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All Draft | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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

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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)

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2014 Senior Bowl Scouting Guide: 5 Players to Watch

I broke down five players to watch at the Senior Bowl through the lens of the Cowboys. Here are two of those players:

Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

It’s no secret that the Cowboys desperately need to upgrade the interior of their defensive line. Nick Hayden isn’t a starting-quality defensive tackle and Jason Hatcher will probably leave via free agency. Tyrone Crawford will be back next year and I think it makes sense for Dallas to try him inside so that they can add an interior pass-rushing threat, but the Cowboys will still be very thin at the position.

Pitt’s Aaron Donald is a defensive tackle who is going to interest pretty much every team that needs a defensive tackle because he was so unbelievably productive in college. Over the past three seasons, Donald has totaled 180 tackles, 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks. Those are jaw-dropping numbers for a defensive tackle.

Donald appears to be playing well in Senior Bowl practices, too. Bleacher Report‘s Michael Schottey has taken notice:

The top defensive lineman of the day was Aaron Donald (DL Pittsburgh), who can probably play either 3-Tech in a 4-3 defense or 5-Tech in a 3-4 defense at the next level. At times, he was unstoppable against both single- and double-teams. The only player in Mobile, Ala., who may have a quicker first step is the South’s Will Sutton (DT Arizona State).

So what’s not to like? Well, Donald is 6’1″ and 288 pounds with 31 3/4-inch arms. Without much bulk or great length, Donald’s game is based entirely on speed. If NFL interior linemen are able to combat his first step, how will he respond?

I’m really conflicted on Donald because the two traits I value most for pass-rushers are arm length and college production. He’s horrible in one area and sensational in the other. Projected as a borderline first-round pick by CBS Sports, I see Donald as a high-risk/high-reward prospect who makes sense for Dallas if he were to fall into the second round. In my opinion, his size makes him too much of a risk for the first.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

“The last thing the Cowboys need is another wide receiver.” That was me imitating what you just said to yourself. But you’re wrong.

Outside of quarterback, I think wide receiver is rapidly becoming one of the most important positions in football. One reason is that they score points, and teams need to score points to win. Duh. Big, physical receivers can not only move the ball up the field, but they remain relevant in the red zone, helping teams convert offensive efficiency into wins.

Anyone here know a team that has historically racked up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points? Yeah, me too.

Second, there are still some terrible inefficiencies in the way NFL teams draft wide receivers. They care more about speed and less about size than they should. When you see a player like Tavon Austin get drafted in the top 10, you know there are problems. Austin sure is fun to watch, but St. Louis is going to have trouble scoring unless the NFL decides to award points for running sideways across the field.

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 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.

Matthews has had some drops in practices, according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com, but he’s also reportedly playing better than any wide receiver there.

Check out the other three prospects right here.

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Why Cowboys should probably trade down in first round

As mentioned, I’ve been working on a few projects that I plan to release in the near future, hence the lack of updates. I’ve also been cutting down on my Cowboys coverage and working on a lot more fantasy sports-related material. But I’m still writing about the ‘Boys on a daily basis, and one of my recent articles at BR examined why I’d (probably) trade down in the first round:

The Numbers on Draft Pick Value

I charted the value of each NFL draft pick in regards to both the NFL trade-value chart and their actual NFL production. For actual value, I used Pro Football Reference’s approximate value as a grading tool.

I charted both forms of value in terms of the percentage of overall draft value that each individual pick encompasses. The first overall pick is worth 5.0 percent of the overall value on the trade chart, for example, but has historically accounted for far less in terms of the overall approximate value from his respective draft class.

At locations where the blue line surpasses the orange line, the cost of trading up is presumably too high. You can see that’s the case all the way up until around pick 20. There, the cost of the pick on the NFL’s trade-value chart is representative of how well that player should actually be expected to perform.

The obvious conclusion is that NFL teams are typically paying way too much to move up in the first round. They’re overrating the potential impact of the players selected there, particularly in the top 10. Those players are still expected to be the best in the class, but the cost for a team outside of the top 10 to move there is prohibitive.

First-Round Trade Results

Historically, teams trading down in the first round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.

Amazingly, the teams moving down in first-round trades have acquired 64.4 percent of the total approximate value accumulated by the players involved in those deals, i.e. trading down has been far superior to moving up.

Perhaps even more amazing, the team trading down has gotten the best player in the deal 50.9 percent of the time! I mentioned that stat on Twitter and a reader responded that it simply makes it a coin flip. He was right that it’s a coin flip as to which team will acquire the best player, so the prudent thing to do would be to get that player at the cheapest cost possible. Stockpile picks in the range where production surpasses cost and maximize the probability of hitting on an undervalued asset.

Would you pay $30,000 for a car you can get elsewhere for $28,000? Of course not. Well, NFL teams that trade up in the first round have historically been paying extra for something they could have just gotten later. The cost is too high right now.

Read the whole article right here.

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Running the Numbers: Breaking Down DeVonte Holloman and Brandon Magee

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down rookie linebackers DeVonte Holloman and Brandon Magee. Here’s the section on Magee:

Brandon Magee, Arizona State

Although Magee and Holloman played at different schools, their respective conferences, the Pac-12 and SEC, are comparable in quality. You could argue that we’d expect Magee’s stats to be better since the Pac-12 is a worse conference than the SEC, but don’t forget that Magee probably had worse teammates than Holloman. If we’re going to use the “SEC offensive linemen and running backs are better than those in the Pac-12” argument, then we also need to say that Holloman probably benefited from superior defensive linemen who could eat up blocks and allow him to make plays. In the end, it’s probably a wash, meaning we can at least make relative comparisons between the stats for the two prospects.

On a per-game basis, there appears to be a pretty substantial difference between Magee and Holloman. Take a look.

While Holloman’s production seemed to level out during his junior and senior seasons, Magee’s soared. The Arizona State linebacker ranked third in the entire Pac-12 in tackles last season. Meanwhile, Holloman ranked 58th in the SEC. Regardless of competition, Magee was a far more productive player than Holloman, especially when you consider that Magee also sacked the quarterback 6.5 times. Actually, Magee ranked in the top 15 in sacks for Pac-12 players at all positions.

It’s rather impressive that Magee managed to come back from a torn Achilles tendon in 2011 to dominate in 2012, but it also means that he’ll turn 23 years old early in his first professional season. I’ve mentioned that we really need to consider age when assessing prospects because it can help tell us if a player has maxed out on his potential or if his past play is only a fraction of what he can provide in the NFL.

And you can check out the full post at DallasCowboys.com.

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Running the Numbers: Analytical View of Joseph Randle

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down running back Joseph Randle’s pros and cons from a statistical perspective, including some analysis on player comps.

Each year prior to the draft, you can find dozens of scouting reports on each prospect. Many of them contain a “Player Comparison” section in which the writer compares the prospect to a current or former NFL player. I think these can be misleading, for two reasons. The first is that such a comparison can sometimes imply that a particular prospect has a rather narrow career outlook.

The truth is that most prospects have a very wide range of potential career paths, so we should really compare each to multiple similar players. The most comparable players can be weighted the strongest, but it would be wrong to insinuate that a particular player will without a doubt have a comparable career to someone else.

The second problem with most player comparisons is that they typically emphasize the wrong traits. As I’ve mentioned in the past, we should search to see which traits have been predictive of NFL success in the past, then weight the most important characteristics more heavily than those that haven’t been great predictors. If college receptions didn’t matter at all for running backs when predicting their futures, for example, there would be no reason to factor them into a search for comparable players. The most similar players are the ones who have near-matching numbers in the metrics that matter, i.e. those that can accurately predict a career.

However, how many times do you see player comparisons with two prospects who went to the same school? We saw that last week in Bryan Broaddus’s player comparison post; Broaddus asked some scouts around the league to compare the Cowboys’ draft picks with current NFL players. Two of the players, Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams, were provided with comps who played at their colleges. In these situations, it’s likely that the scouts were suffering from the availability heuristic – a mental shortcut through which people make judgments based on how easily they can think of examples. It might be easy to compare Williams to fellow Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon, for example, but they’re pretty different players in regards to traits that appear to matter in the NFL. The fact that they both attended Baylor isn’t one of those important traits.

Let me be clear that NFL scouts are really good at what they do; for the most part, their player grades are pretty accurate, and many of them do it without the aid of analytics. But it’s really difficult, perhaps impossible, to generate meaningful comps just from memory. There are all kinds of biases involved in that sort of process. That’s really why we use data and advanced stats in the first place; no matter how great a scout’s memory or how well he knows a prospect, there’s no way he could recall a list of player comps faster or more accurately than a computer. In effect, algorithms can help us eliminate what we think we know to tell us what’s really there.

Head over to the team site to see why I’m not too high on Randle.

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Undrafted Free Agents: Jakar Hamilton, Kendial Lawrence Scouting Reports

At NBC, I broke down two more of the Cowboys’ undrafted free agents: safety Jakar Hamilton and running back Kendial Lawrence.

On Hamilton:

Hamilton played the 2010 season at Georgia before transferring to South Carolina State. He wasn’t academically eligible to play until 2012, working primarily as a return specialist and contributing some on defense. With such little playing time, it’s pretty easy to see why Hamilton wasn’t drafted.

Nonetheless, Hamilton is a great athlete who has put together some good tape. He’s 5-11 and 186 pounds with mid-4.5 speed. He also recorded a 10-5 broad jump and 40.5-inch vertical, so there’s obvious explosiveness to his game. Despite his small stature, Hamilton appears willing to come up to make hits. He had 40 tackles in eight games in 2012 and breaks down well to make plays in the open field.

Check out the full report.

On Lawrence:

Lawrence is a small running back at 5-9, 194 pounds. The height doesn’t scare me—plenty of short backs have thrived in the NFL—but the weight is a concern. If Lawrence can beef up to over 200 pounds without losing speed, the Cowboys could have something here. To be fair, Lawrence’s body mass index (which is actually strongly correlated with NFL success) is 28.6—higher than Joseph Randle’s 27.7 BMI. So although short, there shouldn’t be too much concern that Lawrence can’t hold up.

When we’re looking at running backs from a measurables standpoint, the first things to consider are weight and long speed. If you’re deficient in one, you better make up for it in the other. And Lawrence does. He ran as low as a 4.33 40-yard dash at his pro day. That puts him in rare company with a group of running backs who have far out-produced even those backs in the 4.4 range.

Read the rest here.

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Cowboys Draft Scouting Reports: Joseph Randle, DeVonte Holloman, Brandon Magee

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I’ve been a little sick, but I’ve still been cranking out some scouting reports. At NBC, I published reports on Joseph Randle, DeVonte Holloman, and Brandon Magee.

On Randle:

What I Like

Randle was productive in the Big 12. He rushed for 38 touchdowns in the past two seasons, averaging 5.5 YPC over that time. He also caught 108 passes over the course of his three-year career, and that ability is surely one the Cowboys coveted.

Interestingly, despite his lackluster 40 times, Randle tested well in some other drills. He showed explosiveness in the broad jump (10-3) and short shuttle (4.25). Most backs who run in the 4.6s don’t have that sort of explosiveness in other metrics, so Randle has a chance to be one of the “slower” backs to overcome his lack of long speed.

What I Don’t Like

In addition to his 40 time, which is a concern no matter how you slice it, Randle also lacks an ideal build. The most successful NFL backs have traditionally been short and stocky. Randle is 6-0, 204 pounds; his long, lean build means he’s probably more susceptible to injuries than most other backs. He truly is Murray without the speed.

Here’s the whole scouting report on Randle.

On Holloman:

What I Like

I love that Holloman played safety in college. Even if he was average at the position, that equates to above-average movement for a linebacker. He’s also an aggressive player who fits well in a 4-3.

What I Don’t Like

At Holloman’s size, you’d like to see more explosiveness. If you’re a 6-1 linebacker, you better be able to keep up with running backs and tight ends, and I’m not sure Holloman can do that on a consistent basis.

Check out the full report.

On Magee:

What I Like

I like what the Cowboys are doing in trying to get smaller. By all accounts, it seems as though they’re going to field an extremely undersized defense—perhaps the lightest in the NFL. That could work out in their favor if they can force offenses to run the ball too much. In most cases, a defense should want an offense to run the ball on first-and-10, second-and-five, and in similar situations.

What I Don’t Like

Magee is so small that there almost seems to be no point in using him at linebacker over a safety. There are a few safeties in the league taller and heavier than Magee, so why not just play one of them as an outside linebacker in situations when Magee would be on the field? The reason is that Magee isn’t particularly explosive for his size. A lineup with Matt Johnson and J.J. Wilcox at safety and Barry Church at linebacker would probably be superior to one with an undersized linebacker who lacks safety-like coverage skills.

The full scouting report is at NBC.

I also took an analytical look at J.J. Wilcox and B.W. Webb at DallasCowboys.com:

J.J. Wilcox

There’s a really big difference between scouting small-school players versus those who played in a major conference. For certain positions, elite production in a big conference is the best predictor of NFL success. When a running back rushes for 6.0 yards per carry in the SEC or a wide receiver catches 100 passes in the Big Ten, for example, there’s good reason to believe that they’ll be effective in the NFL.

For small-school prospects like Wilcox, stats don’t matter as much. Playing against inferior competition, it really doesn’t matter how many interceptions or tackles Wilcox made in college. We’d of course like to see small-school prospects dominate games, but 1,500 rushing yards in the SEC is a bit different from the same amount in the Sun Belt.

That means that measurables are more vital when studying small-school players. A player like Wilcox might look outstanding on tape, but what do we really know about him when he’s playing against Old Dominion and Samford? We need to make sure players like that can make it in the NFL from a purely athletic standpoint before doing anything else, and there’s good reason to think Wilcox can do that.

Check out the rest.

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B.W. Webb Scouting Report

At NBC, I published my take on fourth-round cornerback B.W. Webb.

Scouting Report

Webb is a small cornerback at 5-10, 184 pounds. Tall, muscular cornerbacks have become in vogue in today’s NFL with the rise of zone coverages to combat physical wide receivers. It’s not impossible for Webb to play outside by any means, but his more natural position, at least at first, seems like it would come in the slot.

Webb’s skill set is also suited for playing inside. He recorded a 3.84 short shuttle—the fastest for any player at any position at the 2013 Scouting Combine. He’s incredibly quick, and that trait will obviously be vital in the slot. Webb’s 4.51 40-yard dash time is average, but he showed explosiveness with a 40.5-inch vertical and 11-0 broad jump—both the third-highest marks at the Combine for any player.

On tape, you can see that Webb played almost solely zone coverage in college. He’ll be playing a whole lot more man coverage as a slot cornerback in Dallas, even in Monte Kiffin’s scheme, and there just isn’t a whole lot of film out there on Webb moving in man coverage. I have no doubt that he can do it, but he’ll need to work on his technique.

Webb is a play-maker on the outside—he had eight interceptions as a freshman—and a very willing tackler. Actually, he’s such a good tackler that I really believe he could potentially play safety for Dallas. Kiffin’s safeties don’t need to be big, and I think Webb is a good enough tackler to man the position. He’d play free safety for the Cowboys; I’m not sure if the coaches have discussed the option, but it makes sense.

Here’s the full post.

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Running the Numbers: Terrance Williams Stats/Measurables

At DallasCowboys.com, I took an analytical look at third-round pick Terrance Williams.

The first thing that jumps out about Williams is his staggering 2012 production for Baylor: 97 receptions, 1,832 yards, and 12 touchdowns. College production is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of grading prospects; the best predictor of future performance is past success. Williams obviously had that in his senior season. We shouldn’t dismiss the fact that he dominated Big 12 competition.

Prior to 2012, though, Williams never surpassed 60 receptions or 1,000 yards in a single season. Why? Part of it is probably due to Baylor’s offense, but another potential explanation is that Williams, who was redshirted all the way back in 2008, played the 2012 season at age 23. There’s quite a difference between a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old in terms of maturity and experience.

Williams will begin his rookie season at age 24; compare that to Browns second-year receiver Josh Gordon, who caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns last year in his rookie campaign at age 21. By the time Gordon is 24 years old, he’ll be in his fourth season in the NFL. That’s invaluable to Cleveland. Whereas Williams’ age 24 season will basically be a learning experience, Gordon could very well already be playing at near peak efficiency. Williams’ age isn’t debilitating to his career outlook by any means, but it should still be a factor in our assessment.

Think of it this way: If Williams had come out of school after the 2011 season, one in which he caught 59 passes for 957 yards, where would he have been drafted? Probably not in the third round. The question is whether or not Williams maxed out on his potential in college because he was more experienced than the competition, playing at an age a few years older than many NFL rookies. It’s tough to tell, but there are other things to like about Williams.

Head over to the team site for the full post.

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What I Like, Dislike About Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox

At NBC, I published scouting reports and what I like/dislike about Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox. On Williams:

What I Like

I don’t think you can emphasize Williams’ weight/speed combination enough; it’s vital. I also love how productive Williams was at Baylor in 2012, catching 97 passes for 1,832 yards and 12 touchdowns. Williams averaged 18.9 yards-per-catch, and that kind of production in the Big 12 is impressive. The best predictor of future performance is past success. So often we talk about a prospect’s film and his measurables, but we forget to look at how he’s produced against a high level of competition in the past. It’s also worth noting that Williams converted 13.4 percent of his career catches into touchdowns.

The whole Williams scouting report is at NBC.

On Wilcox:

What I Like

Wilcox is an athlete. Although he’s obviously raw and inexperienced at safety, I think that’s a good thing, for a few reasons. First, it means he hasn’t had as much time to pick up bad habits. The Cowboys’ coaches have a piece of clay that they can sculpt, and Wilcox is enough of an athlete to pick up the teaching right away. Second, I think it’s valuable for defensive players to understand offensive concepts. Wilcox has said he’s benefited from knowing how receivers will run their routes, how they’ll come out of their breaks, and so on; although he played at Georgia Southern, he’s a step ahead of the game in terms of the mental aspects of playing in the NFL.

What I Don’t Like

It’s obviously not ideal for a prospect to play against inferior competition because it becomes really difficult to grade him. While I think Wilcox’s background allowed the Cowboys to acquire value on him in the third round, he has some hurdles he’ll need to overcome to play under the bright lights of the NFL. With any small-school prospect, it’s so important to make sure they’re confident and mentally tough enough to play with the best of the best.

Check out the rest at NBC.