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TE Jason Witten Is No Longer Elite

At Bleacher Report, I posted an analysis of Jason Witten, explaining why he’s no longer an elite tight end. It’s not a popular stance, but the truth is that Witten has morphed into a very average player over the last couple years.

If you look at NFL futures odds, you’ll see that the Cowboys are currently +275 to win the NFC East. That’s the same as the Giants, but significantly worse than the Eagles. One of the reasons Dallas is a team moving in a different direction than Philly is that they ignore the numbers, handing out “bad money” contracts like Witten’s five-year, $37 million deal that doesn’t expire until 2018.

So why is Witten no longer elite? From my B/R article:

Yards Per Target

The first way that we can measure Witten’s efficiency is by looking at what he does with his targets. Here’s a look at the progression of his yards per target. I marked the NFL league average for tight ends with white dash marks.

You can see that Witten was continually around the league average (8.0) in efficiency prior to 2012. That’s not horrible, considering that he always saw more targets than most tight ends and as workload increases, efficiency naturally decreases.

The fact that Witten was around average in efficiency prior to 2012 shows he was an above-average tight end, but probably not as efficient as you might have expected. The truth is that Witten has always been a really good player, but one who’s really been aided by bulk attempts.

Would we have considered Witten a monster receiving tight end if he had played on an offense that didn’t focus on him so heavily? Doubtful.

Again, that’s pre-2012. Look at what happened two seasons ago. In the year in which Witten broke the record for receptions by a tight end, he also turned in a career low in yards per target. And the drop wasn’t a small one; it was magnificent.

In his “career year” of 2012, Witten produced more than one yard less per target than an average NFL tight end. Is it now easier to see why predicting him to disappoint in 2013 was so easy?

Witten’s yards per target improved in 2013 with fewer looks, but his average was still the second-worst and below-average for a tight end. It’s difficult to label a player who is below-average in efficiency as “elite,” especially when they receive the fewest targets they’ve gotten in seven seasons.

 

Yards Per Route

Of all stats to analyze for receivers, my favorite is yards per route. That’s because it penalizes for not getting open (and thus failing to receive a target).

It’s also good for tight ends because it doesn’t penalize them when they stay in to block. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Witten’s game is that he doesn’t stay in to block on very many passes.

Last year, he stayed in to block 13.6 percent of the time, according toPro Football Focus (subscription required), which ranked 28th of 35 qualifying tight ends. When the Cowboys pass, Witten is almost always an option for Romo, which will naturally inflate his stats. Yards per route adjusts for that.

Plus, yards per route does a better job than yards per target of displaying Witten’s value.

Even though Witten’s yards per route has declined every year since 2008, he was still well above the league average up until 2013. Part of that is due to receiving a high percentage of the Cowboys’ targets—again, the bulk opportunities obviously help—but Witten was also producing at a higher level a few years ago.

The fact that Witten’s yards per route declined in 2012, when he saw an unfathomable 150 targets, is a really strong sign that his play has been regressing. To produce just above league-average efficiency on a per-route basis despite seeing a target on 23.8 percent of his routes (a high rate) is a good indicator that Witten wasn’t actually playing at a level that his raw totals suggested.

 

Blocking Ability

The go-to rebuttal for Witten apologists is “but he’s an elite blocker, too.” That’s probably the case because it’s difficult to quantify blocking ability, and thus difficult to refute. Those who use Witten’s blocking to claim he’s still an elite tight end will tell you to “just turn on the tape.”

Well, Pro Football Focus does turn on the tape, but unlike traditional scouts, it quantifies what it sees. We can use its numbers on tight end blocking efficiency, at least in pass protection, to determine Witten’s value as a pass-blocker.

Here’s a look at Witten’s pass-blocking efficiency since 2007 versus the average NFL tight end.

 

Witten has adequately blocked his man on 95.1 percent of pass snaps. That’s better than the league average, although the effect perhapsisn’t as great as it appears; the average NFL tight end has pass-blocking efficiency just one percentage point lower at 94.1 percent.

That means we can expect Witten to allow one less pressure on Romo for every 100 pass snaps that he stays in to block as compared to a typical tight end.

But remember, Witten doesn’t remain in to block all that much—an average of just over 61 snaps per year over the past eight seasons. That’s it. So on average, Witten has “saved” 0.61 quarterback pressures per season for Dallas.

Now, can he really overcome a precipitous drop in receiving efficiency to remain an “elite” tight end because of 0.61 pressures per year?

 

Conclusion

Witten is a good tight end. He’s a great guy, a hard worker, and the type of player you want on your team.

He’s not an elite tight end.

If you’re going to continue to label the future Hall of Famer in that way, you need to somehow show that, despite being below-average in yards per target and yards per route in 2013, Witten still somehow offers enough value to overcome his lackluster efficiency. Presumably, those traits will need to be unquantifiable, like “he plays with such heart” or “he’s a good leader.”

OK, Witten is a good leader. He’s a good leader who produces like an average NFL tight end and is by no means an elite option for the Cowboys anymore.

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The Cowboys’ Most Underrated Players

At BR, I examined the four most underrated players on the Cowboys. Here’s a peek:

WR Dez Bryant

Everyone knows wide receiver Dez Bryant is a great wide receiver, yet there’s still talk about whether or not he’s elite. Further, Bryant was ranked just 25th on the NFL’s Top 100 List, behind Antonio Brown. Antonio Brown!

People don’t realize how effective Bryant has been during his NFL career, and you could make an argument he’s already the second-best wide receiver in the NFL. Here’s a look at quarterback Tony Romo’s passer rating when targeting Bryant during their four seasons together, along with Bryant’s rank among all receivers.

The fact that the number decreased in 2013 isn’t really cause for concern since Bryant saw all kinds of defensive attention. Actually, the fact that Romo’s passer rating when throwing to Bryant was still 104.9 (according to Pro Football Focus) despite so much double-coverage is pretty scary.

Bryant’s biggest plus is his ability to score touchdowns.

Simply put, he’s the game’s top red zone receiver—better than Megatron, better than Demaryius Thomas, better than everyone.

DE/DT Tyrone Crawford

The reason defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is underrated is that we just don’t know very much about him right now. Crawford didn’t play in 2013 and received just 303 total snaps in his rookie year of 2012.

What we do know is that Crawford is big and long with 33.75-inch arms, according to NFL.com—long for his size. He was also productive at Boise State with 27 tackles-for-loss in two seasons. We normally wouldn’t weight college stats so heavily for a third-year player, but it’s suitable in the case of Crawford since we haven’t seen him play much in the pros.

And in his rookie year when we saw glimpses of his potential, Crawford was highly effective. He recorded a tackle on 6.3 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That same year, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher checked in at 4.6 percent and DeMarcus Ware at 3.3 percent.

TE James Hanna

We know that weight matters a lot for receivers. We know that speed is perhaps overrated for receivers, but still important.

So what if I told you the Cowboys could get a 6’4”, 252-pound receiver with 4.49 speed—one of the greatest weight/speed combination players ever? Gotta give him a shot, right? Well, they already have that player in James Hanna, who plays tight end, and they don’t use him.

Is there more that goes into being a tight end than being big and fast? Obviously. But we really don’t know if Hanna has what it takes to translate his athleticism into production because he doesn’t get the opportunities to do it.

You could argue that Hanna doesn’t play because he hasn’t “flashed” in practice, but I’d counter that NFL teams make humongous assessment errors all the time. That’s why we see a player like Tavon Austin drafted in the top 10; he looks awesome in practice and on film—better than, say, Alshon Jeffery, who appears kind of sluggish due to his size—but who would you rather have on your team? It doesn’t seem like all that much of a stretch to assume that the Cowboys are underrating Hanna’s ability to play at a high level without, you know, ever giving him a chance to do it.

And then there’s the fact that he can’t block well. Well, let’s think of Hanna as a wide receiver who can be lined up in the slot or out wide instead of as an in-line tight end. If our perception of his position changes his apparent worth, maybe it’s time to stop artificially limiting what he can do with a label.

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5 Undervalued 2014 Draft Prospects

At Bleacher Report, I broke down five players I think are undervalued. Here’s one:

There are two primary keys to analyzing prospects, in my estimation: understanding predictors of NFL success at each position and emphasizing the ones that others are overlooking. One example of this is hand size in quarterbacks. It’s highly predictive of NFL successbut not properly priced into quarterback draft slots; if it were, we wouldn’t see players like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson—short quarterbacks with large hands—fall in the draft.

When searching for undervalued prospects who should interest Dallas (or any team), I’m looking for traits I think are undervalued by the market and comparing those to the projected draft slot for each prospect. It really comes down to the draft slot. A single prospect might be awesome value in the third round and horrible value in the back of the first; it’s all about expected value versus cost.

Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas

Biggest Predictors: Arm Length, Production, Explosiveness

Projected Round: 3

Arkansas outside linebacker/defensive end Chris Smith is one of the reasons I don’t think the Cowboys need to draft a defensive end that early, even though it’s a huge need. He’s a 6’1”, 266-pound outside linebacker who should be able to stick his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end.

The concern is Smith’s height, which is why he’s going to drop to the middle rounds. Height is correlated with success for pass-rushers. The question is whether or not that’s because being tall helps or because tall players typically have something that really matters—long arms.

We continually see short, long-armed pass-rushers like Justin Houstondrop too far in the NFL draft because of a trait that’s overvalued (height) and then excel in the pros because of one that really matters (arm length).

Well, Smith has 34.1-inch arms, which is just ridiculous for his height. That helped him tally 18 sacks and 24.5 tackles-for-loss in the past two seasons at Arkansas. Smith is one of the most undervalued players in this class because teams will get scared by his height. And oh yeah, he can also jump 37 inches vertically.

Here’s the rest of the article.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.