Witten.

Check out the other reasons at the team site.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football Links: Tony Romo, Quarterback Consistency, and ADP

Jonathan Bales

Buy Fantasy Football for Smart People for $7.99 and my rankings for $2.99.

————————————————–

The five best fantasy football articles of the past week, and only two are mine!

Just posted over at FF Today, I took a look at using quarterback consistency to make projections.

Imagine passing touchdowns were worth 100 points in your league so that whoever secured the league’s top touchdown-throwers was basically guaranteed a championship. Also imagine that the strength of correlation for year-to-year passing touchdowns was 0.0, i.e. impossible to predict. With no ability to accurately project passing touchdowns, they should have zero influence on your rankings. In this extreme scenario, you can see why it isn’t simply good enough to understand the probable outcome for each player (your projection); you also need to know how likely the player’s production is to deviate from your projection (and to what degree).

Over at Fantasy Douche, Frank DuPont takes a look at seasons that closely matched Tony Romo’s 2011 campaign and how those players produced in the subsequent seasons.

Romo is similar to Peyton Manning 2003 and Aaron Rodgers 2010, which is sort of interesting if you think about what those players did the following seasons.  I wouldn’t take that information and go “Tony Romo is on track to throw for 50 touchdowns in 2012.”  But I would take that information and say that a 50 touchdown season is within the range of outcomes that might be possible for Romo.  A lot of things would have to go right for Romo to replicate those seasons, just like a number of things had to go right for Manning and Rodgers.

My latest post at the New York Times describes why fantasy football is like a stock market.

A fantasy football draft is really no different than the stock market. Both stock traders and fantasy owners seek to leverage knowledge into value acquisition, and that value is the result of cost minimization. And just as game theory is a useful tool in the fantasy owner’s arsenal, a fundamental understanding of public perception is vital to traders.

Stocks are not inherently good or bad. Rather, those designations come in relation to the price of the stock. The merits of purchasing Microsoft stock, for example, cannot be determined without knowledge of the share price. Likewise, players are not valuable to fantasy owners outside of a proper understanding of their opportunity cost. Adrian Peterson, coming off of reconstructive knee surgery, isn’t great value in the first round this year. In the fourth round, however, he could be a steal.

Awesome post by Chad Parsons of Pro Football Focus on receiver red zone regression:

Looking for a potential outlier from the above list? Jermichael Finley is a name to remember. His 3-year average prior to 2011 was a hefty 19.8%. Considering teammates Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings both were targeted in the red zone more than their historical rates, Finley could actually benefit from a regression on their parts. Antonio Gates also makes the list in terms of a potential rise in 2012. His 3-year average prior to 2011 was 17.2%, plus Vincent Jackson, another red zone threat has moved on to Tampa Bay this off-season.

Calvin Johnson might seem like a player that would be the obvious exception to the trend above. Not so fast. His 15.9% in 2011 was his highest in the past four seasons. IN fact, his 3-year average prior to 2011 was a normal-sized 11%. Considering that the running back stable is unlikely to be as decimated as they were in 2011, he is a prime candidate for a noticeable decline in this metric. His 24 overall red zone targets were more a product of the team’s gaudy 102 attempts as a team than his high personal rate.

A few weeks ago, I took part in an expert auction with the guys at PFF (results here). Here is Eric Yeomans Q&A with the owners.

Jonathan Bales:

Reggie Bush came off the board as the 17th-most expensive RB. He’s going to have to come close to repeating last year’s production to return value there. How confident are you that he’ll be able to do that?

I obviously like Reggie Bush a lot this year and, taking the rest of my starting lineup into account, I’m satisfied with him as my RB2. I realize he’s a high-risk player, so I secured Daniel Thomas as his handcuff. I’m not normally one to do that, but I wanted to mitigate the high risk of my team as a whole, which is admittedly volatile.

Was there a Cowboy Times/Tony Romo love connection going on by shelling out $17 for him? To be fair, he was the seventh-most expensive QB, so glass half full he was fairly slotted relatively.

I labeled Romo as a player for whom I overpaid, but there was a reason for it. I actually don’t normally take too many Cowboys players, but Romo was the last quarterback remaining in my second tier. I thought the drop between him and a guy like Ben Roethlisberger was pretty great, so I overspent a bit to get him. However, had I known Matt Ryan would get drafted for $12 and Philip Rivers for $9, I would have passed on Romo.

You spent $86 on WRs, and only one of them is universally considered a sure thing. You certainly seemed to get good value on Jordy Nelson as the 21st-most expensive WR, then paired up Heyward-Bey and DeSean Jackson to round out the top 30. There’s certainly a lot of appeal with this group, but do you have any doubts about them outside of Fitzgerald?

There are always doubts, but I thought DeSean, Jordy, and Darrius were all really good values. DeSean was so cheap because he doesn’t catch a lot of passes. In a novice PPR league, he would get overvalued. In this expert PPR league, however, I sometimes feel owners unfairly downgrade players who don’t catch a lot of passes. If Jackson hauls in 65 receptions this year, I think he’ll be top five in yards. Even in PPR, I think he has top 10 potential with a floor that’s higher than most believe. At $12, I couldn’t pass up the upside.

Jordy Nelson is one of those guys whose play will regress some in 2012, but I don’t think it will decline to the extent that many believe. His efficiency was off of the charts last year, and that won’t be reproduced. Nelson had only 93 targets in 2011, however, and I think a modest increase in targets should compensate for at least some of the projected decline in efficiency. Plus, he plays in an explosive offense where he’ll rarely see double coverage. He’s not a big risk, in my opinion. Even if he doesn’t recreate his 2012 season, I still think he’s worth the $20.

Darrius is another guy who isn’t suited for PPR, but whose value subsequently dropped too far because of it, in my view. Amazing upside without too much risk.

 

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys’ Top 5 Individual Seasons of Last Decade

Jonathan Bales

My latest post at the team site is about the Cowboys’ top five individual seasons in the last 10 years:

5. Miles Austin – 2009

Statistically, Austin’s 2009 campaign is one of the best in Cowboys’ history. It is the story behind it, though, that makes his emergence so incredible. Heading into 2009, Austin had racked up 18 total receptions in three years in the NFL. Dallas fans knew Austin as the kid who sported the ear-to-ear grin as he watched himself on the Jumbotron returning a kickoff to the house in the Cowboys’ infamous 2007 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. So to say expectations for Austin were low heading into 2009 is an understatement.

Then, after four relatively quiet weeks to begin the season, Austin exploded for 250 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5, including the game-winning score in overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

All told, Austin ended up posting the sixth-highest single-season receiving yards total in franchise history, behind only Michael Irvin (four times) and Terrell Owens. His 11 touchdowns place him seventh in team history, and the 81 receptions from that 2009 year are the ninth-most for a Cowboy. And, oh yeah, Austin started only nine games that season.

4. Jay Ratliff – 2008

Nose tackles aren’t supposed to put up huge numbers, but Ratliff was an exception in 2008. With only eight career sacks in three seasons heading into 2008, Ratliff wasn’t considered one of the league’s top interior defensive linemen. That changed when Ratliff erupted for 7.5 sacks and 51 tackles in 2008. Both numbers are still career-highs.

At the end of that article, I detail some of the top breakout candidates for Dallas in 2012. We all know Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware will produce, but if the Cowboys get contributions from an unlikely source, their chances of making the playoffs will obviously skyrocket. I’m talking guys like Barry Church, Sean Lissemore, and Bruce Carter.

Someone will be this year’s Laurent Robinson, but who?

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football Links: Running Backs, Regression, and Consistency

Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football for Smart People is flying off of the virtual shelves. You can buy the book in PDF form or paperback (as well as my rankings/projections). Let’s take a look at a few guest posts I’ve done of late:

My latest post at the New York Times was an interview with Michael Fabiano of NFL.com. I respect Michael’s fantasy analysis, and that’s coming from someone who trusts the views of almost no one in the fantasy football world. Here’s a snippet from the article:

What sort of draft strategy do you use? Do you take the best player available or use more of a value-based system?

Fabiano: I use a combination draft system. You can’t get stuck into using a single draft strategy or saying ‘I’m going to target this position in this round.’ Your draft strategy needs to be flexible. Still, I’m always looking for value, no matter where I’m picking.

I used to always draft running backs early, but those times have changed. I still think you should consider elite running backs in the first round, but I often take a quarterback there now. One of the main reasons for that is because quarterbacks are so safe. I know what I’m getting with Aaron Rodgers, and that consistency is valuable in the first round. You can’t be sure of what you’re getting with some of the running backs, even a guy like Ryan Mathews.

You listed Brady as the best choice at No. 5 if Rodgers is off of the board. What’s the reasoning behind him over Calvin Johnson or Ryan Mathews? Is it an attempt to minimize risk?

Fabiano: Yes, I want the safest players in that area. One thing I know is that I won’t be taking a wide receiver in the first round this year. The only option anywhere in the round is Calvin Johnson, but he’ll be gone by the time I’d take him in the back of the first round. He’s going around the fifth pick, and in that range I’d be looking for a quarterback.

The reason I’d take Brady there (or Rodgers, if he’s available) is, again, consistency. I know Brady is going to put up big numbers if he’s healthy. He’s done it for years, and he’s just a safe bet. There’s really no risk there. Even a great receiver like Johnson has some risk.

That’s the reason I have Rodgers ranked No. 2 over all on my board. Even though there are a few elite running backs, I just can’t pass up the sure thing in Rodgers. He’s unlikely to get hurt and I know he’ll be a top quarterback.

Last week, I posted a section from a chapter of my book over at Fantasy Knuckleheads. Here is Part II of the chapter:

Running backs who garner a large number of touches in a season are generally more likely to see a drop in production and health in the following year, but this information is both insignificant and irrelevant.

Think about what it takes to acquire nearly 400 touches in a season. For one, a running back needs to be healthy. Really healthy. Secondly, chances are he is running efficiently. Running backs who average 3.5 yards-per-carry over the first half of the season don’t generally continue to see the 24 carries a game needed to break the 370 threshold. Thus, our sample size of high-carry backs is skewed by those performing well.

This is where regression toward the mean comes in. By filtering out injured and underperforming backs, selecting those with a high number of carries means we are selecting the outliers in more areas than one. We aren’t isolating the numbers based on carries, but rather based on health and efficiency as well. So when we make conclusions concerning health and efficiency, all we’re really saying is players who have unusual health and a higher-than-normal YPC are likely to have worse health and a lower YPC the following year. Uh, yeah. . .no crap.

I recently did a post on Kendall Wright’s 2012 fantasy value for Music City Miracles:

  • Rookie wide receivers possess little value.

In my book, I talk about the risks of drafting rookie receivers. Take a look at the top rookie wide outs from the past five seasons. Even in today’s pass-happy NFL, rookie receivers simply don’t make much of an impact. Going into 2012, second-year receiver A.J. Green is getting selected as high as the third round in fantasy drafts. Still, Green-2011′s top rookie receiver-was just 14th in points among all receivers.

And Green is actually an outlier. In 2010, the top rookie receiver was Dez Bryant. He checked in 41st among all receivers in fantasy points, meaning he wasn’t even good enough to start in three-receiver leagues. In 2009,Percy Harvin led all rookie receivers, but still managed to total only the 25th-most fantasy points at the position.DeSean Jackson led rookie receivers in 2008 at 29th place, and Dwayne Bowe set the pace the previous season at 24th. Even the great Calvin Johnson was the 35th-ranked wide receiver in his rookie year.

Simply stated, you can’t rely on rookie receivers in the short-term. At best, the draft’s most elite rookie receivers can be counted on as low-end third options at the position.

A big part of my book is using season-to-season consistency ratings to generate accurate projections. I showed an example of how to do that at RotoWire, where I used the consistency of a few stats to show you how to make quarterback projections:

Volatility isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Let’s take a look at Joe Flacco, whose passing stats are as consistent as that of any player I’ve ever witnessed. Over the past three seasons, Flacco has thrown for 3,613 yards, 3,622 yards, and 3,610 yards. As Peter Griffin would say, “holy freakin’ crap.” Further, Flacco’s touchdown totals have been 21, 25, and 20, and his interceptions have added up to 12, 10, and 12. When I project Flacco for 3,600 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2012, I can be pretty darn confident in that prediction.

In the stats world, Flacco’s projected fantasy output has a very low standard deviation. Simulate 1,000 seasons, and chances are Flacco would come close to 3,600/22/11 more often than not. As a late-round pick, however, that isn’t a good thing. When risk is low, we want to fill our rosters with guys whose play is more volatile, and thus possesses more upside. If our 14th-round pick is a bust, it doesn’t have the same negative impact as missing in the first round.

I just did a guest post over at Gang Green Nation comparing Tim Tebow to Mark Sanchez as a backup fantasy quarterback. I actually think Tebow is a superior option. He’s set to get a ton of looks in the red zone, and he could win the starting job at some point during the season. Here’s a preview of the post:

At the time of this writing, Sanchez and Tebow are getting selected at almost the exact same spot in fantasy drafts (29th and 28th among quarterbacks, respectively). Even if you project Sanchez to score more points than Tebow, Sanchez shouldn’t be on your radar. In the late rounds, your goal as a fantasy owner is to maximize upside. Whereas you want to select safe players early, you should actually seek volatile players with high ceilings late in your draft.

If everything goes right for Sanchez in 2012, he might be a good No. 2 quarterback on your team. Since you’ll be drafting him as a backup anyway, there’s little chance that Sanchez outperforms his draft spot by a wide margin.

In comparison, Tebow has legitimate No. 1 quarterback potential. If he throws for only 75 yards, rushes for 70 yards and scores a touchdown on the ground, he’d score the same number of fantasy points as Sanchez passing for 250 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Simply put, Tebow has more ways to score. His average game is the same as Sanchez’s elite game from a fantasy perspective.

My last post at Pro Football Focus was a comparison between running backs’ average draft position and their 2011 efficiency. From the article:

To determine efficiency at the running back position, I created a measure called Efficiency Rating. Shown in the graph below, Efficiency Rating is calculated as follows: (Overall PFF Grade/Snaps)*100. By dividing a player’s overall production by his snaps, we can get a better sense of how efficient he was while on the field. I multiplied by 100 simply for the sake of obtaining more usable ratings. Below are the results of the top 30 running backs in terms of overall PFF grades. All ADP figures are courtesy of My Fantasy League.

Head over to PFF to check out the rankings. Some of them may surprise you.

Finally, I did a guest post over at Music City Miracles detailing Kendall Wright’s fantasy football value in 2012 and beyond. As I explained in my article on Justin Blackmon, I tend to avoid rookie receivers. Here’s my assessment of Wright’s dynasty value:

Dynasty/Keeper Leagues

There are monumental differences between redraft and dynasty draft strategy, and Wright’s value to dynasty owners is sensational. Here’s why. . .

  • Wright has a supporting cast.

One of the biggest mistakes made by fantasy owners is drafting wide receivers who play in weak offenses. Whereas running backs can benefit from an abundance of touches, receivers put up fantasy points through efficiency as opposed to bulk looks. Total carries are far more strongly correlated to running back fantasy points than targets are to wide receiver points.

Take a look at the premiere fantasy wide outs from 2011; Calvin Johnson, Jordy NelsonWes Welker, andVictor Cruz led the league in points. The Lions had a breakout season, the Packers racked up 15 wins, thePatriots are the Patriots, and the Giants won the Super Bowl.

With Jake Locker at the helm, Chris Johnson in the backfield, Kenny Britt outside, and Jared Cook patrolling the middle of the field, Wright will always have people to take off the pressure.

  • Wide receivers get selected too late in dynasty leagues.

Fantasy owners often don’t deviate too much from their redraft strategy in dynasty leagues. This means they wait on rookie receivers because the first-year value isn’t there. If you’re willing to draft a young gun and wait it out, you can acquire great career value with rookie receivers. You’ll lose a late-round pick in 2012, but Wright could begin producing starting-caliber fantasy points as soon as 2013.

BUY THE BOOK MO’FOs.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys’ Top 5 Training Camp Battles

Jonathan Bales

It seems like the offseason flew by this year, and training camp is right around the corner. Of course it is fun to watch players like DeMarcus Ware and Tony Romo, but more interesting to me is checking out the players battling for starting positions. At DallasCowboys.com, I took a look at the ‘Boys’ top five position battles in 2012:

OLB: Victor Butler versus Kyle Wilber

In my list of the Cowboys’ most underrated players, Butler checked in at the top. Butler has pressured the passer on 7.0 percent of pass-rush snaps over his career – a rate higher than that of Anthony Spencer and not too far behind Ware.

There are obviously concerns about Butler’s overall game because he has never received more than 233 snaps in a season. On top of that, the ’Boys went out and drafted outside linebacker Kyle Wilber a few months ago.

Wilber is perhaps a more well-rounded player than Butler, but with 13.5 career sacks at Wake Forest, does he have the pass rush ability to challenge for a starting spot one day? In comparison, Butler racked up 12 sacks in his senior season alone at Oregon State. I have a feeling Butler is going to turn some heads in a few weeks, but this will be a fun one to watch.

Advantage: Butler

ILB: Bruce Carter versus Dan Connor

The Brandon Carr signing was obviously the biggest of the offseason for Dallas, but bringing Connor into Big D was a huge move as well. The ’Boys finally possess some depth at inside linebacker.

A few weeks before the Cowboys signed Connor, I did some research on available inside linebacker prospects and made a plea for the team to bring him in. Of the 50 linebackers who played at least one-quarter of their teams snaps in 2011, Connor was second in tackle rate.

Only 14 linebackers made a tackle on more than 10 percent of the snaps they played. Connor checked in at 11.7 percent. In comparison, Sean Lee made a tackle on 9.3 percent of his snaps, Bradie James brought down the ball-carrier on 8.5 percent of snaps, and Keith Brooking came in at 8.3 percent.

With Connor likely patrolling the field on early downs, Carter may have a shot at winning nickel snaps. The Cowboys seem to like his prowess in coverage. Still, Carter is a huge unknown at this point. The team did the right thing by bringing in a proven commodity in Connor, but Carter has the potential to really “wow” during camp and perhaps even cut into some of those early-down snaps.

Advantage: Connor on first and second down, Carter on third down.

Head to the team site to read the rest.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Top 5 Most Crucial Players on Dallas Cowboys

Jonathan Bales

My latest submission to DallasCowboys.com details the team’s top five most critical players. This was a very difficult piece to write because there are so many “mini keystones” who, if injured, would be sorely missed. To give you an idea of how valuable the top five core players are to the Cowboys, take a look at my top five who didn’t make the cut:

The Best of the Rest

Any of these players could have easily made my list of the Cowboys’ top five most crucial players. For most, the depth at their position, not their own talent, kept them from cracking the top five.

5. Brandon Carr

Before the Cowboys signed Carr, I wrote a piece detailing why he should be their man over fellow free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Carr allowed less than 50 percent of passes his way to be completed in 2011, picking off more passes than touchdowns he allowed. Quarterbacks registered just a 61.7 passer rating when targeting Carr. With outstanding cornerback depth for the first time in a long time, though, Carr’s indispensability isn’t as great as it would have been in past seasons.

4. Dan Bailey

Bailey was outstanding for the ’Boys in 2011, hitting on 32 of 37 field goal attempts, including a bunch of clutch kicks. The efficiency of kickers tends to fluctuate quite dramatically, however, so Bailey will need to prove himself again in 2012.

3. Sean Lee

Based solely on production, Lee should be in the top five. His 105 tackles last season led the defense by a wide margin. Lee might have made it into the top five, too, prior to the Cowboys’ signing of Dan Connor. I love the Connor acquisition and, combined with second-year linebacker Bruce Carter, the Cowboys have some depth inside.

2. Dez Bryant

Perhaps the team’s top breakout candidate, Bryant adds a vertical dimension to the offense. Bryant was superb in the first half in particular last season, racking up 58.7 percent of his receptions, 60.1 percent of his yards, and 77.8 percent of his touchdowns in the game’s first two quarters. With improved conditioning heading into this season, you’ll probably see Bryant rise on this list next year.

1. DeMarco Murray

Murray is absolutely critical to the team and it was difficult leaving him out of the top five. He certainly added a much-needed spark to the offense last season, but don’t forget that the Cowboys still have a productive-when-healthy running back in Felix Jones.

Head to the team site to check out the top five. Some are obvious, but at least a couple aren’t. Which players do you disagree with, and which deserve consideration?

By Jonathan Bales

Will the Cowboys Win 8 Games in 2012?

A couple of weeks ago, we had an awesome guest post on Tony Romo from Frank DuPont of FantasyDouche.com. Today’s article is courtesy of reader Derek Smith. If you think you have what it takes to post on The DC Times, send me your stuff.

—————————————————————–

Will the Cowboys Win 8 Games in 2012?

Football Outsiders (FO) has released its 2012 Almanac, and the Dallas Cowboys section is offered as the free sample. If you haven’t already read the section on the Cowboys, check it out. It’s a good read and deals with a lot of the ‘Boys’ possible concerns. I want to take a look at the section from a more fan’s point of view, however.

FO projects 7.5 wins for the Cowboys. To me, that’s not a horrible number. The Cowboys have a lot of question marks this year, played fairly poor last year, and their division is looking strong. The Eagles, in particular, will be a threat because they won’t go on an early-season slump again. The Cowboys will face the Eagles late in the season when the games will be more meaningful in regards to playoff implications.

FO notes that the Cowboys had a major defensive weakness on third downs. While the Cowboys were good against the run, they were really bad against the pass. Ironically (or maybe not), they were worse on third and long than on third and short. This is a problem, however, that has been addressed. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne should be a tandem that is at least comparable to the early days of Newman and Jenkins. Whether Jenkins remains on the team or not, at least we can rejoice in the fact that Alan Ball is no longer on the roster.

FO also points out that the Cowboys performed worse defensively when they sent more rushers in 2011. This seems to be connected to the poor third down performance. Hopefully, the Cowboys can figure out how to get suitable pressure with fewer rushers. Maybe Rob Ryan can figure out what was wrong with using five or more rushers and make sending more guys effective this year. It should help that Keith Brooking and Bradie James are gone, as they both seemed to have lost the ability to penetrate on blitzes (and to do much else at an above average level).

FO says that it is unlikely that Claiborne will have a good year. They cite a list of recent first-round cornerback stats as evidence that Claiborne probably won’t have a solid season. A scan of the list, however, shows that most of the rookie first-round picks played fairly well. Though Patrick Peterson, last year’s top cornerback, had some struggles at the position, he still played well in his first season. A similar season from Claiborne would be beneficial to Dallas.

Moreover, draft analysts have said that Claiborne looks to be better than Peterson as a cornerback prospect. Mike Jenkins, even, had a solid rookie year. There’s no reason to think that Claiborne won’t be better than Jenkins. Actually, it seems that Claiborne has a good chance to be better than present-day Jenkins, too.

FO says that the offensive line is the weak link this year. This could be true. We all have more hope than optimism about the offensive line. FO’s stats show that Tyron Smith was a problem when running to the right side, but Smith graded out well last year, and he can only get better. It seems foolish to think that Smith won’t produce a strong run-blocking year.

According to FO, the Cowboys’ line projects as a first-rounder, two seventh-rounders, and two undrafted players. While FO made a mistake on Doug Free (fourth-rounder), they’re right that the line is built with mainly Day 3 picks. It really shouldn’t matter how a player entered the league when they come to a team in free agency, though. The fact is, they have shown they can play; the place where they got drafted is meaningless.

What is meaningful is that there are a lot of issues with the offensive line. A lot is expected of Smith, and it’s certainly possible that he won’t deliver on such high expectations, especially at a new position. Nate Livings has been a starter, but he’s been up-and-down during his NFL career thus far. Phil Costa has gotten better, but will there be too many botched snaps this year, and is “better” good enough? Mackenzy Bernadeau is a huge question mark with a bad hip, and Ronald Leary is an unknown commodity with a degenerative knee condition. Perhaps Doug Free is the safest bet for a good season this year at right tackle, despite his poor 2011 season. My biggest fear is that the line will miss Kyle Kosier. Even as a gimp, he helped stabilize the line and was always better than average.

FO claims that the Cowboys’ new offensive line Coach, Bill Callahan, has said that Livings or Bill Nagy could unseat Costa at center. We can forgive them their mistaking Livings and Bernadeau, but with Bernadeau’s injury, it certainly appears that it’s in the team’s best interest to stick with Costa. After all, an offensive line should be strong in communication to be consistent and perform well, and the center is the biggest part of that. The center, too, must be on the same page as Tony Romo.

The bottom line is that the Cowboys are hard to project this year. The offensive line could be a weakness, or it could even be a strength. Hell, it could be a weakness (as it was for the Giants last year) and still be overcome. It certainly looks like the Cowboys will be better this year than last: a better secondary, superior linebackers, a better defensive line, comparable receivers (with health), better running backs, an addition-through-subtraction at tight end, and the same old-but-not-too-old, trusty quarterback.

Even with all of that, though, the NFC East will be brutal this year. So, while I can see why FO would predict 7.5 wins for Dallas, it also would have been understandable for them to have projected 10 wins. The Dallas Cowboys are just that unpredictable heading into the 2012 season.

————————————————-

Thanks to Derek for sending in the great article.

By Jonathan Bales

2012 Fantasy Football Links: Quarterback Projections, ESPN, and Regression

Jonathan Bales

I’m still on the fantasy football circuit, and I’ve published a bunch of unique content over the past few days.

  • My latest article in my RotoWire column deals with making quarterback projections. Specifically, I discuss how to utilize the consistency of various quarterback stats.
  • At Fantasy Knuckleheads, I published part of a chapter of my book Fantasy Football for Smart People. The chapter, called Identifying Value: Regression, Randomness, and Running Backs, details how you can “buy low” on players whose play is likely to improve due to regression toward the mean. Check back later this week for Part II.
  • At the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog, I published an interview I had with ESPN fantasy sports deputy editor Eric Karabell. We compared notes on the upcoming fantasy football season.
  • After some email and Twitter requests, I will be selling my 2012 fantasy football projections and rankings. They are currently on sale for $2.99. You get a PDF with my rankings and overvalued/undervalued players, as well as an Excel spreadsheet with projections and rankings. You can easily customize the projections to fit your league scoring system.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Why the Running Game Is Still Important

Jonathan Bales

My article on the “Top Five Reasons the Running Game Is Still Important” was posted at DallasCowboys.com on Friday. Here’s reason No. 5:

5. Rushing efficiency helps close out games.

Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys win football games by passing the ball effectively. In my article on why the team should throw more, I wrote:

“It’s obvious that teams drastically alter their play-calling late in games as their probable fate becomes clearer, creating an imbalance in the overall ratio. By ignoring fourth quarter plays, we can get a better sense of what really wins football games.

“Despite a winning percentage of only .276 since 2008 when throwing on over 57 percent of all plays, the Cowboys have a much gaudier winning percentage of .636 when throwing on more than 57 percent of plays in the first three quarters. That is, the ‘Boys get the lead by throwing the ball often, then keep it by milking the clock with the run. Over that same timeframe, the Cowboys have managed just a .419 winning percentage when they’ve passed the ball less than 57 percent of the time through the first three quarters.”

When the ‘Boys pass early and often, they tend to win. At the end of games, however, running the ball with success becomes critical. In Week 6 of the 2011 season, the Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to the Patriots in New England. Up 16-13 with 3:36 remaining in the contest, head coach Jason Garrett called three straight runs. The offense gained five total yards on those plays.

Rushing efficiency can help teams when a football game is no longer about point maximization, i.e. when doing everything possible to score isn’t necessarily the best option. Many times, such as in the Cowboys-Patriots matchup, draining the clock is more important than increasing the likelihood of scoring a touchdown on a particular drive.

Had the Cowboys converted a first down via the run, they almost assuredly would have taken down the Patriots in that game. For all we know, the entire season may have unfolded differently. The point is that the importance of passing over running diminishes as the clock becomes a bigger factor in the outcome of games.

I talk a lot about how much more important passing is over running, and it is. The best NFL teams are those that throw the ball most efficiently. Still, running the ball has its place in the NFL, even if it is primarily to help set up the pass. For the Cowboys, the most critical area for running improvement is short-yardage. If the offense can win those 3rd and 1 battles this season, things could look a whole lot brighter in Dallas in 2012.