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Bleacher Report | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


Why Cowboys Must Re-Sign Dez Bryant

Wide receiver Dez Bryant is the most valuable player on theDallas Cowboys not named ‘Tony Romo,’ and it isn’t even close. With all of the salary cap trouble the Cowboys have had, their top priority needs to be re-signing Bryant.

In today’s NFL, wide receivers are more important than ever. As valuable as offensive linemen are to a quarterback’s success, you could argue a big, play-making receiver is even more vital. Quarterbacks are getting the ball out quicker than ever, as evidenced by their time spent in the pocket, recorded by Pro Football Focus(subscription required). That decreases the value of linemen and increases that of pass-catchers.

Further, Bryant is a scarce player. It’s not like the Cowboys can go out and find another receiver with his combination of size and ball skills. His skill set is irreplaceable.

Most people seem to understand that the Cowboys should re-sign Bryant, but few understand his worth. The guys atDallasCowboys.com discussed if the ‘Boys should re-sign Bryant or left tackle Tyron Smith. The answer is both, but it raises an interesting question: is Smith more valuable to Dallas than Bryant?

While we all know Bryant is a premiere wide receiver, I suspect many would either be torn on that proposition or side with Smith because of “how much more valuable the line is than wide receivers.” That might be the case for certain receivers, but not those who score at an astonishing rate. Let’s take a look at Bryant’s value to Dallas.


Dez vs. Megatron

Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL. But the gap between Megatron and Bryant perhaps isn’t as great as you might think.

On a per-route basis, Bryant’s first few years in the league have been comparable to Johnson’s.

I removed the receivers’ rookie years (which were very comparable) to judge them as they entered their career primes. Johnson broke out before Bryant in his second NFL season, but Bryant is right there with Johnson on per-route basis.

You could argue that Megatron has seen a lot more double-coverage than Bryant, but that’s probably offset by the number of targets he’s seen. Johnson’s yards-per-route is surely inflated from getting such a heavy workload; he’s averaged over 148 targets per year since entering the NFL, compared to only 118 for Bryant.


Touchdown-Scoring Ability

Bryant gets the ball into the end zone. NFL coaches (Jason Garrett included) seem to forget that the point of football is to score touchdowns. Yes, you need to move the ball up the field in order to do that, but teams that can consistently score touchdowns when they’re inside the red zone are going to win.

Both Bryant and Johnson are elite red zone players. As much as Johnson surpasses Bryant in many aspects of wide receiver play, you could argue that Bryant is the superior red zone threat. Going back to his time at Oklahoma State, Bryant has been one of the most efficient red zone receivers ever.

Looking at overall touchdown rate (the percentage of catches that result in touchdowns) in years 2-4, Bryant has kept pace with Megatron.

The Cowboys had a superior offense during the years studied, but take a look at the receivers’ career numbers for both touchdown rate and red zone touchdown rate.

Johnson’s numbers are well above-average, but Bryant has been perhaps the best red zone receiver in the NFL since he entered the league. He’s scored on 24 of his 58 red zone targets.

Read the rest at Bleacher Report.


6 Breakout Candidates for Dallas in 2014

At BR, I proposed six players on the Dallas Cowboys who I believe have a high probability of breaking out in 2014. You can see the full list through the link, but here are three of those players.

DE/DT Tyrone Crawford

The Cowboys had high hopes for defensive end Tyrone Crawford before he went down for the year during the 2013 preseason. Here are three reasons I love Crawford in 2014, whether he plays outside at end or kicks in to defensive tackle:

  • Arm Length
  • College Production
  • NFL Efficiency

Arm length is the best predictor of pass-rushing success. With 33.75-inch arms, Crawford falls into elite territory. He has the arm length and bulk to excel both inside and out.

Although Crawford wasn’t completely dominant at Boise State in regards to sacks (13.5 in two seasons), he had 27 tackles-for-loss.

And in 2012, Crawford was graded by Pro Football Focus as a top 10 defender in Dallas, despite playing only 303 snaps. That was Crawford’s rookie year, and he made a tackle on 6.6 percent of his snaps. In comparison, defensive end DeMarcus Ware checked in with a 6.2 percent tackle rate last year.


S Matt Johnson

We can’t use safety Matt Johnson’s history of on-field production as a sign of future success because there is none. His inability to stay on the field is obviously a major concern, and Johnson has gotten hurt so often that we can pretty much conclude he’s actually injury-prone (as opposed to experiencing a string of bad luck). That’s not a term I throw around loosely.

Still, the Cowboys are going to keep Johnson around because he’s cheap and has upside. Johnson is due only $495,000 in base salary in 2014, according to Over the Cap. This will probably be his last shot, but Johnson has the skill set to start in the NFL.

Here’s a comparison of Johnson to another safety in the NFL:

Johnson: 6-1, 215 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.07 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 18 reps

Player X: 6-0, 214 pounds, 4.63 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle, 6.78 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 15 reps

‘Player X’ is 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. That’s not to say that Johnson is the exact same player, but a 24-year old safety with Johnson’s combination of size and speed should get a few chances.

LB Bruce Carter

Linebacker Bruce Carter’s breakout was supposed to come in 2013. After an impressive 2012 season, though, Carter struggled some last season; after recording a tackle on 11.2 percent of his 2012 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Carter’s tackle rate dropped to 10.6 percent in 2012.

However, Carter’s year wasn’t as poor as everyone made it out to be. He had a couple poor performances in coverage in the early portion of the year, but he really picked it up down the stretch. Carter allowed 7.32 yards per attempt in 2012, and that number actually dropped to 6.67 YPA in 2013. He actually yielded over half of all the passing yards he gave up in the first four games of the year, ultimately allowing fewer than 20 yards per game over the final 12 contests.

Look for Carter, a highly athletic player whose struggles were overblown, to realize some of his upside in 2014.


Free Agents to Watch for Dallas Cowboys

At BR, I analyzed a few free agents I think the Cowboys should consider this year. Here are two of them:

WR Danario Alexander

“But the Cowboys don’t need another wide receiver!”

Yes they do. Second-year man Terrance Williams was decent in 2013, but he didn’t do anything we shouldn’t have expected given his age. More importantly, he didn’t dominate in college until his final year, and there are some concerns that he doesn’t have the bulky Dez Bryant-esque body type that can excel in the red zone.

If something were to happen to Bryant or if defenses do everything in their power to take him out of games, where will the Cowboys turn? Williams isn’t ready to become a No. 1 receiver. Wide receivers Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley certainly aren’t more than role players. Tight end Jason Witten is on the way down.

Meanwhile, the Chargers’ Danario Alexander is a player with an elite skill set who has yet to break out in the NFL because of excessive injuries. Is he injury-prone? Yeah, he might be. But everyone already thinks that, so it’s going to be priced into his contract. That means there’s little downside to signing him but massive upside if he can stay healthy.

Alexander is really the prototypical sort of low-risk, low-cost, high-upside player Dallas should be seeking.

Sign of Success: elite size


OT Charles Brown

A second-round pick in 2010, offensive tackle Charles Brown didn’t get extended playing time until the 2013 season.

He wasn’t good. He gave up 33 pressures and seven sacks with the Saints, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Because he’s failed to live up to expectations in the NFL, Brown’s cost should be low. If it’s low enough, he’s certainly worth the risk. Still only 26 years old, Brown has played just over a season’s worth of snaps in his four-year career. In that way, he too is a Selvie-esque free agent who struggled in limited early action but has the skill set to be a dominant player.

Brown’s addition would be smart because right tackle Doug Free struggled down the stretch in 2013. Free might improve in 2014, but there’s probably an even better chance that he was simply playing better than he should have to start the season and returned to form later.

Sign of Success: 35.25″ arms


Dallas Cowboys 7-Round 2014 Mock Draft

I just unveiled a seven-round Cowboys mock draft over at BR. Here’s an explanation of why I find them to be valuable, along with a sneak peek of the first pick.

The Dallas Cowboys‘ 2014 draft class isn’t going to be accurately predicted in any mock draft (not even close).

So why do them?

Mock drafts have value because they allow teams to visualize different paths they can create for themselves (or those that will be created by virtue of the selections made by other teams).

The Cowboys will likely perform their own mock drafts in the coming months as a way to understand the probability of certain prospects being available for them to pick in each round. Single mock drafts are analogous to individual presidential polls; alone, they don’t have much value because preferences can change over short periods of time. But a series of such drafts can allow teams to better anticipate their options.

Further, mocks also allow us to analyze prospects in ever greater detail and forecast how a proposed selection early in the proceedings could affect the rest of a team’s draft. With each selection, teams should be asking themselves “What does this player give us? What does his selection limit us from doing in subsequent rounds?”

Without further ado, let’s get into one potential path for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.

Round 1: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

The Cowboys are clearly in the market for defensive linemen, and Missouri’s Kony Ealy is an interesting name to watch in the first round. Projected to get selected right around the Cowboys’ pick (currently No. 17 overall), Ealy would likely compete right out of the gate for a starting defensive end spot with George Selvie.

Ealy is a long defensive end at 6’5″, 275 pounds. He’s very athletic and a force against the run, but the question is whether he has enough pass-rushing ability to justify a top-20 selection; he did not show much promise as an edge-rusher until his final season at Missouri when he recorded eight sacks.

What His Selection Would Mean

Ealy’s selection would likely mean the Cowboys would bypass other defensive ends in the next few rounds. There are a lot of quality options who could fall to them in the second round (Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Louisville’s Marcus Smith, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton), so it will be up to Dallas to determine if the drop-off in talent from Ealy is enough to justify selecting him in the first.

This mode of decision-making, known as position scarcity, shows why a “best player available” draft strategy is bogus; without properly evaluating position depth and the value of potential replacement picks, teams cannot maximize the overall talent of their draft classes.

Check out all of the picks.


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

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

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

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

Round 1: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

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

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

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

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

Round 3: Daquan Jones, DT, Penn State

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

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

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



Do the Cowboys need another wide receiver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Wide Receivers to Watch

Allen Robinson, Penn State (Round 1-2)

Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss (Round 4)


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

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

How much value does Bailey have over a replacement kicker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How likely is Bailey to repeat his past stats?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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