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April, 2014 | The DC Times

The DC Times

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


Dallas Cowboys Draft Updates

I published a bunch of draft analysis in the past few days. A quick update:

Re-Grading Cowboys’ Past 5 Drafts (and the worst picks over that time)

Mock Draft Roundup

Assigning Odds to Potential First-Round Picks

Also be sure to get the sold out April draft guide with a $14.99 digital subscription to Star Magazine. That includes 32 issues a year, weekly during the season, August-January, and monthly during the offseason, February-July.

You’ll immediately get the special 2014 Draft Guide, as well as future access to the Training Camp Preview in July, Season Review in February, and the one-of-a-kind Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Swimsuit issue in June.


Buy the Official Dallas Cowboys Draft Guide from Star Magazine

There’s all kinds of draft information floating around these days, but how much of it is really tailored specifically to the Cowboys? Sometimes you just want to skip over the latest Jadaveon Clowney rumors and learn more about the guys who could actually be suiting up for Dallas in 2014.

The official Dallas Cowboys draft guide from Star Magazine gives you just that. I’ve worked with Star Magazine quite a bit in the past, and they truly produce some of the best Cowboys content available. How good? I have five huge stacks of issues piling up around my apartment because I refuse to throw them away.

Here are some specs on the draft guide:

  • Draft profiles on over 80 players and rankings for more than 300
  • Feature stories with the Cowboys’ scouting staff, including interviews with assistant director of player personnel Will McClay, director of scouting Tom Ciskowski and college scouting coordinator Chris Hall
  • Picks for the Cowboys in all seven rounds, 11 selections total. Plus, our first-round mock

You can get access to the sold out April draft guide with a $14.99 digital subscription to Star Magazine. That includes 32 issues a year, weekly during the season, August-January, and monthly during the offseason, February-July.

Again, you’ll immediately get the special 2014 Draft Guide, as well as future access to the Training Camp Preview in July, Season Review in February, and the one-of-a-kind Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Swimsuit issue in June.


Dallas Cowboys: How to Fill FS Void and Why Anthony Spencer Isn’t Signed

I have a bunch of new articles over at Bleacher Report, which you can always find right here. My latest is on why Anthony Spencer is still available:


The most obvious reason that Spencer is still a free agent is that teams are scared off by his knee. Spencer had season-ending micro-fracture knee surgery that is going to keep him out of at least some portion of 2014 training camp, according to ESPN Dallas.

There’s just a lot of uncertainty surrounding Spencer’s potential 2014 contributions because no one knows how healthy he’s going to be. Teams are scared to invest even short-term money into a player who, in a best-case scenario, is still going to miss much of training camp.


Related to Spencer’s health is his age. He’s not a young up-and-coming 25-year-old defensive end anymore. Already 30-years old, Spencer is at an age when many players begin to break down.

Yes, we can play the “what if he remains healthy?” game all day, but the truth is that although injuries are somewhat fluky, older players 1) get injured more frequently and 2) take longer to recover from them than younger players. It’s not a foregone conclusion that Spencer will bounce back from such a serious injury.

Spencer’s age also puts him at the top looking down in terms of career trajectory. Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value, I charted typical defensive end production by age.

As a function of a player’s personal career-best production, the average defensive end peaks at ages 25 and 26. However, pass-rushers can typically maintain a high level of production—near or above 90 percent of their previous peak—into their early-30s. That’s a pretty large window relative to other positions.

One of the reasons for that is because players tend to lose speed quickly with age, but not power or length (obviously). Although quickness is important for defensive ends, length and power are underrated components of getting to the passer. That’s a good sign for Spencer, who has never really relied on his speed for production.

If you’re looking at Spencer on the career trajectory graph, you see that most players his age are still productive. However, there’s a pretty steep drop on the horizon, and teams are fearful that, because of his injuries, Spencer is very close to hitting that point. There’s some upside to a short-term deal, but the risks are large, too.


Another thing we need to keep in mind about Spencer is that it’s not like he was ever a consistently high-level player in terms of getting to the quarterback. In seven NFL seasons, Spencer recorded more than six sacks just once (in 2012). Let that sink in.

Now, Spencer brings a lot to the table in other areas, but teams pay for sacks. If you throw out 2012 as an outlier—which isn’t that hard of a pill to swallow since averaged only 4.3 sacks in the prior five seasons—you have an aging player projected at a moderate sack total even if he stays healthy. That’s not really a recipe to break the bank.


Another is what the ‘Boys should do about free safety:

The First-Round Route

There are two safeties projected to go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft—Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. On tape, most analysts are rating the two players similarly, with Clinton-Dix perhaps leading by the narrowest of margins.

Athletically, the players are extremely similar.

Clinton-Dix is quicker than Pryor, at least in terms of the short shuttle, but the two possess extremely similar explosiveness. Now, let’s compare the duo to two other recent first-round safety selections.

Both Clinton-Dix and Pryor are faster than 2013 first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), but Vaccaro is quicker. None of the three players matches up with former LSU safety Eric Reid—the player the Cowboys could have drafted before they traded down and nabbed center Travis Frederick. Reid is bigger, faster and more explosive than the two safeties projected to be selected in the first 32 picks this year.

Again, we need to consider the tape—especially at a position like safety that’s hard to assess in terms of on-field stats. All other things being equal, we should side with the more athletic players, who typically find the most NFL success. We can talk about heart and other intangibles all day long, but there’s a reason you and I aren’t getting drafted this year. I have all the determination in the world, but it’s this pesky 5.50 40-yard dash that’s holding me back.

Because neither Clinton-Dix and Pryor have the film of a high first-round pick and since their measurables are substandard for how high they’ll be drafted, they’re unlikely to offer much value.


The Mid-Round Route

One of the ways NFL teams should be drafting is to assess position scarcity, i.e. how easily can we replace a player/position in later rounds? That’s one reason why a “best player available” draft strategyisn’t optimal. It’s shortsighted in that it doesn’t account for position depth.

In regard to free safeties, the Cowboys should ask themselves how scarce the early-round safeties are and how easily their talent could be replaced at a cheaper price. All other things being equal, it makes sense to pay as cheap a price as possible. When a player or positionisn’t scarce, that’s easier to do.

There are multiple safety arbitrage opportunities in this year’s draft. Let’s take a look at the athletic profiles for Clinton-Dix and Pryor versus two safeties projected to get drafted in the middle/late rounds: Wyoming’s Marqueston Huff and North Carolina State’s DontaeJohnson.

I gave each safety a raw athleticism score simply by ranking them in each category. The top performer got four points, the next-best received three points, and so on.

You can see that not only are Huff and Johnson going to be much cheaper than Clinton-Dix and Johnson, but they’re also more athletic. Again, yes, we need to consider their film and college backgrounds, but that should already be priced into their draft slot. We’re concerned not only with talent, but also talent relative to cost. Relative to their draft slots, Huff and Johnson are more likely than Clinton-Dix and Pryor to offer value.


The Don’t-Draft-a-Safety-at-All Route

The Cowboys’ final option is to forgo the safety position entirely. Wilcox, Johnson and Heath might not sound like the greatest of options, but let’s compare them to the four aforementioned rookies in terms of measurables.

One of the things the Cowboys have done really well is emphasize athleticism in the middle and late rounds (and with their undrafted free agents). That’s led to quality additions like running back DeMarcoMurray and wide receiver Miles Austin.

Well, their safety trio is more athletic than the majority of 2014 prospects. Wilcox doesn’t have great top-end speed, but his quality vertical, broad jump and short shuttle suggests he’s an explosive player.

Heath struggled last year and there are some concerns there, but he’s still only 22 years old, has an awesome size/speed combination, and turned in the best broad jump of the group.

Johnson—the player I believe will start and excel for Dallas in 2014—has elite size, good speed and ridiculous explosiveness. In terms of raw athleticism, he scores the highest out of all seven of these safeties.

The Cowboys don’t have experience at free safety on their roster, but they have upside.


The Final Verdict

If the Cowboys can acquire value on a player like Dontae Johnson, there’s no reason they shouldn’t bring him in to compete. However, reaching on a safety in the early rounds seems like a losing proposition in this year’s draft because their talent can probably be acquired later, accompanied by a cheaper price tag.

Otherwise, there’s no reason for Dallas to force drafting a safety this year. The main reason for that is that they have power in numbers. With three highly athletic free safeties currently on the roster, the Cowboys actually have safety. The odds of each individual player breaking out might not be outstanding, but the probability of one of them turning into a capable starter is pretty good.

The Cowboys have a lot of weaknesses they need to address via the draft, but free safety isn’t as big of one as you might think.


My Cowboys Analysis: Offseason Priorities, Rising/Falling Players, and a Mock Draft

I’ve been posting my Cowboys analysis over at Bleacher Report. Some of the most recent articles. . .

6 Cowboys Who Will See Roles Expand

8 Players Rising or Falling on Cowboys’ Board

Top 5 Defensive Ends Dallas Should Consider

Top 5 Remaining Offseason Priorities

A Mock Draft of Instant Contributors

In that last article, I picked players I believe could make the most immediate impact in Dallas. Here’s a look at the first three rounds.

Round 1: Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

Will Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald fall to Dallas? Probably not, but there’s a decent chance that he falls into the teens, in which case the cost for the Cowboys to move up wouldn’t be prohibitive. He’s the one player it makes sense for Dallas to trade up for in this draft.

The big concern with Donald is that he has just 32.6-inch arms. That’s short for a defensive tackle. Although some players have thrived at the position despite a lack of elite arm length (Warren Sapp, for example), there’s still a trend there suggesting quality short-armed players are the exception to the rule.

When a player records college production as impressive as Donald’s, however, you can put up with short arms to a greater extent. With 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss in 2013 alone, you could argue Donald was the top defensive lineman—not just defensive tackle—in the nation. He has a four-year history of elite production.

The addition of Henry Melton certainly decreased the Cowboys’ need for a 3-technique defensive tackle, but it’s hard to ignore the potential of a Donald-Melton duo. Neither is a 1-technique, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli should be able to work wonders with an interior pass-rushing duo with such ridiculous upside.

Round 2: Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State

The Cowboys need a wide receiver. That’s not a popular opinion, but there are few positions at which bringing in an early-round pick could have a bigger impact. Outside of the defensive line and perhaps safety, wide receiver is the Cowboys’ biggest potential area for improvement.

What will a quality rookie receiver do? First, he can help the Cowboys score. Terrance Williams showed promise in his rookie year, but he’s not the sort of player who will consistently dominate in the red zone. The ‘Boys should use tight end Gavin Escobar way more, but adding another red-zone-relevant pass-catcher will help this offense.

Second, wide receivers help quarterbacks nearly as much as quarterbacks help receivers. With quarterbacks getting the ball out quicker than ever, the value of the offensive line has decreased in recent seasons. Quarterbacks are just as responsible for their sacks as the linemen, and having big, physical wide receivers who can be trusted is of massive importance.

Finally, the Cowboys already have pretty good offensive personnel, but 1) offense is more important than defense and 2) they have a really big potential leak: a Dez Bryant injury. The ‘Boys shouldn’t draft a receiver simply because of how much they rely on Bryant, but it should factor into the equation. If Bryant were to get injured (or even see more frequent double-teams), the Cowboys offense would be stagnant.

Fresno State’s Davante Adams is one of the most underrated receivers in this draft. At 6’1”, 212 pounds, he ran a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash. That’s plenty fast enough for his size, but his time won’t cause him to rise up boards like what might happen with Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews.

Most important, Adams dominated in college. In two years at Fresno State, he averaged 116 catches, 1,515 yards and 19 touchdowns per year. That’s insane.

Round 3: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas

Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat has all the makings of an undervalued player. Despite being projected in the third round, he has long arms (33.9 inches), explosiveness (10’3” broad jump) and a history of production (13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last year).

Jeffcoat’s potential impact will come down to whether or not the Cowboys re-sign Anthony Spencer. If that happens, Spencer and George Selvie will likely be the team’s starting defensive end duo. If the ‘Boys don’t re-sign Spencer, though, chances are they’ll start a rookie at defensive end in 2014. Jeffcoat might not be the most likely first-year player to fill that role, but he’ll be the best option in the third round.