The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

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:

Health

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.

Age

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.

Production

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

5 Defensive Ends Who Make Sense for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I broke down five defensive ends who I like for Dallas in this year’s draft. Here’s a preview:

The Dallas Cowboys are clearly in the market for a difference-making defensive end; veteran DeMarcus Ware is rapidly declining and 2013 breakout player George Selvie is a No. 2 rusher at best. In addition to defensive tackle, there’s perhaps nowhere the ‘Boys can help themselves more than at defensive end.

The key to finding value at any position is identifying predictors of success that other teams aren’t valuing, or at least aren’t valuing enough. At the wide receiver position, for example, most NFL teams pay for speed when they should be more concerned with size. At quarterback, they seek height when it appears as though hand size is more important.

At defensive end, a lot of teams seem to dismiss college production. They think they can spot talent with the “eye test,” frequently overrating defensive ends who look the part but haven’t gotten to the quarterback at a high rate.

One of the traits teams overvalue seems to be quickness. Certainly quicker is better for every player, but even more important is size. Overall, teams do indeed pay for one aspect of size in height. Height is indeed correlated with NFL success for defensive ends, but as with quarterbacks, that might just be because it’s linked to another trait that matters more. For defensive ends, that characteristic is long arms.

Even though many NFL organizations look at arm length, they’re still acting as though height matters more. We continually see tall players with short arms get drafted ahead of short players with long arms. The latter type of prospect might actually offer the most value, since they possess the trait that helps get to the passer (long arms) but not the one that shoots them up boards (height).

In that way, not all lengths of arm are created equally. A 6’2″ defensive end with 33-inch arms is better than a 6’5″ end with the same arm length because the shorter player is more likely to fall (unnecessarily), and thus offer value.

Valuing both college production and arm length, here are five defensive end prospects the Dallas Cowboys should consider in this year’s draft.

 

Scott Crichton, Oregon State

College Production: 22.5 sacks, 51 tackles-for-loss in three seasons

Height: 6’3″

Arm Length: Unknown

Projection: Early Second Round

Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is a really interesting prospect. At 6’3″, Crichton is rumored to have good length for his height. That’s the perfect combination when seeking value at defensive end. It will be really interesting to see how Crichton measures up at the combine; if his arms check in at 33 inches or longer, that’s a great sign.

Crichton was also quite productive in college. Teams will obviously look at sack totals, but tackles-for-loss are just as valuable. They represent the same sort of explosiveness to get into the backfield. Actually, when a defensive end has a ton of tackles-for-loss but a moderate amount of sacks, it could be a sign that he just got unlucky with bringing down the passer, which will improve in the future.

The Cowboys would probably need to pick up Crichton in a trade down from the No. 16 overall pick.

 

Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

College Production: 26 sacks, 49.5 tackles-for-loss in four seasons

Height: 6’4″

Arm Length: Unknown

Projection: Second Round

Like Crichton, Texas’s Jackson Jeffcoat is rumored to have “significant arm length.” He won’t drop because of his height, which is about average for a defensive end, but he still seems undervalued with a second-round projection.

Jeffcoat had 26 sacks in four years at Texas, but he was quite dominant recently. He played only a handful of games in 2012, but in his last two full seasons, Jeffcoat averaged 18 tackles-for-loss and 10.25 sacks.

The Cowboys might be able to pick up Jeffcoat in the second round without moving up.

Head to BR for the full article.

By Jonathan Bales

Why Cowboys Should Probably Trade Down in First Round

At Bleacher Report, I explained why the Cowboys should trade down in the first round. Here’s an excerpt:

Exploiting the Chart

Because teams still use the original trade chart to make moves, the Cowboys can exploit inefficiencies in the way the chart is constructed relative to how players actually perform. That is, they can and should look for areas on the chart where the cost of trading is less than the value of they player(s) they can expect in return.

Looking at historic NFL production, here’s a chart displaying approximate value versus the cost of each pick, both as a function of the overall value. According to the chart, for example, the top overall pick accounts for five percent of the total value, but in reality, the No. 1 overall selection has accrued around just 2.5 percent of the class’s total approximate value.

The cost of the draft’s top picks is massive. Teams trading up into the top 10, especially, need to be extremely confident they’re acquiring a future star, because the cost of the picks is far more than the production that can normally be expected.

You can see that the cost of trading surpasses the expected production up until around the 20th overall selection. At that point, the cost of draft selections on the original trade value chart drops quite a bit, yet there are still quality players in that range.

That trend continues for a few rounds; in terms of historic production, the largest inefficiencies exist from the back of the first round into the third and fourth rounds. That’s the area where the most value exists when you consider the price of each pick.

 

First-Round Trade Results

This isn’t just a mathematical trick that has little basis in reality. We can look at past first-round trades to see that teams trading down in the round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.

Teams trading down in or out of the first round have accrued the best player 50.9 percent of the time. That’s amazing since the reason a team trades up is because they think they’ll acquire the best player. The numbers suggest that if you believe you’ll get the best player by trading up in the first round, think again.

You might think that because trying to guess the team that will get the top player in a first-round trade is basically a coin flip, it doesn’t matter if you move up or down. However, if it’s really a coin flip, the smart things to do would be to 1) maximize opportunities and 2) do it as cheaply as possible. Why trade up to get something you can probably have later?

Further, teams trading down have acquired 64.4 percent of the total player value in those trades. The numbers are staggering.

 

Loading Up and Accounting for Fallibility

Again, the Cowboys should be trying to maximize their chances of hitting by loading up on picks where the greatest inefficiencies exist. They actually tried to pull this off last year, trading back from the middle of the first to the back of it, grabbing an extra third-rounder in the process. Whether or not they saw the proper return, they at least tried to make a move that was statistically prudent.

Central to the idea that you should accrue draft picks is understanding your own fallibility. Teams trade up as though they’re sure the player they covet is going to be as good as they believe, but it’s not that black-and-white. There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes into drafting, so teams need to account for that.

Further, teams that trade up are typically selecting a player who is an outlier on their board. If that team didn’t have him ranked much higher than others, he probably wouldn’t still be available. By accounting for the fact that they could be wrong in their assessment of said player, the Cowboys and other teams considering trading up might think again.

The common rebuttal is that every situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and that every player is unique, but that line of thinking is probably what’s gotten teams who trade up in trouble. Every player and situation is unique, sure, but teams drastically overrate their ability to predict the future.

To get the best in a trade-up, teams basically need to think they know something that 31 other teams don’t, which will rarely be the case. Once teams accept that they just don’t know as much as they think they do, it will become easier to recognize the dangers of trading up and the value of maximizing draft picks.

Put another way, consider two dart throwers, one with zero skill and one with perfect skill. The first has a low probability of hitting a bulleye on a given throw, so he wants as many darts as possible. The latter can hit a bullseye every time, so if that’s the goal, he needs only one dart.

NFL teams have been acting as though they’re perfect (or near-perfect) dart throwers. When they realize that there’s just a whole lot more uncertainty involved in the process – when they realize the market itself forces them into being low-skill dart throwers – they’ll act differently, maximizing opportunities and minimizing cost.

Read the full analysis right here.

By Jonathan Bales

8 Prospects to Watch at NFL Scouting Combine

At Bleacher Report, I broke down eight prospects to watch in next week’s NFL Scouting Combine. Here’s a preview.

The measurables recorded at the NFL Scouting Combine should matter to every NFL team, including the Dallas Cowboys. Measurables are important because they allow us to quantify what we see on the field, which in turn allows for a scientific approach to football.

Science is marked by improvement—namely an improvement in predictions. We can sit and watch game film all day, but how do we improve that process? How do we get beyond “this guy has great hips” to make more accurate predictions?

With analytics, we can run tests to see which metrics are the most important, creating models to aid us in making predictions. The key, though, is that different measurables matter for different positions. The 40-yard dash, for example, is extremely important for players at certain positions, while basically useless at others.

The degree to which a measurable is useful extends only insofar as it helps make better predictions about a prospect’s future. One of the common qualms with a drill like the 40-yard dash is that “players almost never run 40 yards in a straight line during a game.”

Who cares? Employees don’t need to take IQ tests during work hours, but that doesn’t make an IQ test completely useless when screening job candidates. If a measurable helps us forecast the future, it’s useful, regardless of whether or not it occurs during a game.

With that in mind, here are eight prospects who the Dallas Cowboys (and you) should monitor during the NFL Scouting Combine, along with the measurable that might be the most important.

Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

What to Watch: Arm Length

Tall pass rushers perform better than short ones in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean teams should do everything they can to draft tall ones. Actually, it’s the short pass rushers with long arms who often offer the most value.

Teams pay for height in defensive ends, so those who are tall with long arms often don’t provide a great return. Those who are short with long arms, however, can find a ton of NFL success, but they come with a much cheaper price tag.

Oregon State’s Scott Crichton is relatively short at 6’3” and there are rumors that he has good length, but we don’t know for sure. He’ll be an outstanding second-round value if his arms are long compared to his height.

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

The Cowboys should draft a wide receiver in 2014. There are someearly-round wide receiver prospects who should intrigue Dallas, and Penn State’s Allen Robinson is one of them.

If you’re a fan of Robinson, you should root for him to run a mediocre 40-yard dash. Wait, what?

Although teams seek speed in wide receivers, the 40-yard dash isn’t all that predictive of NFL success at the position. Instead, size matters most, and Robinson has it.

Robinson is fighting with a group of talented wide receivers to sneak his way into the first round, but he could drop well into the second with a poor 40-yard dash. If he’s in the 4.55 range, that would be great—slow enough to drop but fast enough to excel in the NFL.

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri

What to Watch: Weight

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is the exact sort of defensive end who can offer value on draft day because he’s short (6’2”) with long arms (33.25 inches). He’ll drop because of his lack of height, but Sam’s arm length suggests he should be able to produce in the NFL.

Also monitor Sam’s weight, which should be around 260 pounds. That’s up from his playing weight at Missouri, and he’ll need all the bulk he can get to play as a 4-3 defensive end. If Sam reports any heavier than 260 pounds, it will be interesting to see how he moves.

Some are arguing that Sam’s draft stock has fallen since admitting he’s gay, but that’s just another reason to be bullish on him. If Sam indeed drops because he’s gay, too short, or whatever, it will just allow whichever team drafts him to acquire a high-upside player at a bare minimum price.

Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech

What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

Do the Cowboys need a cornerback? Maybe, maybe not. They’ve got a ton of money committed to the position, but all of it is going to players who stand under 6’0” and weigh less than 200 pounds. You can never have too many talented cornerbacks and second-year man B.W. Webb struggled badly in his rookie campaign, so perhaps the ‘Boys will once again look at the position late in the draft.

If they do, Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum should be on their radar. At 6’0”, 220 pounds, Exum is absolutely massive. He’s the type of cornerback who could dramatically help the Cowboys in the red zone right out of the gate.

Speed is so crucial for cornerbacks, though, so Exum’s 40-yard dash will be important. If he can clock in under 4.50, he’ll probably be highly undervalued.

Head to B/R for the other four prospects.

By Jonathan Bales

Why Cowboys Need a WR and 5 They Should Consider

At Bleacher Report, I explained why I think wide receiver is an underrated position of need for Dallas. I also proposed five players I believe will develop into true No. 1 options in the NFL. Here’s the full article, with a sample and two of the wide receivers posted below.

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The Dallas Cowboys could benefit from selecting a potential No. 1 wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft.

That’s not a popular opinion, as wide receiver is considered a position of relative strength for Dallas, but the Cowboys could be in monumental trouble if Dez Bryant gets injured, or even if defenses commit more to taking him out of games.

Do the Cowboys have positions at which an upgrade would provide more immediate value? Yes. But outside of quarterback Tony Romo, there’s no loss the Cowboys could afford less than that of Bryant; with the current roster, his absence would result in the death of all offensive efficiency.

He’s that important.

Furthermore, wide receivers are undervalued as a whole. As quarterbacks release the ball more quickly in today’s NFL, the importance of the offensive line decreases. Meanwhile, the same wide receiver types dominate and help quarterbacks as much as an elite quarterback can help his pass-catchers. That “type” is big, physical and efficient in the red zone.

Without Bryant, the Cowboys would be in trouble as they approach the goal line. They need to convert yards into points, and players like him do that.

One reason the Cowboys should target a wide receiver in this year’s class is that there are a number of potential No. 1 wide receivers—meaning someone is probably going to drop too far.

Second, NFL teams are valuing the wrong traits in wide receivers, paying too much for speed and not enough for size, youth and college production. That creates marketplace inefficiencies.

I’ve done a lot of research on the importance of height and weight for wide receivers, and there’s a wealth of data that shows they’re more vital than top-end speed.

Everyone agrees that younger is better for any prospect, but NFL teams don’t act like it. Younger players are superior not only because they can play in the league longer, but because they were forced to play older college competition. When a 19-year-old receiver dominates in the SEC, for example, that’s much more impressive than when a 23-year-old does it.

The Cowboys actually fell for this trap last year with their selection of Terrance Williams. The pick wasn’t necessarily a poor one because he still fell pretty far into the third round, but he played much of his rookie season at age 24. In comparison, left tackle Tyron Smith, who has been in the NFL for three seasons, won’t turn 24 until December.

Finally, college production is important for wide receivers. If a guy is going to excel in the pros, chances are that he did it in college. But instead of analyzing bulk receiving stats, it seems more valuable to look at market-share stats, which better predict NFL success. Popularized by rotoViz, market share is the percentage of a team’s receiving yards/touchdowns for which a player accounts.

If a wide receiver has 10 touchdowns on an offense with 30 total receiving touchdowns, his market share of touchdowns (0.33) would be the same as if he had 15 touchdowns on a team with 45 total scores.

Market-share stats are useful for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that they account for team/quarterback strength. It’s more impressive when a wide receiver dominates on an otherwise poor offense with a lackluster quarterback than when one excels with an elite passer.

So without further ado, here are five wide receivers the Cowboys should consider in 2014. All have an elite combination of size, age and college production.

Allen Robinson, Penn State

Size: 6’3”, 210 pounds

Age: 20

msYds: .46

msTD: .29

Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson might be my favorite player in the entire class. With all of the talk about some of the other players at his position, he is the big, young receiver whom no one is mentioning.

You’d like him to be slightly heavier, but he’s far from undersized at 210 pounds, and he has the frame to add some bulk. His final market-share yardage number was through the roof since he had 1,432 yards on 97 catches, but he scored just six times. That might be a concern if he hadn’t scored 11 times in his age-19 season in 2012.

My praise of Robinson is probably the largest you’ll see because I think he’s a less-hyped version of A.J. Green and an inevitable stud at the next level. Dallas would be lucky to land him in Round 2.

Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

Size: 6’3”, 209 pounds

Age: 21

msYds: .50

msTD: .47

At 6’3”, 209 pounds, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews has a very similar build to Allen Robinson. He also had 112 catches during the 2013 season at age 21. His market-share numbers for both yards and touchdowns are through the roof.

Even though he is perhaps an even better option than Robinson, he has a much better chance to fall to Dallas in the second round. Because of how inefficiently NFL teams draft wide receivers, there’s even a chance that the Cowboys could trade back into the late second or early third and still grab Matthews.