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January, 2014 | The DC Times

The DC Times

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

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Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 Round-By-Round Sample Big Board

At Bleacher Report, I published a round-by-round “big board” with a few prospects who might interest Dallas in each round. I posted a couple of those prospects below.

There’s an obvious emphasis on acquiring players who will help in the passing game, on either side of the ball. According to the 2014 Super Bowl odds at TopBet Sportsbook, the Broncos are now 2.5-point favorites over the Seahawks for this weekend’s big game. Part of that is due to the public favoring Denver, but some of it is due to the value of a potent passing attack. Statistically, Denver has the league’s best offense but an average defense, while Seattle has the best defense and an above-average offense. Nonetheless, because of their ability to move the ball through the air, Denver is the favorite to win.

Dallas needs to find players who can either help move the ball through the air or stop opponents from doing it.

Round 1: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

It would be mildly shocking if the Cowboys didn’t come out of the first round with a defensive lineman. They can talk all they want about selecting the best player available, but unless a truly elite player at a position like offensive tackle drops to them, they’re in position to select the best possible defensive lineman.

There are numerous players at both defensive end and defensive tackle who figure to interest the ‘Boys.

Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy is one of those players. At 6’5″, 275 pounds, Ealy figures to have the requisite size and length to excel at the next level. Known for his athleticism and ability to stop the run, he will almost certainly get selected in the first 32 selections.

The primary question mark for him is where the production was. In three years with Missouri, Ealy had only 12.5 sacks. That’s not a good sign. He also had 27 tackles for loss, which is decent but hardly dominant. The good news is that he is still young, so teams will be drafting a player before a potential college breakout, allowing them to potentially land value.

Round 3: Daquan Jones, DT, Penn State

With defensive tackle Jason Hatcher figuring to leave Dallas this year, the Cowboys are so thin at the position that it’s not out of the question that they address it twice within the first few rounds. Thus, even if they draft a defensive tackle early, you could see them come back to a player like Penn State’s DaQuan Jones in the third round.

Jones is a 6’3″, 318-pound defensive tackle who reportedly lost 25 pounds before the 2013 season, according to CBS Sports. That helped him register 56 total tackles, which is a big number for an interior defensive lineman.

However, Jones had only 3.5 sacks in his entire Penn State career, and his arms are under 33 inches long. Those are big-time concerns for a player who could sneak into the second round. For those reasons, I wouldn’t touch Jones in the middle rounds. But he’s listed here because the Cowboys historically care more about “what the tape says” than analytics that are more predictive than traditional scouting.

 

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Do the Cowboys need another wide receiver?

At Bleacher Report, I explained why I think the ‘Boys need another big wide receiver:

If you’re already sick of me writing that the Cowboys need a wide receiver, it’s going to be a long few months. To drill this point home, I’ll try to present my argument from a bunch of different angles.

One way to think about roster construction, in opposition of the “who can we add?” approach, is a “who can we currently not afford to lose?” mentality. In short, find potential leaks in the roster, assume that Murphy’s Law will sprout its ugly face and prepare for the worst.

Outside of quarterback Tony Romo, who is the one player the Cowboys can’t afford to lose? Who is the player who, if lost (or even if not contributing at a high level), could potentially devastate Dallas? The answer is wide receiver Dez Bryant, and it isn’t close.

Bryant is so incredibly important to Dallas because he’s one of the league’s premiere red-zone threats on a team that is otherwise poor at playing in tight areas.

If Bryant were to go down, who can Dallas rely on in the red zone?

Tight end Jason Witten has historically been mediocre at best near the goal line and wide receiver Terrance Williams probably doesn’t have the bulk to be dominant over the long run. I like tight end Gavin Escobar, but who knows if he’ll be utilized often and he’s probably not going to be as good between the 20s.

Yup, the Cowboys’ offense could be devastated if Bryant gets injured or, more likely, is taken out of the game by the defense. Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews can fix that. Here’s what I wrote about him last week:

There are three things I care about in regards to wide receiver success: age, size (namely red-zone relevance) and college stats. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews passes all three tests with flying colors. He’s 21 years old, checked in at 6’3″ at the Senior Bowl and posted at least 94 catches, 1,300 yards and seven touchdowns in each of the past two seasons.

You might argue that Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin also had awesome college stats, but Matthews’ are more impressive. Here’s why. As the guys at rotoViz will tell you, we should analyze receiver stats in terms of market share: the percentage of their team’s overall passing stats for which each player was responsible. Because West Virginia was so effective on offense as a whole, Austin’s market-share numbers weren’t as outstanding as Matthews’ market share stats.

If Matthews is available in the second round, he should become a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

Other Wide Receivers to Watch

Allen Robinson, Penn State (Round 1-2)

Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss (Round 4)

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Why the Cowboys F***ed Up With the Dan Bailey Contract

I recently explained why I don’t like the contract handed to kicker Dan Bailey, and it deals primarily with the ability (or lack thereof) to use past kicker efficiency to predict the same in the future.

How much value does Bailey have over a replacement kicker?

For now, I’m going to bypass the topics of randomness and kicker consistency, instead focusing on how valuable Bailey has been in the past. For the record, giving players contracts based on past play is a quick path to finding yourself in salary cap trouble, as the Cowboys are learning right now. Players need to be paid based on projected future production.

In any event, Bailey has made 89 of his 98 career field goals, which amounts to 90.8 percent. That’s a really high number. Below, I broke down Bailey’s accuracy from different ranges, comparing it to the league average.

Bailey has been more accurate than the average NFL kicker in most areas of the field, particularly from mid-range (38 to 52 yards). His reliability in that area has been really important to Dallas.

It might seem difficult to judge Bailey’s value to the Cowboys in a very concrete way, but we can actually do it fairly easily using expected points. On every field-goal attempt, the Cowboys have a certain expectation of how many points they’ll score over the long run. If your kicker will make a particular kick 50 percent of the time, for example, that expectation is 1.5 points (three field-goal points multiplied by the chances of making it).

By comparing Bailey’s historic production in each range with the league average, we can get a really accurate idea of how many more points he’s been worth to Dallas than a league-average replacement kicker. Here’s how those numbers play out.

During his entire time in Dallas, Bailey has scored 267 points via field goals. Based on the length of those attempts and the average rate of accuracy in each range, the Cowboys could have expected just more than 244 points from a replacement kicker.

That means Bailey has been worth 23 points above average over a three-year period. Playing 48 games, that’s 0.48 points per game, on average.

So the question is whether a mean of 0.48 points per game is worth $23 million over seven years and $7.5 million in guarantees.

Could the Cowboys have spent that money in a smarter way?

That’s a difficult question to completely quantify, but I think the answer is yes. The reason for that comes in the next two questions regarding kicker consistency and sample sizes.

 

How likely is Bailey to repeat his past stats?

In 2007, the Cowboys drafted kicker Nick Folk in the sixth round. Folks in Dallas thought Folk was the answer at kicker after he made 49 of his initial 56 field-goal attempts, including a number of “clutch” kicks.

After connecting on 87.5 percent of his kicks over two-plus seasons, though, Folk just lost it. He missed an incredible seven of his final 11 field-goal tries in Dallas, and the Cowboys eventually sent him packing.

Folk’s story isn’t that unusual for kickers, whose play is filled with game-to-game and season-to-season variance. Advanced NFL Stats has found that there’s actually a negative correlation between a kicker’s field goals from one year to the next, meaning there’s really no viable way to predict performance; a kicker’s past performance cannot help us predict his future.

That’s scary as it relates to Bailey. Humans are wired to detect patterns in data when they don’t actually exist, so we’re predisposed to believe that Bailey’s past accuracy will be indicative of his future play.

It very well might be, but there’s no way for us to know that. He might continue his streaky play (although long-term field-goal accuracy of more than 90 percent is very unlikely), or he might be the next Folk. We don’t know.

 

How confident can we be that Bailey’s accuracy is a reflection of his talent?

Related to the topic of kicker consistency is the idea that we can’t necessarily trust Bailey’s past numbers because it’s just a really small sample size. Again, his accuracy might be a close approximation of his true talent, but it also might not be. We haven’t seen enough kicks to really tell the difference at this point.

You might argue that 98 field-goal attempts is a pretty hefty sample size, but that’s not the relevant one. The relevant sample size must include the number of misses and a comparison of that rate to a baseline (the league average).

If I told you to test a population for a disease that scientists think occurs in one in one million people, you’d need to test millions and millions of people to draw a conclusion regarding the actual rate of infection. A sample size of 500,000 people, although it seems large, would be meaningless.

As it relates to Bailey, it doesn’t matter how many field goals he’s kicked; it matters how many he’s missed relative to the average.

Since kickers around the league make most of their field-goal attempts, it becomes more difficult to determine if Bailey’s accuracy is due primarily to his own talent or if it’s just variance.

In any large pool of players, we’d expect performance well above the mean just from chance alone. Maybe he’s just one of those lucky outliers. When you cut down his field goals to include only “clutch” kicks (however you want to define that), the relevant sample is ridiculously small.

Either way, the decision to give a kicker $7.5 million in guaranteed money probably isn’t so wise. The Cowboys are banking on Bailey continuing his past success, but kickers as a whole possess no season-to-season consistency.

As much as I like Bailey and hope he continues to thrive in Dallas, the odds of him continuing to kick at a league-leading level are probably no better than him becoming Nick Folk 2.0.

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2014 Senior Bowl Scouting Guide: 5 Players to Watch

I broke down five players to watch at the Senior Bowl through the lens of the Cowboys. Here are two of those players:

Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

It’s no secret that the Cowboys desperately need to upgrade the interior of their defensive line. Nick Hayden isn’t a starting-quality defensive tackle and Jason Hatcher will probably leave via free agency. Tyrone Crawford will be back next year and I think it makes sense for Dallas to try him inside so that they can add an interior pass-rushing threat, but the Cowboys will still be very thin at the position.

Pitt’s Aaron Donald is a defensive tackle who is going to interest pretty much every team that needs a defensive tackle because he was so unbelievably productive in college. Over the past three seasons, Donald has totaled 180 tackles, 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks. Those are jaw-dropping numbers for a defensive tackle.

Donald appears to be playing well in Senior Bowl practices, too. Bleacher Report‘s Michael Schottey has taken notice:

The top defensive lineman of the day was Aaron Donald (DL Pittsburgh), who can probably play either 3-Tech in a 4-3 defense or 5-Tech in a 3-4 defense at the next level. At times, he was unstoppable against both single- and double-teams. The only player in Mobile, Ala., who may have a quicker first step is the South’s Will Sutton (DT Arizona State).

So what’s not to like? Well, Donald is 6’1″ and 288 pounds with 31 3/4-inch arms. Without much bulk or great length, Donald’s game is based entirely on speed. If NFL interior linemen are able to combat his first step, how will he respond?

I’m really conflicted on Donald because the two traits I value most for pass-rushers are arm length and college production. He’s horrible in one area and sensational in the other. Projected as a borderline first-round pick by CBS Sports, I see Donald as a high-risk/high-reward prospect who makes sense for Dallas if he were to fall into the second round. In my opinion, his size makes him too much of a risk for the first.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

“The last thing the Cowboys need is another wide receiver.” That was me imitating what you just said to yourself. But you’re wrong.

Outside of quarterback, I think wide receiver is rapidly becoming one of the most important positions in football. One reason is that they score points, and teams need to score points to win. Duh. Big, physical receivers can not only move the ball up the field, but they remain relevant in the red zone, helping teams convert offensive efficiency into wins.

Anyone here know a team that has historically racked up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points? Yeah, me too.

Second, there are still some terrible inefficiencies in the way NFL teams draft wide receivers. They care more about speed and less about size than they should. When you see a player like Tavon Austin get drafted in the top 10, you know there are problems. Austin sure is fun to watch, but St. Louis is going to have trouble scoring unless the NFL decides to award points for running sideways across the field.

There are three things I care about in regards to wide receiver success: age, size (namely red-zone relevance) and college stats. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews passes all three tests with flying colors. He’s 21 years old, checked in at 6’3″ at the Senior Bowl and posted at least 94 catches, 1,300 yards and seven touchdowns in each of the past two seasons.

You might argue that Austin also had awesome college stats, but Matthews’ are more impressive. Here’s why. As the guys at rotoViz will tell you, we should analyze receiver stats in terms of market share: the percentage of their team’s overall passing stats for which each player was responsible. Because West Virginia was so effective on offense as a whole, Austin’s market-share numbers weren’t as outstanding as Matthews’ market share stats.

Matthews has had some drops in practices, according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com, but he’s also reportedly playing better than any wide receiver there.

Check out the other three prospects right here.

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Should the Cowboys (or any NFL team) really draft the best player available?

At BR, I published five important questions for Dallas this offseason. One was if they should indeed draft the best player available in the draft. I have pretty strong feelings on this topic and I will discuss it quite a bit as the draft approaches.

I really believe most people have a distorted view of how teams should handle the draft. Namely, I reject the prevailing notion that teams should draft the best player available just because he’s the highest-rated player on their board.

In my view, teams should usually (but not always) draft the highest player on their boardat a position of need. The primary reason I believe that blindly drafting the best player available is disadvantageous is because teams overestimate their ability to identify the true best player available. In reality, NFL teams are pretty inefficient at drafting players, but they approach the draft as if their rankings are flawless.

One problem with drafting the best player available is that he’s probably an outlier on your board, i.e. you have him ranked higher than any other team. And while draft grades shouldn’t just be groupthink, there’s certainly value in knowing that the rest of the league doesn’t view a particular prospect like you do.

When you start to factor your own fallibility into the mix, the difference between your best player available and the next-best prospect shrinks. That inflates the value of drafting a player at a position of need.

Teams and fans know deep down that they shouldn’t always draft the best player available. What if the Cowboys’ top player available in the first round this year is a quarterback, but there’s a defensive end ranked one spot behind him? Clearly drafting the quarterback would set the franchise back; I’m just taking that argument and extending it a bit further.

Sometimes the true best player available will be at a position of extreme importance and need. Those situations make for easy draft picks. But other times things won’t align so nicely, in which case Dallas will need to make a choice between its board and need.

The Cowboys should never pass up an extreme value who is ranked very far ahead of other players, but otherwise, drafting the best player available is an overrated draft strategy that assumes infallibility in draft rankings that clearly doesn’t exist.

Verdict: Draft the best player available at a position of need.

Check out the entire post.

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Why Cowboys should probably trade down in first round

As mentioned, I’ve been working on a few projects that I plan to release in the near future, hence the lack of updates. I’ve also been cutting down on my Cowboys coverage and working on a lot more fantasy sports-related material. But I’m still writing about the ‘Boys on a daily basis, and one of my recent articles at BR examined why I’d (probably) trade down in the first round:

The Numbers on Draft Pick Value

I charted the value of each NFL draft pick in regards to both the NFL trade-value chart and their actual NFL production. For actual value, I used Pro Football Reference’s approximate value as a grading tool.

I charted both forms of value in terms of the percentage of overall draft value that each individual pick encompasses. The first overall pick is worth 5.0 percent of the overall value on the trade chart, for example, but has historically accounted for far less in terms of the overall approximate value from his respective draft class.

At locations where the blue line surpasses the orange line, the cost of trading up is presumably too high. You can see that’s the case all the way up until around pick 20. There, the cost of the pick on the NFL’s trade-value chart is representative of how well that player should actually be expected to perform.

The obvious conclusion is that NFL teams are typically paying way too much to move up in the first round. They’re overrating the potential impact of the players selected there, particularly in the top 10. Those players are still expected to be the best in the class, but the cost for a team outside of the top 10 to move there is prohibitive.

First-Round Trade Results

Historically, teams trading down in the first round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.

Amazingly, the teams moving down in first-round trades have acquired 64.4 percent of the total approximate value accumulated by the players involved in those deals, i.e. trading down has been far superior to moving up.

Perhaps even more amazing, the team trading down has gotten the best player in the deal 50.9 percent of the time! I mentioned that stat on Twitter and a reader responded that it simply makes it a coin flip. He was right that it’s a coin flip as to which team will acquire the best player, so the prudent thing to do would be to get that player at the cheapest cost possible. Stockpile picks in the range where production surpasses cost and maximize the probability of hitting on an undervalued asset.

Would you pay $30,000 for a car you can get elsewhere for $28,000? Of course not. Well, NFL teams that trade up in the first round have historically been paying extra for something they could have just gotten later. The cost is too high right now.

Read the whole article right here.

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ICYMI: A look back at my 2013 Dallas Cowboys, NFL predictions

In case you missed it, I broke down my 2013 Cowboys predictions over at Bleacher Report:

I am of the opinion that every writer, analyst and expert covering any field should make specific predictions for which they should be held accountable. As it stands now, writers in particular sometimes have little incentive to make accurate predictions. With no skin in the game, what’s to stop them from simply making bold claims for the sake of drumming up controversy?

If all writers were forced to make very particular prognostications and then revisit those predictions to see where they went right and wrong, there would be a pretty strong incentive (pride and reputation) to get it right.

Most important, it would help readers understand who knows what they’re talking about and whose content is full of fluff. It’s really easy to look back on past events and analyze them after the fact, but it’s an entirely different endeavor to put yourself on the line in predicting what will take place in the future. It’s easier said than done.

This idea is why I make a number of very specific preseason predictions, as well as scrutinize the predictions after the season.

In 2012, I had what was, at the time, my best year in regards to Cowboys-specific predictions. I analyzed all of them right here, so you can check out my accuracy.

I say “at the time” because I think my 2013 predictions were even more accurate. I’ve listed the majority of them in this slideshow, both good and bad. I actually believe the predictions that go wrong are much more valuable because 1) I can determine if I indeed made a mistake (sometimes you can make a great prediction that simply doesn’t pan out) and 2) I can tweak the models or numbers I use to make predictions to enhance future accuracy.

See the predictions and analysis here.

Also, I just remembered to take a look at my preseason standings/playoff predictions. I posted those at Dallas News.

  • Wild Card Round

Saints over Redskins

Cowboys over Falcons

Patriots over Dolphins

Bengals over Titans

  • Divisional Round

49ers over Cowboys

Packers over Saints

Broncos over Bengals

Patriots over Texans

NFC Champion: 49ers

AFC Champion: Broncos

Super Bowl Champion: Broncos

Coach of the Year: Sean Payton

Offensive MVP: Aaron Rodgers

Defensive MVP: J.J. Watt

Offensive Rookie of the Year: DeAndre Hopkins

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Dion Jordan

My preseason Super Bowl prediction of Niners-Broncos is still alive. If you want to know the likelihood that my preaseason prediction comes to fruition, you can see the odds right here.

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An update on where the hell I’ve been

After a few Twitter mentions asking “where r u?” and me subsequently locking my doors, I realized some of you have just been wondering why I haven’t been updating this blog too much.

Well, one reason is that I’ve cut back on my Cowboys writing. I’m still doing daily pieces over at Bleacher Report, which you can always find right here. Some of the latest include six players who could be on the roster bubble, my first 2014 Cowboys mock draft, and five free agents the Cowboys should target (hint: I’d pay $1,000 out of my own pocket to see Dallas sign Danario Alexander).

The primary reason I’ve been updating The DC Times infrequently, though, is that I’ve been working on some other football/fantasy football-related projects, so I just haven’t had much time on my hands. One was this book. Another is top secret. And the other stuff will be unveiled in time.

I realize there are literally DOUBLE-DIGIT readers out there who appreciate and even seek out my Cowboys analysis, but for now, I will be cutting back. Like I said, you can still find my stuff at B/R (and I’ll continue to post on here, too).

So that’s where the hell I’ve been. What have you been up to, Mom?