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News & Notes | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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


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


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.


Why I’m “Selling” DeMarcus Ware and “Buying” Tyron Smith

At NBC, I posted three Cowboys I’m “selling” in 2013.

DE DeMarcus Ware
Let me be clear that I’m not arguing that Ware is an ineffective player or that I’d trade him for a mid-round pick or anything like that. He’s awesome. But I don’t think he’s quite as awesome as most. It seems like everyone is expecting Ware to return to his 20-plus sack form, but I think we’ll see a lot of disappointment if that’s the case. His efficiency has declined for a few years in a row, and at age 31, he’ll be playing at an age that has historically been the start of a precipitous drop in production for pass-rushers. So I’m not selling Ware as a meaningful contributor to the defense (and really still one of the better defensive players in the NFL), but rather as the dominant 20-sack player we saw a few seasons ago.

And at Dallas News, I broke down why I love Tyron Smith in 2013:

One of the reasons that I ranked Smith as high as I did is Romo’s proclivity for hanging onto the football too long. If Smith played with Peyton Manning in Denver, for example, I think his pressure rate would basically be cut in half. Romo makes tons of plays by buying time, but he also artificially inflates the pressure rates of his linemen.

Second, and even more important, Smith is just 22 years old. He’s entering his third season in the NFL at an age when many players are just coming into it as rookies. Cowboys rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams will be 24 before Smith is 23, for example. That’s amazing, and it really goes a long way in trying to project Smith’s potential breakout. Offensive tackles typically have very long careers, but it takes them a few years to come into their own. Smith’s age is such a positive because, given his experience at 22, he’ll have more years playing at peak efficiency.

Plus, Smith was good as a run blocker last year. Dallas running backs averaged 4.47 YPC with Smith at the point-of-attack—well above the overall average of 3.56 YPC. Overall, I gave Smith a B- grade in my final 2012 report card. He’s primed for a huge 2013 season.



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.


Notes on Cowboys vs Dolphins

I posted two post-game articles today. The first, at NBC, has four post-game notes on the Cowboys.

Lance Dunbar appears to be the clear No. 2 running back.

Dunbar barely got any playing time, but he started the game ahead of Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle. That’s probably a sign that the Cowboys are comfortable with Dunbar as their backup running back. At 191 lbs, Dunbar is undersized, but he’s the right choice for the job. There’s no single metric more strongly correlated with running back success than 40-yard dash time, and Dunbar’s sub-4.50 speed trumps both Tanner and Randle. I think we could actually see all three backs make the roster.

The second, at Dallas News, offers eight more observations.

7. DeVonte Holloman can fly.

His interception might have been a little fluky, but the speed Holloman showed in returning it for a touchdown was not. I’m not sure if he’ll earn a starting job this year, but a linebacker corps of Holloman, Sean Lee, and Bruce Carter might be the best coverage trio in the NFL.

8. Matt Johnson might really be injury-prone.

Most of you know that I think a lot of what people perceive as injury-proneness is an illusion. We’d certainly expect some players to be more susceptible to injuries than others, but since injuries are so random, it’s really difficult to determine if a player is truly injury-prone or just unlucky. Lots of players are labeled as injury-prone and then go on to lead healthy careers. It just takes a lot of injuries to say that a guy is really injury-prone and not the victim of bad luck.

Having said that, we have to start to question if Johnson is truly injury-prone. There have been a handful of injuries in a short period of time, and while it looks like he’ll bounce back from this one, it’s not a good sign that he’s again banged up for a Cowboys defense that was counting on him to provide significant contributions.


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.


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.


Cowboys Analysis: Sean Lee Projection, Reasons VY to Dallas Makes Sense

At NBC, I posted my 2013 projection for linebacker Sean Lee:

Last year, Lee recorded 58 tackles in just six games. Playing only 331 snaps, Lee’s tackle rate was 17.5 percent. That’s a remarkable number and, in all likelihood, Lee won’t be able to sustain it over the course of a full season. In comparison, he posted a 12.1 percent tackle rate in 2012.

The key to projecting Lee’s total tackles is figuring out how many snaps he’ll play. Most argue that Lee is injury prone, but most injuries seem to be the result of randomness. They happen so infrequently that it’s really difficult to tell if a player is really more susceptible to injuries than the average person or if he’s just unlucky. On top of that, even if we did label Lee as injury prone, injuries are rare enough that he’d still be likely to participate in a full season, or close to it.

With those things in mind, we can project Lee for a drop in tackle rate—probably somewhere around 14.0 percent—and around 925 snaps played. If those numbers hold up, Lee would total 130 tackles in 2013.

One of Lee’s most impressive traits is that he’s been really good in coverage despite possessing average athleticism. He’s not that fast and he’s pretty stiff in the hips, yet he’s always in the right position. In his limited 2012 action, Lee allowed 16 receptions on 20 attempts (80.0 percent) for 152 yards (7.6 YPA). The season prior—the one in which he played in 15 games—Lee allowed 50 catches on 63 attempts (79.4 percent) for 497 yards (7.9 YPA).

And at DallasCowboys.com, I suggested Vince Young might not be such a bad fit in Dallas:

6.8: Robert Griffin III’s YPC as a rookie ­– the highest mark in the NFL by nearly a yard.

Why would RGIII’s rushing prowess affect the Cowboys’ quarterback decisions? As Nick and Bryan pointed out, Young can give the defense a unique look in practice. With Griffin and possibly Michael Vick set to run read-option, the Cowboys need to be prepared to defend it. In RGIII’s first game against Dallas, he completed 19 of 27 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and you can bet that much of that passing success was generated indirectly through Griffin’s ability to take off on the ground. Young can imitate Griffin and Vick in practice in a way that Kyle Orton simply can’t.

6.9: Young’s net-YPA during his final two years in Tennessee.

Young struggled with interceptions during his lone season in Philadelphia, but he was quietly really effective in 2009 and 2010 in Tennessee. Net-YPA is a stat that factors sack yards into a quarterback’s yards per attempt. Even though Young has taken too many sacks during his career, including on 7.7 percent of his passes in 2010, he’s still been very efficient as a passer.

A year after finishing in the top 12 in net-YPA in 2009, Young checked in at sixth in 2010. He also tossed 20 touchdowns to only 10 picks during that time, a ratio superior to Tony Romo’s career mark.


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.


The rotoViz Buy Low Machine is Awesome

I’ve been writing for rotoViz for a few months now (and by ‘writing’ I mean submitting five articles since March). I plan to ramp it up as the season approaches, but in the meantime check out the rotoViz “Buy Low Machine.

The app lets you call out a portion of the schedule that you want to look at and then it tells you which players are likely to over-perform their season averages. It will also tell you which players are likely to under-perform their season averages. I’ve used a private version of this app and last year I used it to acquire Cam Newton before he went on his tear. If you draft well and then make one move like that per season, you’re going to be a real pain in the ass for your league-mates.

Don’t go crazy drawing conclusions from the data right now as this is just proof of concept. I generated these projections using a super-lazy forecasting system that I don’t have any trust in. Once the season starts we’ll have a fully functioning (and more accurate) version of the app up for all positions. It will be more accurate because it will draw from the actual current season instead of the prior year. You’ll also be able to select standard or PPR scoring.

This app is going to change the nature of in-season fantasy football decision-making. Also, I just added a rotoViz widget to the sidebar so you can check out all of the latest articles whenever you visit. It’s worth your time.