The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 65: How to Spot an Undervalued RB

At the New York Times, I broke down how I search for undervalued running backs.

Look at Age as a Predictor

It would be easier to find overlooked midround running backs if you know what type of back you want. Owners can typically find value by emphasizing predictors of success over past production. Most owners tend to pay for past stats; you can acquire value by accurately predicting it to get future production at a discount.

And the running backs that offer the most value are youngsters. In my book, I tracked historic running back production by age. The results were surprising.

In terms of fantasy scoring on a per-touch basis, running backs are basically at the height of their efficiency when they enter the N.F.L. The most common age for peak efficiency is 22, the rookie year for many backs. By 25, the average back is producing less than 90 percent of his career peak. By 29, the back’s production can fall to 70 percent. Simply put, there’s no factor that you should weigh more than age in your running back rankings, and if you’re ever unsure who to draft at any given spot, remember these three words: youth, youth, youth.

Total running back production tends to peak a little later — around 26 — because most backs see more carries as they gain experience. But you aren’t looking for that. You’re searching for young players who will play at peak efficiency and see a surge in their workload. That way, you won’t pay for past production, but you can still obtain the value of optimal expected output.

Read the whole post.

By Jonathan Bales

2013 Cowboys Draft Recap/Analysis

I wrote a buttload of content throughout the draft. Here are some links. Check ‘em out to read the entire articles.

One thing that worries me about Terrance Williams

I really liked the Cowboys’ third-round selection of Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams. Although wide receiver wasn’t considered a major need, I’ve suggested for a few months that the Cowboys could be in major trouble if Miles Austin or Dez Bryant got injured; until the selection of Williams—6-2, 208 pounds—the Cowboys really didn’t have another option to play on the outside.

In addition to his size, Williams adds 4.52 speed. That size/speed combination helped Williams explode for 97 receptions, 1,832 yards, and 12 touchdowns last year at Baylor. The numbers on Williams are very impressive, and the ‘Boys surely found value on the star receiver.

But there’s one issue to monitor: Williams’ age. When the 2013 season begins, Williams will already be 24. He’ll be older than some receivers who were drafted two years ago. And historically, older players have performed better in college—and subsequently worse in the pros—than younger ones. How many current NFL wideouts could potentially dominate the college ranks if they stayed until age 23?

Again, I really like Williams’ skill set. Examining his closest comps, we see some impressive names. Take a look:

Terrance Williams: 6-2, 208 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 42 percent of Baylor’s receiving yards, 0.92 TD/game

Hakeem Nicks: 6-1, 212 pounds, 4.51 40-yard dash, 49 percent of UNC’s receiving yards, 0.92 TD/game

Jordy Nelson: 6-3, 217 pounds, 4.51 40-yard dash, 48 percent of Kansas State’s receiving yards, 0.92 TD/game

The primary difference is that Nicks and Nelson were 21 and 22 years old, respectively, when drafted. That’s important.

Tight end Gavin Escobar’s fit in Dallas

The biggest positive for Escobar, in my estimation, is that he’s a big-time threat in the red zone. He converted 13.9 percent of his college receptions into touchdowns—a fairly high rate—and that’s a trait the Cowboys covet. Witten has traditionally been subpar inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and it isn’t as if the running backs are pounding it in for touchdowns.

Escobar is a really talented athlete—not as explosive as you might like with only 4.78 speed—but a player with tremendous ball skills. He can certainly add something as a receiver, but as I mentioned in my immediate reaction of the pick, the Cowboys don’t necessarily need that. They have Miles Austin and Dez Bryant on the outside, and second-year man James Hanna showed some things last year.

The Cowboys obviously think they’ll be able to fix Escobar’s blocking. As it stands now, I see Escobar putting himself in a poor position and frequently lunging at defenders.

Safety J.J. Wilcox’s fit in Dallas

Upside

One of the reasons Wilcox is so intriguing is his upside. People often view a “raw” prospect negatively, but Wilcox’s lack of experience just means he has tons of room to improve on an already impressive 2012 season.

Jjwilcox2_crop_exact

Plus, the third round is a good time to begin seeking upside over safety. Mid-round picks don’t work out as much as people think they do, so it’s often better to swing for the fences than to land a “safe” player who won’t contribute much anyway. While I don’t view Wilcox as a major risk, there was no player on the board with more upside.

Fit in Dallas

It will be interesting to see where Monte Kiffin plays Wilcox—as a free or strong safety. I think he can play either position, continuing the Cowboys’ trend of seeking versatility.

Wilcox will get a fair shot to win a starting job in training camp, and I tentatively expect him to beat out Johnson and Will Allen for that job. If that happens, I think you’ll see Wilcox as a free safety, patrolling the deep half with Barry Church and deep middle when Church plays in the box.

The Cowboys figure to play a whole lot more Cover 3 this year than people anticipate, so whoever plays free safety for them will be in the middle of the field quite often.

Cornerback B.W. Webb’s fit in Dallas

Scouting Report on B.W. Webb

Webb is a 5-10, 184-pound cornerback, so it’s unlikely that he’ll play on the outside. That means he’ll most likely strictly be a nickel back in the NFL, playing in the slot. He certainly has the skill set to thrive in there; he’s one of the quickest players in this draft.

When you watch tape of Webb, that suddenness stands out, and it’s confirmed in hismeasurables. He recorded a 4.46 40-yard dash, but more impressive were his 40.5-inch vertical, 11-0 broad jump and insane 3.84 short shuttle.

Actually, that short shuttle time was the fastest for any single player at the 2013 Scouting Combine. The vertical and broad jump both ranked him third.

Webb was a play-maker at William & Mary, picking off eight passes and returning two for touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. Webb also displayed big-time return ability, which is where he’ll be able to immediately make an impact.

Webb excels in man coverage. He won’t be able to consistently press—especially with his 30-inch arms—but he actually plays well from a press position where he can mirror receivers. He’s got some of the quickest feet in this draft.

Despite his small stature, Webb isn’t afraid to help out against the run. That’s a primary weakness for current nickel back Orlando Scandrick.

Running back Joseph Randle’s fit in Dallas

Is He Explosive?

Randle isn’t explosive from a straight-line speed standpoint, but oddly, he measured pretty well in the vertical jump (35 inches) and broad jump (10-3)—two measurables that are strongly correlated with the 40. He also recorded a 4.25 short shuttle, which has to make you at least wonder if his 40 time was an aberration.

Late-Round Backs

Even though I would have drafted a different running back at this point, I love the idea of waiting to secure a runner. Since 2000, first- and second-round backs have totaled 4.23 YPC. Compare that to 4.25 YPC for backs drafted in the third, fourth or fifth round. There’s actually no correlation between draft spot and NFL efficiency for running backs, meaning there’s also little reason to draft one early.

2013 Projection

Like I said, Randle will step in as Murray’s backup. The way things have gone with Murray, there’s a good chance that Randle could take over as the starter at some point in 2013 if Murray gets hurt. Assuming Murray stays healthy, though, I’d expect Randle to eat up about 30 percent of the carries and take over the majority of third-down work. That works out to 107 carries, and, say, 30 receptions.

A look back at my original Randle scouting report

Randle is a natural pass-catcher. When combined with his willingness to protect the quarterback, you have the makings of a potentially successful third-down back.

Despite all of his success in college, you have to wonder if Randle can overcome his lack of long speed. He ran a 4.63 40-yard dash at the Combine and then followed that up with times between 4.54 and 4.63 at his Pro Day. Simply put, he’s not a burner.

We can discuss the importance of lateral quickness all day, but you can’t overlook the fact that running backs who have clocked in around Randle’s time have recorded about one-sixth the NFL production of those who ran as fast as Murray (4.41). That doesn’t mean Randle can’t possible succeed in the NFL, but the odds are against him. If the job of NFL teams is to maximize their chances of hitting on any given pick, it’s hard to justify using a mid-round selection on a lean running back with sub-par speed.

Linebacker DeVonte Holloman’s fit in Dallas

Safety Valve

It’s worth noting that Holloman actually played the first three years of his South Carolina career as a safety. He was a highly recruited prep player who started for the Gamecocks as a freshman. That sort of hybrid player is exactly what you’d expect new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to target at the outside linebacker position.

College Production

Holloman never totaled more than 69 tackles in any season, and that came in 2010 as a sophomore. When Holloman moved to outside linebacker as a senior, he recorded 59 tackles, but he also added eight tackles-for-loss—a career-high—and two sacks. Holloman ended his South Carolina career with seven interceptions.

Measurables

At 6’2″, 243 pounds, Holloman is a prototypical 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s limited in what he can do; he’ll probably be best suited playing as a weak-side backer, although I have a feeling the Cowboys will give him a shot at the Sam spot to start. For the most part, Holloman turned in subpar measurables: a 4.71 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical and 9’5″ broad jump. However, he also interestingly recorded a 4.26 short shuttle; that’s a really fast time for someone his size and could indicate some short-area quickness.

Grades for some of the notable second-round picks

By Jonathan Bales

2013 Cowboys/NFL Draft Coverage, All In One Place

Okay, so I’ve been late updating the site because I’ve been busy as shit. Can I just say ‘shit’ like that? Yes, this is my blog. Anyway, here are some recent articles/blogs I’ve been working on. Check them out.

Live Draft Blog at New York Times

My Photos from Radio City

That slideshow above contains this photo I took at 2:30 am after everyone except the janitors and I had left. We had some good laughs about the Frederick pick.

Cowboys’ Day 2/3 Mock Draft

Travis Frederick Pick Analysis

Travis Frederick’s Fit in Dallas

Thoughts on “The Trade”

There are two ways to look at the Cowboys’ deal. The first is that they received poor compensation for moving down 13 spots in the first round because they could have gotten a better haul. I think that’s true, and in many ways it’s all that matters. But what about the actual value of the selections based on historic value? Below, I charted the historic value of every single pick since 1990 based on the trade chart and players’ approximate value.

If there’s one thing the Cowboy did well, it was get to an area of the draft where the actual value of picks tends to exceed their perceived worth. That’s always a smart move, but only if you receive the right compensation; it would be foolish to move down simply for the sake of moving down.

Based on historic NFL production, the No. 18 overall pick has traditionally compiled 1.5 percent of the total approximate value for the entire draft class. Meanwhile, the No. 31 overall selection has been around 1.1 percent, with the No. 74 pick checking in at 0.6 percent. So based on actual on-field play, the Cowboys did indeed get value. That’s especially true in a draft class that’s weak at the top but deep in the middle.

Having said that, you can’t tell me the Niners wouldn’t have given up another pick, even if late, to move up for their guy. Despite the fact that the Cowboys acquired actual value in their trade-down, it was the wrong move from the standpoint that they could have gotten more.

By Jonathan Bales

NY Times Live NFL Draft Blog

Here’s the link to the live blog I’ll be doing over at the Fifth Down. Not sure if updates will show up there, so if not you can just check back at the Fifth Down home page.

You can check my Twitter for updates as well. I’ll post some stuff there, but the majority of the updates will be at the Times.


By Jonathan Bales

My 2013 Draft Coverage

I’m going to be covering the draft for both the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog and Bleacher Report this year. I’ll be heading over to Radio City this afternoon to get set up, and I’ll have a live blog running at the Times. I’ll post a link to that later today, and you can use it to check out my analysis throughout the first two days of the draft.

I’m also taking an old digital camera that still runs on AA batteries, so you can look forward to some grainy shots of Roger Goodell hugging players for way too long.

By Jonathan Bales

New York Times: Tony Romo’s Final Interception

At the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog, I broke down Tony Romo’s final interception of the 2012 season.

I tracked 8 of Romo’s 37 passes as being off-target — about twice his normal rate — and all three of his interceptions were mostly his fault. Despite playing at a near-elite level over much of the second half of the season, Romo will have to suffer through another off-season of torment for failing to perform against the Redskins in a prime-time game in the national spotlight. More specifically, he’s going to have to relive one particular play again and again.

With 3 minutes 7 seconds remaining and time ticking away, the Cowboys were in hurry-up mode. Down by 21-18 and fresh off a touchdown drive and subsequent Redskins three-and-out, the Cowboys actually had a bit of momentum. From its 9-yard line, Dallas lined up with “12” personnel — one running back, two tight ends and two receivers — in “Gun Tight End Trips Right.” It’s a formation the Cowboys use frequently in hurry-up situations and one they used 11 times on the night.

Before the snap, the Redskins showed blitz, something they did on 16 of the Cowboys’ 61 offensive snaps. Washington had brought pressure on Romo throughout the night, often lining up in conservative base alignments and sending unexpected rushers. All told, the Redskins sent five or more rushers after Romo on an incredible 52.4 percent of the Cowboys’ plays.

Interestingly, the Cowboys had tight end James Hanna in the slot with receivers Dwayne Harris and Kevin Ogletree split out wide. That’s not exactly the same threat as Dez Bryant, a player Romo could potentially target regardless of coverage.

Washington ended up rushing six of the seven defenders who were lined up within two yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. The blitz was an aggressive one, but it at first appeared to be an all-out blitz. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson initially rushed up-field toward Romo before dropping into coverage.

Check out the whole post.

By Jonathan Bales

Breaking Down Brandon Carr’s Overtime Interception

At the New York Times, I took a look at the key Brandon Carr overtime interception that sealed the win for Dallas.

After a 7-yard gain on first down, the Steelers faced a second-and-3 at their 27-yard line on the second play of overtime. Having won the coin toss, Pittsburgh could seal the victory with a touchdown only. That fact might have played a role in how the two teams went about attacking each other on this particular play.

With “11” personnel — one running back, one tight end, and three receivers — the Steelers lined up in “Gun Tight End Spread.” Pittsburgh seemed content to steadily move the ball up the field through the air; Roethlisberger had totaled over 300 yards and 8.54 YPA in regulation, and the Steelers had passed on first down to begin overtime. Originally lined up with two deep safeties, Gerald Sensabaugh began to walk toward the line just before the snap. The Cowboys used nickel personnel and didn’t show blitz on the play.

The Cowboys did indeed rush only four defenders, sitting back in a safe Cover 3 look. Remember, Dallas knew that only a touchdown could beat them on this drive, so it was in their best interest to perhaps play a bit softer than normal. Their Cover 3 defense was characterized by four underneath defenders: two linebackers, a safety and a nickel cornerback. The single deep safety and the outside cornerbacks — which included Carr on Wallace — had deep-third responsibility, i.e. their goal was to not let anyone get behind them in their portion of the field.

Roethlisberger seemed to recognize the coverage pretty quickly, stepping up comfortably into the pocket and making what would normally be the right decision to get the ball to Wallace. Since the outside cornerbacks in Cover 3 have no deep help, they tend to play soft, surrendering underneath routes. When Wallace ran a 10-yard out, Carr really shouldn’t have been in position to make a play on the ball. From snap to throw, Roethlisberger took only 1.9 seconds to unleash his pass.

Check out the full analysis at the Fifth Down.

By Jonathan Bales

How the Giants Kept a One-Game Lead in the NFC East

At the Fifth Down, I took a look at how the Giants confused Saints quarterback Drew Brees on their way to a blowout victory.

Before the snap, quarterback Drew Brees noticed something he didn’t like in the Giants’ defense. The Giants were in their base 4-3 look, and it was difficult to tell 1) whether they’d be blitzing and 2) what coverage they were in. Nonetheless, Brees issued a “Kill” call. I cover the Dallas Cowboys, a team whose audible system is based around “Kill” calls. Actually, the audible is really a vestigial call left over from Sean Payton’s days in Dallas. If you follow the Giants, you may be familiar with it.

Whereas Peyton Manning and Tom Brady use manual calls to audible to new plays, “Kill” calls are a simple and direct audible that results from two plays being called in the huddle. When Eli Manning or Brees call two plays in the huddle, the offensive players intend to run the first play; if the quarterback wants to run the second, he gives his “Kill” signal and the players quickly shift focus to their responsibility for the second play called in the huddle.

Just after the snap, Brees immediately looked to Colston and pumped the ball. When Brees quickly turned back to the middle of the field, it showed that he wasn’t really considering throwing to Colston and most likely wanted to drag the free safety toward the sideline. That move alone suggests Brees thought the Giants were in Cover 1: man coverage underneath with a safety deep (in this case, Stevie Brown). In such a coverage, the free safety has no true responsibility and thus might follow the eyes of the quarterback. The fact that Brees issued his “Kill” call after he saw Amukamara in a press position also suggests he thought the Giants were in man coverage.

In reality, the Giants were in Cover 3: both cornerbacks and safety Stevie Brown played with deep-third responsibility. You can see that both Amukamara and Webster bailed after the snap because they couldn’t let anyone get behind them.

Check it out at the Times.

By Jonathan Bales

New York Times: Ahmad Bradshaw’s 59-Yard Screen

At the New York Times, I broke down the early screen pass to Ahmad Bradshaw that got the Giants rolling against the Packers.

Just over a minute into the game, the Giants faced a second-and-10 at their 39-yard line. With base “21” personnel — two running backs, one tight end and two receivers — the Giants lined up in Twins Right Weak Right with receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to the field and fullback Henry Hynoski aligned away from tight end Martellus Bennett. Cruz went in short motion before the snap, ending up near the hashes by the time quarterback Eli Manning snapped the ball.

Following the snap, Manning showed play-action by faking a handoff to Bradshaw. Cruz continued behind the line of scrimmage on his “ghost” motion, i.e. a fake end-around, and as Manning feigned the handoff to the receiver, Bradshaw began to trickle out of the backfield for a screen.

The call was an interesting one on second-and-10 from the offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride because it suggested he may have suspected a blitz. He was right. The Packers called a zone double-barrel blitz, crossing the inside linebackers on their way to Manning.

Check out the entire analysis at the Fifth Down blog.

By Jonathan Bales

New York Times: Breaking Down Andre Johnson’s Overtime Touchdown

At the New York Times, I took a look at Andre Johnson’s game-winning touchdown for the Texans.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub found Kevin Walter on a 5-yard out on the next play for Houston, and the clock was ticking inside of 2:20. With no timeouts, Schaub dialed up a play at the line.

Going no-huddle, it took Schaub only 14 seconds to get his offense lined up after the completion to Walter. With a Shotgun 5 Wide formation, the Texans spread the field. The Jaguars showed blitz before the snap, with six defenders — four linemen, a linebacker, and a defensive back — lined up as if they’d rush.

The Jaguars had blitzed on the previous play in an attempt to force the issue on defense. Knowing their only real shot to win was with a takeaway, Jacksonville rightfully played with a high-risk/high-reward defensive strategy. But knowing a blitz was almost certainly on the way, Schaub called the perfect play for the situation: a screen to Johnson.

Read the rest at the Fifth Down blog.