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Miscellaneous | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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

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Predicting Cowboys’ Award Winners in 2013

At Bleacher Report, I broke down my choices for the Cowboys’ 2013 MVP, Rookie of the Year, and more.

Most Improved Player

There are a lot of candidates for “Most Improved Player” just because the Cowboys had so many underachievers and injured players in 2012: Doug Free, Tyron Smith,DeMarco Murray, Jay Ratliff, and the list goes on.

I’m going with second-year man Morris Claiborne. The cornerback’s rookie season was plagued by a few poor performances, most notably the Eagles game in which he committed five penalties. The truth is that Claiborne was actually pretty good last year, but his traditional stats don’t show it. Claiborne allowed 48 catches for 571 yards on 69 attempts (subscription required), or 8.28 YPA, and generated just one interception.

However, Claiborne’s numbers were down because quarterbacks didn’t target him all that much. Claiborne’s 69 targets represent just over four per game. In comparison, veteran Brandon Carr was targeted 87 times on the year.

If we look at yards per route—the number of yards Claiborne allowed for every snap he was in coverage—his total of 1.14 ranks him as a low-end No. 1 cornerback. That advanced stat suggests that Claiborne was already better as a rookie than most think. With more targets and a switch to Monte Kiffin’s cornerback-friendly defense, Claiborne’s interception total will soar in 2013.

WINNER: Morris Claiborne

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Dallas Cowboys 2013 Schedule Analysis and Predictions

I’m going to be working for Bleacher Report again this year, and my first article went up today. I posted a game-by-game breakdown of the Cowboys’ 2013 schedule. Here’s Week 1:

Jason Garrett was praised for “maintaining balance” in the Cowboys’ Week 1 win over the Giants in 2012, but the truth is, the offense gained a lead by passing the football often. They ran the ball well late, racking up yards to create the illusion of offensive balance.

In 2013, the Cowboys are going to beat the Giants by continuing to do what they do best: throwing the football. Dallas has massive advantages at the skill positions, particularly when Dez Bryant is covered by Corey Webster. The most overrated cornerback in the NFL allowed eight touchdowns and over 10 yards per attempt last year! If Webster is ever on an island against Bryant, he’s going to lose, and in a bad way.

PREDICTION: Cowboys 28, Giants 24 (1-0)

This is actually the first time I’m revealing my projected record for the Cowboys, so check it out at BR.

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Interview With Sports Analytics Blog

I recently did an interview with SportsAnalyticsBlog.com, which you can check out right here. Here’s a preview:

Are advanced statistics becoming more prevalent in fantasy football? Do you look at any advanced metrics (Total QBR, etc.) when trying to find the best players?

No doubt about it. There are all kinds of advanced metrics out there that help me and others win leagues. I don’t use Total QBR because I think it overvalues “clutch” situations, but I look at other predictors of success in order to uncover value on players who haven’t broken out just yet, but are likely to do so in the future—yards per route, points per opportunity, 40 times, speed scores, average depth of passes, and stuff like that. As long as you can establish that a certain stat predicts future success, then it’s valuable.

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The most important stat needed to predict 2013 NFL records

At Dallas Morning News, I went over perhaps the most influential stat in my team record predictions.

Below, I charted each team’s offensive EPA per play, defensive EPA per play, and the total. I used per-play averages because they don’t penalize a team for running fewer plays.

You can see the Cowboys ranked 20th in this metric last year, suggesting they were just slightly lucky to finish with an 8-8 record given how they played. One thing that EPA/play can’t measure is injuries, so we know that Dallas has a good chance of improving with superior defensive health.

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Cowboys vs Dolphins Live Tweeting/3 Players to Watch

Just a heads up that I’ll probably do some tweeting of the game tonight (@BalesFootball), at least until I get sick of it around halftime. Also, I just detailed three specific players to watch for the Cowboys.

S Matt Johnson

Take a look at Johnson’s closest comp:

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

From a physical standpoint, that’s basically the same player. The only difference is that Johnson was drafted in the fourth round out of Eastern Washington and ‘Player X’ was a first-round safety out of Texas. His name is Kenny Vaccaro, and people seem to have higher hopes for him than they do for Johnson.

Matt Johnson is going to make a big impact in 2013, and it will start tonight.

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100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 46: Why I’m Bullish on DeMarco Murray

Earlier this year, I broke down four reasons that I’m high on DeMarco Murray in 2013.

Today, I got a chance to do a Cowboys podcast with Ryan Fowler over at FOX Sports, and we hit on the subject of Murray’s 2013 fantasy outlook. Basically, I think Murray is getting drafted as if he’s a middle-aged, injury-prone running back who has never produced when, in reality, he’s a young back with a track record of effectiveness who might be injury-prone, or he might just be someone who has been unlucky with injuries.

You can listen to the full podcast right here.

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Lots of Cowboys Articles: DeMarco Murray & Barry Church Projections, Late-Game Heroics, and More

See that title? I’m a big believer in the Oxford comma. I always have been, and I’ll never stray away from it. I’ve been told 1,000 times to leave out the last comma in a list, and I’ll never do it.

  • I’m writing this article for my fans, Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan.
  • I’m writing this article for my fans, Jason Garrett, and Bill Callahan.

Which makes more sense to you?

Okay, so here are a few articles I’ve published lately. Click the links to read more.

At NBC, a projection for DeMarco Murray in 2013:

The key to projecting Murray in 2013 is determining his snap count. That’s also the hard part. Most will argue that you can’t project Murray to play all 16 games because he’s injury prone, but that’s really difficult to argue. Yes, he’s suffered injuries in his first two seasons in the league, but he could just be unlucky, too. Two seasons is hardly a significant enough sample for us to declare with any sort of confidence if Murray is injury prone or not.

That doesn’t mean we should project Murray to play every snap because 1) running backs as a whole get injured often and 2) the Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle. If the Cowboys run 1,100 offensive plays this year, Murray will probably be on the field for around 660 of them—60 percent. That number factors in the risk of injury.

In his rookie year, Murray touched the ball on 51.0 percent of his snaps, and that number dropped to 40.7 percent in 2012. If it evens out at around, say, 44.0 percent in 2013, Murray would touch the ball 290 times.

And a Barry Church projection:

Church is an interesting player because he has such limited experience. He’s played only 399 defensive snaps during his three-year career; that’s the equivalent of less than half of one full season for a starter. That means that his stats aren’t as important as those for other players, and we almost need to treat him as though he’s never played.

Prior to the 2012 season, Church actually led all Cowboys in tackle rate at 10.5 percent. Again, it came in limited time, but Church seemed to use his short-area quickness to make plays in tight areas. He also looked improved in pass coverage in 2012; he appeared lighter on his feet and yielded only three receptions on seven attempts.

Since we don’t have too much of a basis to predict how Church will play in 2013, perhaps the best way to project his stats is to look at comparable players in similar schemes. Church’s closest comp is Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. New Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has stated that he wants to play a lot of Cover 3 like Seattle did in 2012. In that defense, the strong safety has “curl-to-flat” responsibility, meaning he’s down in the box. That’s where Church excels.

A look at the Cowboys’ late-game heroics (or poor starts, depending on your viewpoint):

Coming Out Cold

As you examine the Cowboys’ 2012 win probability graphs, one of the main things that stands out is exactly how poorly the team started games. I calculated the Cowboys’ average win probability after each quarter and charted it below.

In the typical game, the Cowboys owned only a 43.0 percent probability to win after the first quarter. By the time halftime rolled around, the Cowboys had just a 36.9 percent chance to win, on average. With the average team’s halftime win probability obviously 50 percent, it’s clear that the Cowboys were pretty poor to begin games in 2012. How bad? Well, if the Cowboys have the same amount of first half success in 2013, an overall 36.9 percent halftime win probability, their most likely final season record will be 6-10.

It’s pretty amazing to see the staggering jump in win probability after the third quarter. At the end of a game, the Cowboys have obviously either won or lost, meaning their “win probability” is either zero or 100 percent. It’s pretty remarkably that they increased their win probability from 35.0 percent at the end of the third quarter to 50 percent, an 8-8 record, at the end of games.

Why passing more often on first down will help the Cowboys’ offense:

In 2012, the Cowboys ranked 15th in the NFL in points scored and 11th in yards per play, yet they managed to rank third in an important offensive category: three-and-out percentage. The Cowboys went three-and-out on just 17.2 percent of their offensive possessions—the third-best mark in the NFL, behind only New England and Green Bay. Nice company. If you’re curious, the league average was 22.7 percent, while the average for the playoff teams was just 20.6 percent, per STATS, Inc.

So why were the Cowboys so good at starting drives? One reason is that Jason Garrett called a lot of passes on first down and early in drives. The Cowboys threw the ball on 58.7 percent of first downs—including 54.0 percent in the first half—when the overall league average was only 47.8 percent.

And believe it or not, the team should be passing way more on first down. On most areas of the field, a four-yard gain on first down is considered a “neutral” play, i.e. it doesn’t help the offense. Only gains of five yards or more are really beneficial on first down. The ‘Boys averaged 7.06 yards on first down passes and 3.33 yards on first down runs.

The Cowboys’ use of analytics needs to change:

Analytics in the NFL

All of this data isn’t meant simply for amusement. Analytics can have profound effects on team success if properly embraced. Numbers are the primary catalyst behind the surge in pass rates and the rise in running back by committee, for example, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Cowboys have not been one of the teams to fully embrace the data. The Patriots, Packers, Saints, and Ravens are among those teams that have. That’s not a coincidence.

The next generation of data-driven coaches could be right around the corner. Actually, we’re probably going to see a new approach to NFL decision making in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly. If Kelly and the Eagles succeed, others will follow.

The Cowboys have too often been behind the curve, adopting trends only after too many other teams have done the same such that there’s no longer a competitive advantage to be had. If Dallas wants to be a perennial contender, they need to become a leader, embracing the wave of big data.

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2013 NFL Left Tackle Rankings: Tyron Smith in Top 10

At Dallas News, I used stats to rank the league’s best left tackles. Here are my top 10:

A few weeks ago, I posted an article from Pete Prisco that ranks the NFL’s best players at four important positions: quarterback, pass-rusher, cornerback, and left tackle. Since that time, I’ve published my own top 15 rankings for the quarterbackspass-rushers, and cornerbacks.

Today, I’ll turn my attention to the left tackles. As with the other positions, age will play a major role in my rankings. At just 22 years old and heading into his third NFL season, history suggests that Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith is on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Is he better than someone like Titans left tackle Michael Roos right at this moment? Probably not, but at nine years his younger, you’d probably prefer Smith long-term.

Also note that I really don’t care about how many sacks a lineman allows. That might seem ridiculous since the goal for anyone in pass protection is to keep the quarterback upright, but sacks are extremely volatile, meaning it’s almost worthless to grade an offensive lineman using the stat. I tracked Smith as allowing only three sacks in 2012, for example, but based on how often he allowed pressure, his most likely sack total was actually nine. If we were to use those three sacks to grade Smith for his 2012 play alone, he’d probably rank higher than he should. The goal when projecting players is to search for stats that are predictive of future play, however, and pressure rates are more predictive than sacks because they’re less susceptible to randomness.

Finally, quarterback play is also a factor in my rankings. I’ve used stats from Pro Football Focus on the average time each quarterback spent in the pocket prior to each pass. It should be no surprise that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning got rid of the ball quicker than any other quarterbacks in 2012, both throwing in 2.50 seconds or less, on average. Quarterbacks can really aid their linemen in sack and pressure rates; Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady allowed just one sack in 2012, for example, but he also benefited from perhaps the quickest decision-making quarterback in the NFL. Tony Romo makes a ton of plays with his legs, but he spends a lot of time in the pocket, which doesn’t help Smith’s numbers.

Below, I’ve listed my top left tackles heading into 2013. The number behind their names is their age when the 2013 season begins. I’ve listed sacks allowed and pressure rate, with the latter stat being a stronger factor in my rankings.

2013 NFL Left Tackle Rankings

1. Joe Thomas, Browns (28): 3 sacks allowed, 1.6 percent pressure rate

2. Russell Okung, Seahawks (25): 1 sack allowed, 2.7 percent pressure rate

3. Duane Brown, Texans (28): 4 sacks allowed, 2.0 percent pressure rate

4. Ryan Clady, Broncos (27): 1 sack allowed, 2.3 percent pressure rate

5. Matt Kalil, Vikings (24): 2 sacks allowed, 3.3 percent pressure rate

6. Jake Long, Rams (28): 4 sacks allowed, 2.4 percent pressure rate

7. Trent Williams, Redskins (25): 4 sacks allowed, 3.6 percent pressure rate

8. Tyron Smith, Cowboys (22): 3 sacks allowed, 6.0 percent pressure rate

9. Eugene Monroe, Jaguars (26): 5 sacks allowed, 3.2 percent pressure rate

10. Joe Staley, 49ers (29): 8 sacks allowed, 3.3 percent pressure rate

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Ranking the NFL’s Top 15 Cornerbacks

At Dallas News, I ranked the NFL’s top 15 cornerbacks:

Cornerbacks are often ranked by YPA (yards per attempt), but I think that’s a poor metric. When Nnamdi Asmougha was in his prime in Oakland, he was targeted about half as often as other top cornerbacks, but he gave up a high completion rate and YPA because quarterbacks threw at him only when they knew his guy was wide open.

To truly capture great cornerback play, I think you need to reward them for not getting targeted. That’s why yards allowed per coverage snap is the best way to grade cornerbacks. Tracked by Pro Football Focus, yards per coverage snap reflects a cornerback’s solid coverage on a play, regardless of whether or not he was targeted.

Below, I’ve ranked my top 15 cornerbacks. Yards per coverage snap (listed) was one of the main stats I considered, but not the only one. I also think there’s a ton of value in play-making ability. While interceptions are fairly volatile, some cornerbacks have proven capable of making more plays than others even over large sample sizes. That’s why Asante Samuel is rated in my top five despite an average mark in yards per coverage snap, for example; he’s demonstrated a consistent ability to haul in interceptions (and he actually doesn’t give up a lot of big plays), and there’s a ton of value in that.

NFL Cornerback Rankings

1. Darrelle Revis, Jets

  • 0.92 yards per target (2011)

2. Richard Sherman, Seahawks

  • 1.07 yards per snap

3. Antonio Cromartie, Jets

  • 0.97 yards per snap

4. Champ Bailey, Broncos

  • 0.82 yards per snap (best in NFL)

5. Asante Samuel, Falcons

  • 1.27 yards per snap

6. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals

  • 1.24 yards per snap

7. Charles Tillman, Bears

  • 1.04 yards per snap

8. Prince Amukamara, Giants

  • 0.86 yards per snap (second in NFL)

See where Brandon Carr checks in.

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DeMarcus Ware and the NFL’s Top Pass-Rushers

At Dallas News, I attempted to rank the league’s best pass-rushers.

The best way to predict future sacks actually isn’t past sacks, but rather the rate at which a player has reached the quarterback. If you know how many snaps a pass-rusher will rush the quarterback and how often he can pressure him, you can make a really accurate prediction regarding sack totals. That means that pressure rate is even better than total sacks as a tool to grade pass-rushers.

The rankings represent which players I’d want on my team moving forward. That means age is a major consideration; DeMarcus Ware is still an amazing player, but 24-year old Jason Pierre-Paul is probably a better option in the future, even if he’s not a superior player at this moment.

1. Von Miller, Broncos

  • 18.5 sacks, 10.4 percent pressure rate, age 24

2. Aldon Smith, 49ers

  • 19.5 sacks, 5.7 percent pressure rate, age 23

3. J.J. Watt, Texans

  • 20.5 sacks, 4.4 percent pressure rate, age 24

4. Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants

  • 6.5 sacks, 8.4 percent pressure rate, age 24

5. Clay Matthews, Packers

  • 13 sacks, 5.5 percent pressure rate, age 27

6. Mario Williams, Bills

  • 10.5 sacks, 7.1 percent pressure rate, age 28

See where Ware fits in right here.