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Response to a Reader Email on Witten, Romo

I answer all of the emails you guys send me, but I typically don’t publish them online. With the lack of content I’ve been posting lately, I figured it would be a good idea to post some responses as quick-and-easy content that’s relevant to a lot of you. Here’s an email I received this morning.

Jonathan,
I enjoy your articles on bleacher report, but just a couple of quick points on your recent article about the cowboys’ starting lineup–

1. Witten-D+?? What is your basis for asserting that he is a bad blocker? He is probably the best run-blocking tight end in the league. Did you see him block once the cowboys committed to running demarco over second half of the season? He was literally clearing out half of the defensive line. Every announcer who called those games remarked on his dominant run-blocking ability. He made several highlights on his sheer blocking alone.

2. Romo-you obviously are a statistics guy and so am I. But in Romo’s case, the numbers do lie. I’ve been working on a statistic that measures “critical moments”- i.e. Romo’s numbers during critical moments of games that have playoff implications. Romo’s numbers are not good compared to other quarterbacks. At all. He is not capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs. Why? Because he never has. And he fails to deliver in critical moments. Ill be happy to send those numbers to you when I finish them, but it’s hard not to understand that just from casually watching his late season performances year in and year out.

My response:

Thanks for writing in. I think we’re just going to disagree on Witten as a blocker because it’s kind of subjective, although if you look at the YPC for Dallas when he’s at the point of attack, it’s been lower than that behind the other TEs for years. When Bennett was in Dallas, the Cowboys averaged around 1.5 more YPC behind him than behind Witten. He’s poor in both run blocking and pass pro.

As far as Romo, I’d argue two points. First, “clutch” stats are naturally going to be weak because of a small sample. You’ll have to set some arbitrary parameters, like passer rating in the final two minutes of a game or something like that, but you won’t have all that many plays to study.

Second, it’s going to be a tough argument to make that a QB with the highest fourth quarter passer rating ever, including in close games and at the end of games, is poor in clutch situations. It will have to be a “yeah but” sort of argument that’s almost certainly again going to be based on a small, arbitrary sample. It seems more logical to say Romo isn’t any worse in clutch situations, but has had some bad luck in a few late-season games than it is to argue that he’s poor in the clutch, but has somehow managed all of these really impressive stats in situations we’d typically define as “clutch” for other players.

Again, thanks for reading and writing in.

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My Reaction to the Henry Melton Deal & Other Cowboys Analsyis

Long time no post. At Bleacher Report, I published my reaction to the Henry Melton deal. An excerpt is below. In addition, here are a few of my other recent articles:

My Latest Cowboys Mock Draft

Predicting Cowboys’ Starting Lineup

Why Cowboys Had No Choice But to Cut DeMarcus Ware

A Look Back at Ware’s Career

Examining My Pre-Free Agency Predictions (I went 4-for-5)

The Stats

The Cowboys signed Melton to get to the quarterback. In his four NFL seasons, he’s been able to do that, totaling 15.5 sacks.

Remember, though, that 2010 was Melton’s rookie year and he received less than half a season’s worth of snaps. The defensive tackle also played in only two full games in 2013.

In his two full seasons (2011 and 2012), Melton totaled 13 sacks. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that his pressure and sack ranks improved during his first three years in the NFL.

Melton ranked in the top 10 in pressures and top three in sacks in both 2011 and 2012. The fact that Melton ranked higher in sacks than pressures in all three years is really interesting. Most players tend to sack the quarterback at around the same rate once they reach him—most defensive ends turn around one-quarter of pressures into sacks, while defensive tackles are typically lower.

Well, Melton has recorded a sack on 26.3 percent of his career pressures. That’s a really high rate for an interior defensive lineman, but because Melton is so light and quick on his feet for a defensive tackle, there’s good reason to think he can keep it up.

He’s basically a big defensive end playing inside, which means he should be able to rack up more sacks than the typical defensive tackle—even relative to how often he pressures the quarterback.

The Age

The Cowboys did a great job signing Melton to a one-year deal with a strong possibility of three extra years. Taking a look at historic defensive tackle production—in terms of approximate value—the Cowboys should have Melton during his career prime.

Melton will start the 2014 season at age 27. If he plays as the Cowboys expect him to play, he’ll be around from age 28 through 30. That’s just before the time when most defensive tackles tend to break down, and the fall from grace is a steep one.

In all likelihood, defensive tackles collapse more rapidly than other positions due to the wear and tear of playing inside.The Cowboys would be smart to keep Melton through the duration of this contract, when he should be in peak physical condition, then probably let him walk when it ends. We don’t want to see Jay Ratliff 2.0.

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Cowboys Free Agency Primer: Outlook, Predictions & More

At Bleacher Report, I published a few recent free agency previews for Dallas. The first has some news and my predictions for the Cowboys:

1. The Cowboys will free up enough cap space to sign one major free agent.

Dallas doesn’t have the best salary cap situation, but it also isn’t as bad as it initially appears. By doing everything it needs to do to trim away the extra fat, Dallas should be able to put itself in a position to sign a fairly high-priced free agent.

2. That player will be defensive tackle Henry Melton.

If the Cowboys do indeed sign a big-name player, Melton is perhaps the most likely. He fits with what Dallas wants in a 4-3 defensive tackle. You could argue that the Cowboys will want to wait to see what happens in the draft, but they really need two defensive tackles. Since signing Melton wouldn’t stop Dallas from drafting someone like Pitt’s Aaron Donald in the first round, the move makes sense no matter what the Cowboys want to do in the draft.

3. DeMarcus Ware will remain in Dallas.

The Cowboys have all the leverage and Ware knows it; he will probably take a pay cut to stay in Dallas.

4. Dallas won’t sign a defensive end.

Assuming Ware remains in Dallas, it’ll have him and George Selvie to start in 2014. There are a bunch of intriguing second-round defensive ends in the draft, and don’t forget that Tyrone Crawford has the versatility to kick outside. Since ends usually cost a pretty penny in free agency, it makes sense for Dallas to keep what it has and upgrade via the draft.

5. The Cowboys won’t re-sign a single one of their free agents.

This really comes down to whether or not Dallas will keep either Jason Hatcher or Anthony Spencer. Hopefully, the Cowboys have learned their lesson from handing out sizable contracts to aging players.

I also explained why I’m “buying” or “selling” certain rumors in Dallas:

The ‘Boys Should Sign a Free Agent RB

There’s perhaps no worse proposition in all of football than signing a veteran running back, but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating that the Cowboys could bring one in. Dallas Morning News listed Ben Tate, Rashad Jennings, and Donald Brown as possibilities.

The problem with running backs is that, outside of a few special talents like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, they’re extremely replaceable. Part of the reason for that is because they’re so dependent on their offensive lines for production. If the majority of running back success is due to factors outside of his control, why pay for one?

Another reason is that running backs enter the league at near-peak efficiency. If the Cowboys want another running back, which isn’t a bad idea with DeMarco Murray’s contract set to expire after the 2014 season, they should spend a mid-round pick on one. Just not a back who runs a 4.63 40-yard dash at 198 pounds.

Verdict: SELLING

And finally, a look at why I’d trade for Dolphins DE Dion Jordan:

Putting on the Pressure

Jordan’s rookie season in Miami was widely considered a bust because he recorded only two sacks. However, considering he rushed the passer only 206 times, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and was able to pressure the quarterback at an elite rate, Jordan’s first year wasn’t as bad as people believe.

Looking at pressure rate, which is the percentage of pass-rushing snaps on which a player hurries the quarterback, we see Jordan was actually really good.

Jordan didn’t play as many snaps as the other rushers, but the fact that he recorded a higher pressure rate than Greg Hardy, widely considered one of the top young pass-rushers in the NFL, shows you something.

So why only two sacks? Well, Jordan got unlucky. There’s good evidence to show that most pass-rushers bring down the quarterback on right around 25 percent of their pressures; that is, for every four times a pass-rusher hurries the quarterback, he typically records one sack. Getting to the passer is a skill, but obtaining a sack once you’re already there is a much more random occurrence.

If you examine Jordan’s sack-to-pressure ratio during his rookie year, you see it’s quite low.

You always want sacks, of course, but pressures are even more important than sacks when predicting future sacks. The fact that Jordan was able to reach the quarterback suggests he’s going to generate plenty of sacks in the NFL but was just unlucky in his rookie year. Based on his pressures alone, his most likely sack total was 4.5, not 2.0.

What About the Money?

One possible concern about trading for Jordan is his contract. The Cowboys don’t have very much cap space with which to work.

However, even as the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, Jordan’s contract is far from prohibitive. Over the Cap has his 2014 cap hit at only $4.7 million, with $16.8 million guaranteed remaining on his deal. In comparison, right tackle Doug Free’s 2014 cap number is $6.5 million.

Plus, the “real” cost of Jordan is his contract minus whatever the Cowboys would need to pay their first-round pick in 2014, since they’d move that selection in order to acquire Jordan.

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5 Free Agency Moves Cowboys Should Avoid

At Bleacher Report, I broke down five moves the Cowboys should avoid during free agency. Here are two:

Re-Signing DE Anthony Spencer

The Cowboys have a decision similar to that of Hatcher when it comes to defensive end Anthony Spencer. Unlike Hatcher, however, Spencer 1) is still at an age when many pass-rushers are productive (30) and 2) isn’t coming off of a career year.

When Spencer got injured and was lost for the 2013 season, it severely deflated his market value. The question is how much. If the Cowboys can re-sign Spencer at a price that fully represents the fact that he hasn’t played a full game in over a year, then they might be able to work something out.

However, Spencer is likely looking for a long-term deal. The Cowboys aren’t in a position to give any free agent much guaranteed money, so assuming his market value hasn’t sunk dramatically, the Cowboys should let him walk.

Overlooking Right Tackle as a Need

We know the Cowboys are weak basically throughout their defense, but one of the rarely mentioned needs of this team is right tackle. Current starter Doug Free started really hot in 2013, which may have caused people to overlook the fact that he was horrible down the stretch.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Free allowed 34 pressures and six sacks, both of which were the most on the team. After yielding four total pressures in the first five games (0.80 pressures per game), he allowed 30 in the final 11 games (2.72 per game). If he maintained that latter pace for 16 games, Free would have allowed the third-most pressures in the NFL in 2013.

The offensive tackle free-agent class is pretty deep, so there are going to be some decent players who can be had rather cheaply. It might make sense for Dallas to bring in a player like Charles Brown, a 26-year old former second-round pick, to at least give Free some competition.