The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Potential Cowboys Picks: Kenny Vaccaro and Eric Fisher

At Dallas News, I explained my methodology when assessing prospects.

Throughout the season, the majority of my analysis has been data-driven: how much do the Cowboys motion, when should the team use play-action passes, how often does DeMarcus Ware rush the passer? I watch game film to collect that data, but I do so in a much different manner than when a scout watches tape of a college prospect.

When I break down Cowboys games, I typically watch each play five or so times. The first couple replays are purely for quantitative purposes: I track personnel, formations, pass length, run location, and so on. Those aspects of a play are more or less objective—not really subject to interpretation. On the last few replays, my analysis is more qualitative, i.e. I watch player technique and the overall development of the play. The latter sort of study is traditionally the type scouts perform.

As the draft approaches, my analysis will shift from mainly quantitative to primarily qualitative. The chief reason for the switch is that, well, college stats don’t mean much. It’s useful information to understand how many yards Jason Witten gained per route he ran in 2012, for example, because that data can be used to predict future success. When studying college tight end prospects, however, such information isn’t particularly pragmatic; it doesn’t help predict NFL success in a major way.

That’s not to say that all player evaluation is entirely qualitative. After the NFL Combine, there will be a lot more quantitative data out there on players—40 times, vertical leaps, and so on—and that information is typically useful. Bigger and faster is almost always better, and there’s a strong correlation between Combine performance and NFL success. It’s easy to point out when “workout warriors” fail in the NFL, but for the most part, the best players are the biggest, strongest, quickest, and fastest. Don’t believe me? Look at the size and speed of the NFL’s top receivers in 2012.

Read the entire thing at DMN.

Later, I posted a scouting report on Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher.

Scouting Report

Perhaps the most important and overlooked aspect of playing offensive tackle is arm length. Offensive tackles need to have long arms to ward off rushers before they can get into the tackles’ bodies and ruin their leverage. We’ll see how Fisher measures out at the Combine, but he’ll likely have some of the longest arms in Indianapolis.

Fisher is relatively light when you consider his height, making him extremely nimble. The “dancing bear” analogy we hear so often for athletic offensive tackles fits Fisher perfectly. Despite his height, he’s really a “finesse” offensive tackle.

When people hear that, they automatically assume a guy can’t block in the running game, but that’s not necessarily true. I think Fisher gets a bad rap as a run blocker because he doesn’t destroy defenders off of the line. He’s not a “mauler” in any sense, but he’s still a quality run blocker because he uses outstanding body position.

Pancake blocks are nice, but all you really want from your offensive linemen is consistently getting between the defender and the ball-carrier. Fisher does that. If there’s one area of the running game in which he could struggle, it’s short-yardage situations. Since he’s so tall, Fisher has trouble firing off of the ball while still maintaining a low enough pad level to drive defenders backward.

Check out the entire post.

And finally, I published a scouting report on Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Scouting Report

Vaccaro is a versatile player who could play a variety of positions in the NFL. At Texas, he spent the majority of his time playing in the slot, usually in zone coverage. Even at his size, Vaccaro played well from this position due to his quickness and positioning. He’s a really smart football player who understands leverage and defensive philosophies; if Vaccaro got “beat,” it was typically to an area of the field where he knew he had help.

Vaccaro’s untraditional positioning for a safety is one reason he had so many tackles. He was typically lined up near the line and was able to make a lot of tackles on quick screens against teams like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Vaccaro does a good job of fighting through traffic—he can get off of any receiver’s block—but I actually think he struggles tackling in the open field. That won’t be a popular thing to say but the truth is that Vaccaro didn’t tackle well from the traditional deep safety position he’ll likely play in the NFL. He’s a very willing tackler, which is of course good, but he fails to properly break down and overruns a lot of plays. Turn on the Oklahoma State game from this year and watch how many tackles Vaccaro missed.

See the whole scouting report at NBC.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Not All Penalties Created Equal

In what I promise will be my last article about penalties in at least, say, a week, I took a final look at the Cowboys’ 2012 penalty issues.

In 2012, the effects were greater than ever before with successful teams like the Colts, Falcons, Broncos, Patriots and Packers ranked in the top 10 in penalty-yard differential and poor squads like the Rams, Lions, Bills, Jaguars and, yes, your Dallas Cowboys all ranked in the bottom 10 in penalty-yard differential. Overall, top-10 teams in terms of penalty yards won an average of 9.6 games, while the bottom 10 teams averaged only 7.1 wins.

This year wasn’t an aberration for Dallas, either. Over the past six seasons, the Cowboys have ranked in the bottom six in the NFL each year in total penalties. That’s six straight seasons ranked 27th or worse! If there’s ever been evidence that penalties remain relatively stable from year to year (they do), the Cowboys are it.

It’s pretty remarkable that the Cowboys have been able to overcome the penalties to post a 55-41 record since 2007, but it’s still frustrating to wonder what could have been. Well, by tracking the situations in which the Cowboys’ penalties have come over the past six years, we can calculate how many wins they’ve forfeited over that time – exactly what “could have been.” Certain penalties, say an offsides penalty on third-and-1, have affected the Cowboys’ chances of winning more than others. All told, the ’Boys have “lost” just under three extra games due solely to penalties, or about half a game per year. Put another way, Dallas has suffered a 50 percent chance of losing an extra game each season simply because of penalties.

Check out the whole article at DallasCowboys.com.

By Jonathan Bales

Final 2012 Cowboys Player Rankings

I just posted my final player rankings for the Cowboys in 2012.

On Monday, I published final 2012 grades for the majority of the Cowboys’ roster. You can see full analysis of select players at the links above.

Today, I’m going to rank each player and compare my grade with the grades all of you provided them earlier this year. For grades that differ by a wide margin, I’ll explain my reasoning. Remember, my grades are based on efficiency—how well each player performed while in the game—not on total production.

2012 Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings

1. CB Orlando Scandrick: A

  • Your Grade: NG

Had the public provided a grade for Scandrick, I’m confident it wouldn’t have come close to approaching my “A” grade. Scandrick’s 2012 season was marred by a handful of poor plays that are easy to recall, but he allowed only 5.7 YPA and just over half of throws his way were completed.

2. LB Sean Lee: A-

  • Your Grade: A

3. WR Dez Bryant: A-

  • Your Grade: A

4. OLB Anthony Spencer: A-

  • Your Grade: A

5. S Barry Church: A-

  • Your Grade: NG

See the rest at Dallas News.

By Jonathan Bales

Ezekiel Ansah, Sheldon Richardson Scouting Reports

At NBC, I started my annual “Potential Cowboys Draft Picks” series. I began with analysis on BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.

Scouting Report

At 6’6’’, 270 pounds, Ansah has ideal size for either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. He has good natural strength, although his functional, in-game strength isn’t up to NFL standards just yet. The potential is there to add some bulk without decreasing quickness, so you could see big strides from Ansah after his first season in the NFL when he can go through an entire offseason routine.

Ansah can still play powerfully because he’s fast and explosive. As a pass-rusher, he has an excellent bull-rush because he can reach top speed quickly and drive offensive tackles into the backfield. His pass-rush repertoire isn’t vast at this point, and a lot of his pressure came on stunts at BYU.

Ansah also played inside at times in college, although he looks more comfortable on the outside. He doesn’t consistently win at the point-of-attack, so teams will likely run right at him in his rookie season. Ansah can still play the run well when it’s away from him; his pursuit and play recognition, in particular, are both much better than you’d think for someone without much football experience.

See the rest at NBC.

Today, I followed it up with a scouting report on Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

Scouting Report

At 6’4’’, 295 pounds, Richardson’s athleticism is off the charts. When Richardson enters the league, don’t be surprised if he immediately becomes the fastest defensive tackle in the NFL; he’s that explosive. Richardson should light up the Combine; combined with his game tape, it’s a recipe for rising up draft boards.

With his skill set, Richardson will be a one-gap player in the NFL. He’s at his best when he can penetrate and use his quickness to make plays. I’ve seen reports that he’s a very strong player but, considering his size, I don’t think that’s accurate. Richardson can play powerfully when he shoots gaps and uses his speed to knock defenders into the backfield, but as it stands right now, he won’t consistently hold up at the point, i.e. he’s not a two-gap player who can stand his ground and shed blockers.

The good news is that Richardson could easily add some bulk, if necessary. I personally think he should stay below 300 pounds to maintain his elite quickness, but he could get to 305 or 310 pounds and still be an explosive player on the inside. As you’d expect, Richardson is phenomenal in pursuit, scraping down the line-of-scrimmage like a big linebacker.

Check out the entire scouting report at NBC.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Links: Marty B, Jason Witten, and Final Grades

Do the Cowboys miss Marty B?

Prior to the 2012 season, I explained why Bennett’s true value was far greater than what most saw, even writing “With all the gags Bennett played on teammates and media during his time in Dallas, his biggest trick may have been convincing fans he wasn’t an integral component of the team’s success.” The truth is that Bennett was the best blocker in Dallas—even perhaps the premiere blocking tight end in the NFL.

Bennett was far more dominant in the running game and pass protection than just about anyone realized. Over his last three seasons in Dallas, Cowboys running backs averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry when Bennett was at the point-of-attack. Yes, I’m talking about the same team that averaged 3.6 YPC in 2012 and 4.5 YPC in the previous three seasons.

Read the whole post at NBC.

Jason Witten had a career year. Or did he?

Despite the increased targets, Witten’s efficiency wasn’t better than in past seasons. Actually, it was worse. One of the best stats we can use to determine how often a receiver gets open and makes plays is the number of yards they gain per pass route they run. It’s superior to yards-per-catch or even yards-per-target because it punishes receivers for failing to get open. In analyzing Witten’s past yards-per-route, there’s an obvious trend.

Witten’s efficiency has decreased every year since 2008. The fact that Witten saw his worst efficiency in a half-decade in a season in which he caught 110 passes is pretty alarming. There’s almost zero chance that the tight end will catch 110 passes again in 2013, yet it’s probable that the trend we see above, a decline in yards-per-route, is on the way.

Check out the whole article at DallasCowboys.com.

And at Dallas News, I posted the rest of my 2012 player grades.

Up to this point, I’ve provided analysis and grades for the 17 players listed above. That’s only a fraction of the roster, but the truth is that with all of the injuries the Cowboys suffered in 2012, only a handful of players received enough snaps to warrant an in-depth breakdown. The rest of my grades—for the John Phillips, Cole Beasley, and Sean Lissemore-esque players—are listed below. The only players to not receive grades are those who played fewer than 100 snaps.

Offense

  • WR Kevin Ogletree: D+

For someone who has Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten drawing coverage, a 58.2 percent catch rate is really poor.

  • WR Dwayne Harris: B+

Harris outperformed Ogletree in every aspect of wide receiver play and he offers return ability as well. He should enter 2013 as the No. 3 receiver.

  • WR Cole Beasley: C-

It’s really tough to make contributions at any position when you’re only 5’8’’. I was high on Beasley at one point, but he managed only 5.3 yards-per-target as a rookie and didn’t show a consistent ability to separate underneath.

  • RB Felix Jones: D+

Jones’ career YPC since his rookie season: 8.9, 5.9, 4.3, 4.5, and 3.6.

  • TE John Phillips: C-

Phillips lost his job to James Hanna due to poor development as a receiver, but his blocking isn’t nearly as good as most believe.

  • TE James Hanna: C+

Hanna needs to get stronger at the point, but he showed improvement as a pass-catcher as the 2012 season progressed.

  • FB Lawrence Vickers: C-

Backs averaged just over three YPC with Vickers at the point. He did a fine job as Romo’s “personal protector” on third downs.

Check out all of the grades at DMN.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football: Size or Speed for Wide Receivers?

At RotoWire, I took a look at how much speed affects wide receiver production in the NFL.

As I mentioned in my analysis of running back 40-yard dash times, the 2008 NFL Combine was littered with unreal speed at the running back position. Chris Johnson (4.24) led the way, but Darren McFadden (4.33), Jamaal Charles (4.38), Rashard Mendenhall (4.41), Ray Rice (4.42), Felix Jones (4.44), Matt Forte (4.44), Steve Slaton (4.45), and Jonathan Stewart (4.46) all burned up the track as well. Their subsequent success in the NFL isn’t atypical; the majority of the league’s top running backs can fly. Very few backs over the past decade have been able to overcome running 4.50+ times.

In the same 2008 Combine, the wide receiver class was just as fast; twenty receivers ran sub-4.5 times. Unlike the running backs, though, the receivers haven’t fared too well in the big leagues. DeSean Jackson (4.35) has thus far been the best of the bunch, followed by Eddie Royal (4.39) and Pierre Garcon (4.42). Other names who tore it up in Indianapolis that year include Dexter Jackson (4.33), Arman Shields (4.37), Will Franklin (4.37), Devin Thomas (4.40), Brandon Breazell (4.41), Keenan Burton (4.44), and James Hardy (4.45), among others.

More speed is never a bad thing, but it “matters” more at certain positions. Cornerbacks, for example, need to have the recovery speed to catch up to receivers, so it’s rare to see any successful cornerback run above a 4.50. We saw the same phenomenon with running backs, which was a bit unexpected. When we analyze wide receivers, the fastest ones have understandably had more success than others, but perhaps not to the degree you’d expect.

Check out the entire article at RotoWire.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Should Run Outside More Often

At NBC, I explained why I think the Cowboys should run outside of the tackles more often.

Whether running to the left or right, Jason Garrett preferred to keep it inside in general in 2012. The Cowboys ran outside of the tackles only 89 times all year, representing just over one-quarter of their rushes. But why? Below, I’ve broken down the Cowboys’ 2012 rushes into a few different categories in an attempt to discover how much risk and upside running to specific areas of the field holds.

Runs Inside Tackles: 237

  • Negative Runs: 21 (8.9 percent)
  • Five-Plus Yards: 68 (28.7 percent)
  • 10-Plus Yards: 13 (5.5 percent)
  • 15-Plus Yards: 6 (2.5 percent)

Runs Outside Tackles: 89

  • Negative Runs: 15 (16.9 percent)
  • Five-Plus Yards: 33 (37.1 percent)
  • 10-plus Yards: 8 (9.0 percent)
  • 15-plus Yards: 4 (4.5 percent)

Check out the whole article at NBC.

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys: Tony Romo 2012 Grade

My final in-depth report card of the year goes to Tony Romo.

We can debate the value of Mackenzy Bernadeau all day, but the intrigue and contrasting opinions surrounding any player on the Cowboys will never approach that of Tony Romo. The degree to which views on Romo differ is undoubtedly greater than it is for any player in Dallas, and perhaps anyone in the entire NFL. From “he’s an elite quarterback without much help” to “Where is Kyle Orton?”, we can’t seem to come to a consensus on Romo’s true value as a quarterback.

The Numbers

Fair or not, it’s become commonplace to grade quarterbacks solely on team wins. If that’s the only criteria we use to judge Romo in 2012, he obviously did a mediocre job in leading the Cowboys to an 8-8 record. It’s interesting that so many people value bulk stats when it comes to players like Jason Witten, but (quite accurately) dismiss those with quarterbacks. Romo threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, and no one seems to care. Nor should they, really, because bulk stats are meaningless without an understanding of efficiency.

In terms of efficiency, Romo had perhaps his worst season in the NFL. Below, I charted Romo’s passer rating and YPA since 2006 in terms of how closely he was to reaching his career-high in each category.

Romo’s passer rating was the worst it has ever been in his career at only 88.3 percent of its peak. That’s concerning, but not to the same degree as Romo’s low YPA. Averaging just 7.57 YPA, Romo’s efficiency was the lowest it has ever been in a full season. Unlike passer rating, YPA isn’t skewed by touchdowns and interceptions—both relatively low-frequency events that are somewhat fluky. While there’s certainly reason to be concerned over Romo’s 19 interceptions, the fact that he turned in such a low YPA should be even scarier because it’s more representative of Romo’s true play.

Of course, Romo’s 2012 season will be marred by a recency bias—the tendency to inflate the importance of the most recent events—because he showed horribly against the Redskins in Week 17. Many will use that as evidence that Romo doesn’t play well late in the season (or late in games, or in close games), but they shouldn’t. Prior to 2012, Romo was just as good late in the season as he was earlier, and he even posted a higher passer rating in the fourth quarter than the first three.

See the rest, including the grade, at Dallas Morning News.

By Jonathan Bales

Tony Romo’s 2012 Stats Versus the Blitz

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down Romo’s 2012 stats against various defensive looks.

Coming into the 2012 season, quarterback Tony Romo generally performed about as well against the blitz as he did when defenses sent four or fewer rushers. From 2009 to 2011, his 93.7 overall passer rating against the blitz was comparable to his rating when not blitzed.

However, Romo has traditionally been at his best when defenses don’t disguise their intentions; that is, when defenses showed blitz and then sent five or more rushers, Romo has thrived. It’s when defenses try to fool Romo by either faking a blitz or lining up conservatively and blitzing that the quarterback has struggled.

In 2012, however, we saw a shift in Romo’s play. This year, Romo was actually at his best when defenses disguised their looks. Below, I’ve sorted all of Romo’s throws based on what the defense did pre- and post-snap. The first letter (N or Y) details whether or not the defense showed blitz and the second tells whether or not they indeed sent at least five rushers.

N/N: 255-for-384 (66.4 percent) for 2,897 yards (7.54 YPA), 20 TD, 10 INT

N/Y: 67-for-104 (64.4 percent) for 923 yards (8.88 YPA), 5 TD, 2 INT

Y/N: 48-for-65 (73.8 percent) for 467 yards (7.18 YPA), 0 TD, 1 INT

Y/Y: 55-for-95 (57.9 percent) for 616 yards (6.48 YPA), 3 TD, 6 INT

See the whole post at the team site.

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys: Ryan Cook 2012 Grade

My latest “Grading the ‘Boys” post is up at Dallas News: an analysis of center Ryan Cook.

The Numbers

As I did with every lineman, I tracked the average length of carries behind Cook in 2012. Cook was at the point-of-attack on 105 of his 293 run snaps, and Cowboys running backs averaged 3.41 YPC on those rushes. That number looks poor on the surface, but there’s one reason it’s better than you think. The majority of the runs on which Cook was at the point came with guard Mackenzy Bernadeau—and not Nate Livings—at the point. As I detailed in my analysis of Bernadeau’s season, the guard struggled mightily this year, dragging down the YPC of the blockers around him.

Cook was hardly dominant in the running game, especially when you consider his size, but he was superior to Bernadeau. There’s evidence of that in the location of runs behind Cook; those with Bernadeau also at the point averaged only 3.10 yards. In comparison, rushes with Cook and Livings at the point—and not Bernadeau—totaled 4.40 yards.

In pass protection, Cook was one of the Cowboys’ better performers. Earlier this year, I broke down the pressure and sack rates for Cook and every other lineman. Then, I compared those rates to top players at their respective positions, assigning them a rating of how they stacked up. In those 2012 linemen ratings, Cook—who allowed two sacks and pressure on 2.2 percent of his snaps—received the highest grade. Cook was actually on par with many other top 10 centers from around the league.

See the whole article and Cook’s grade.