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The DC Times

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


My 2015 Dallas Cowboys Preview (Sort Of)

I haven’t posted anything here in a long, long time. I’m actually still using a version of WordPress that’s from like 2011 and it looks absolutely ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the Declaration of Independence was created on this version of WordPress.

Anyway, I really do miss writing Cowboys content – it was always just something that was a lot of fun for me – so I thought it would be cool to post some of my old articles that I think still have value today. A lot of the research/content I did was at least semi-evergreen, so there’s a bunch of stuff below that still represents how I feel today about certain players and trends.


My 2015 Dallas Cowboys Preview (without a single word written after 2013)

Romo Isn’t Poor in 4th Quarter

Winning and the Illusion of Offensive Balance

Passing on 1st Down

More on Offensive Balance

Do Cowboys Really Need to Run More?

Why Dez Will Be Better Than Megatron

How Many Targets for Dez?

Forcing Offenses to Run

Why Measurables Matter

Up-Tempo Offense

Why Best Player Available Sucks

How Important Is Rushing Success to Passing Game?

Hand Size and QB Success

Using More Shotgun

Mid-Round RBs

Why Romo Shouldn’t Minimize Interceptions

Dunbar > Randle

Not All Penalties the Same

Pressure and Takeaways

Dan Bailey’s Value

Throwing Deep

Joseph Randle Breakdown

Least Favorite Plays for Dallas

Unexpected Play-Calls

Romo and Randomness

Okay, that’s good enough. Bye.


10 Things DFS Players Should Never Do

I was interviewed by Bleacher Report for an article called “10 Things DFS Players Should Never Do.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Don’t Fear Randomness; Variance Can Be Profitable

This one is a Bales specialty. I have to admit, I am risk averse when putting my money down on something. I like statistical backing when setting my lineups and doling out daily fantasy advice.

Bales said there is value in randomness, even as I suggested to him in the interview that thought appeared to fly in the face of fantasy’s reality. His response:

“The more randomness there is, the more value there is in being contrarian. It is counterintuitive to find value in randomness. It is not how you predict things as much as how much you leverage predictability. The more randomness, the bigger the edge.”

OK, we can buy that, even if it is a bit abstract.

In order to win a huge payday in daily fantasy play, you have to have a unique lineup and catch a shred of well-educated luck. You can make your own luck with sound strategies and daily lineup choices.


Download “A Guide to Winning at Daily Fantasy Sports” for Free

Long time no see. I recently published Fantasy Baseball for Smart People, my first ever baseball-specific guide to profiting at daily fantasy sports. I highly recommend you buy it if you know what’s good for you.

If you purchase the book, you can also download A Guide to Winning at Daily Fantasy Sports for free. Actually, you can download it for free on Amazon even if you don’t buy anything from me, but come on, I need to pay for a fifth football-watching TV somehow.


TE Jason Witten Is No Longer Elite

At Bleacher Report, I posted an analysis of Jason Witten, explaining why he’s no longer an elite tight end. It’s not a popular stance, but the truth is that Witten has morphed into a very average player over the last couple years.

If you look at NFL futures odds, you’ll see that the Cowboys are currently +275 to win the NFC East. That’s the same as the Giants, but significantly worse than the Eagles. One of the reasons Dallas is a team moving in a different direction than Philly is that they ignore the numbers, handing out “bad money” contracts like Witten’s five-year, $37 million deal that doesn’t expire until 2018.

So why is Witten no longer elite? From my B/R article:

Yards Per Target

The first way that we can measure Witten’s efficiency is by looking at what he does with his targets. Here’s a look at the progression of his yards per target. I marked the NFL league average for tight ends with white dash marks.

You can see that Witten was continually around the league average (8.0) in efficiency prior to 2012. That’s not horrible, considering that he always saw more targets than most tight ends and as workload increases, efficiency naturally decreases.

The fact that Witten was around average in efficiency prior to 2012 shows he was an above-average tight end, but probably not as efficient as you might have expected. The truth is that Witten has always been a really good player, but one who’s really been aided by bulk attempts.

Would we have considered Witten a monster receiving tight end if he had played on an offense that didn’t focus on him so heavily? Doubtful.

Again, that’s pre-2012. Look at what happened two seasons ago. In the year in which Witten broke the record for receptions by a tight end, he also turned in a career low in yards per target. And the drop wasn’t a small one; it was magnificent.

In his “career year” of 2012, Witten produced more than one yard less per target than an average NFL tight end. Is it now easier to see why predicting him to disappoint in 2013 was so easy?

Witten’s yards per target improved in 2013 with fewer looks, but his average was still the second-worst and below-average for a tight end. It’s difficult to label a player who is below-average in efficiency as “elite,” especially when they receive the fewest targets they’ve gotten in seven seasons.


Yards Per Route

Of all stats to analyze for receivers, my favorite is yards per route. That’s because it penalizes for not getting open (and thus failing to receive a target).

It’s also good for tight ends because it doesn’t penalize them when they stay in to block. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Witten’s game is that he doesn’t stay in to block on very many passes.

Last year, he stayed in to block 13.6 percent of the time, according toPro Football Focus (subscription required), which ranked 28th of 35 qualifying tight ends. When the Cowboys pass, Witten is almost always an option for Romo, which will naturally inflate his stats. Yards per route adjusts for that.

Plus, yards per route does a better job than yards per target of displaying Witten’s value.

Even though Witten’s yards per route has declined every year since 2008, he was still well above the league average up until 2013. Part of that is due to receiving a high percentage of the Cowboys’ targets—again, the bulk opportunities obviously help—but Witten was also producing at a higher level a few years ago.

The fact that Witten’s yards per route declined in 2012, when he saw an unfathomable 150 targets, is a really strong sign that his play has been regressing. To produce just above league-average efficiency on a per-route basis despite seeing a target on 23.8 percent of his routes (a high rate) is a good indicator that Witten wasn’t actually playing at a level that his raw totals suggested.


Blocking Ability

The go-to rebuttal for Witten apologists is “but he’s an elite blocker, too.” That’s probably the case because it’s difficult to quantify blocking ability, and thus difficult to refute. Those who use Witten’s blocking to claim he’s still an elite tight end will tell you to “just turn on the tape.”

Well, Pro Football Focus does turn on the tape, but unlike traditional scouts, it quantifies what it sees. We can use its numbers on tight end blocking efficiency, at least in pass protection, to determine Witten’s value as a pass-blocker.

Here’s a look at Witten’s pass-blocking efficiency since 2007 versus the average NFL tight end.


Witten has adequately blocked his man on 95.1 percent of pass snaps. That’s better than the league average, although the effect perhapsisn’t as great as it appears; the average NFL tight end has pass-blocking efficiency just one percentage point lower at 94.1 percent.

That means we can expect Witten to allow one less pressure on Romo for every 100 pass snaps that he stays in to block as compared to a typical tight end.

But remember, Witten doesn’t remain in to block all that much—an average of just over 61 snaps per year over the past eight seasons. That’s it. So on average, Witten has “saved” 0.61 quarterback pressures per season for Dallas.

Now, can he really overcome a precipitous drop in receiving efficiency to remain an “elite” tight end because of 0.61 pressures per year?



Witten is a good tight end. He’s a great guy, a hard worker, and the type of player you want on your team.

He’s not an elite tight end.

If you’re going to continue to label the future Hall of Famer in that way, you need to somehow show that, despite being below-average in yards per target and yards per route in 2013, Witten still somehow offers enough value to overcome his lackluster efficiency. Presumably, those traits will need to be unquantifiable, like “he plays with such heart” or “he’s a good leader.”

OK, Witten is a good leader. He’s a good leader who produces like an average NFL tight end and is by no means an elite option for the Cowboys anymore.


100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 2: Warren Buffett and Fantasy Football

Today’s fantasy football lesson again comes courtesy of my fantasy football training school RotoAcademy, where I related Warren Buffett’s investment tips to fantasy football:

1. You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”

I think one of the most difficult things to do in fantasy football is realize when you should be okay with assuming some risk and when you should play it safe. This quote is most applicable in the early rounds of fantasy drafts. When the cost is high, you should play it safe. This is actually one of the reasons that, although I don’t necessarily advocate a true early-quarterback approach, I’m okay with taking an elite passer in the third or fourth round. It’s simple. It’s safe. When others are swinging for the fences early in drafts, take the double.

2. Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don’t feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset’s future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn’t necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.

The value of any player—the asset—is his future “earnings” minus his cost. This quote–particularly the idea that you should avoid assets whose future earnings are basically unknowable–is related to the first point. Sometimes, fantasy owners want to so badly hit a home run with their first couple picks that they’re willing to take on the unknown.

There’s a difference between known and unknown risks. I’m not at all against assuming uncertainty later in drafts, but if you have a pretty clear idea of a player’s upside but little understanding of the potential risks, you should pay as little as possible. Take your shots on uncertainty when the cost of missing is minimal.

Enroll in RotoAcademy now for the best rate.


100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 1: Use a scientific approach.

I started this “100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days” series last year, and judging by the traffic I received (in the DOZENS), I’d say it was a massive hit, so it’s back. Each day for the next few months, I’ll post one fantasy football tip that I think is worth reading.

I have a bunch of awesome announcements coming soon – maybe a book or two on the horizon – but until then, check out this sample from RotoAcademy (my new fantasy football training school):

A Scientific Approach to Fantasy Football Is About Improvement

There are two reasons that I advocate a scientific approach to fantasy football, each related to one another. First, science is about progress. I remember a tweet from Fantasy Douche arguing something to the effect of “bad stats are better than no stats, because bad stats can be made into good stats.”

The idea is that science (and math/analytics) is self-correcting. Let’s say I create a model to predict tight end performance. After a few years, I tally the results and I see that it sucks horribly and I’d be better off just guessing. Well, the process through which I created a model in the first place can be used to improve the model; I can test to see which measurables are the most predictive and figure out how to better incorporate them into my model. I can turn a really crappy thing into a little bit better thing and then a little bit better thing before it’s an awesome thing.

This concept is related to the second reason I advocate a scientific approach to fantasy football: the process is just as valuable (perhaps more so) than the end result. One of the reasons I started RotoAcademy is because I noticed a humongous flaw in the way we’re approaching the game; there are countless articles like “Week 2 Waiver Wire Adds” and “Top 5 Running Back Sleepers,” but that sort of content is worthless within days or weeks. It might help you in the short-term (although probably not), but it certainly isn’t helping you become a better fantasy football owner in the long run.

Think about what you learned in college or high school. How much of the trivial shit do you still know? Any idea when Napoleon stormed the Bastille? How about the length of the Mississippi River? Could you point to Belarus on a map? Did you even know Belarus is a country?

The reason that college is valuable (for some) isn’t because of the insignificant shit you learn, but rather because you learn how to learn. The ability to problem-solve and rationalize is far more valuable than knowing a stupid fact.

Enroll in RotoAcademy now.


5 Undervalued 2014 Draft Prospects

At Bleacher Report, I broke down five players I think are undervalued. Here’s one:

There are two primary keys to analyzing prospects, in my estimation: understanding predictors of NFL success at each position and emphasizing the ones that others are overlooking. One example of this is hand size in quarterbacks. It’s highly predictive of NFL successbut not properly priced into quarterback draft slots; if it were, we wouldn’t see players like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson—short quarterbacks with large hands—fall in the draft.

When searching for undervalued prospects who should interest Dallas (or any team), I’m looking for traits I think are undervalued by the market and comparing those to the projected draft slot for each prospect. It really comes down to the draft slot. A single prospect might be awesome value in the third round and horrible value in the back of the first; it’s all about expected value versus cost.

Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas

Biggest Predictors: Arm Length, Production, Explosiveness

Projected Round: 3

Arkansas outside linebacker/defensive end Chris Smith is one of the reasons I don’t think the Cowboys need to draft a defensive end that early, even though it’s a huge need. He’s a 6’1”, 266-pound outside linebacker who should be able to stick his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end.

The concern is Smith’s height, which is why he’s going to drop to the middle rounds. Height is correlated with success for pass-rushers. The question is whether or not that’s because being tall helps or because tall players typically have something that really matters—long arms.

We continually see short, long-armed pass-rushers like Justin Houstondrop too far in the NFL draft because of a trait that’s overvalued (height) and then excel in the pros because of one that really matters (arm length).

Well, Smith has 34.1-inch arms, which is just ridiculous for his height. That helped him tally 18 sacks and 24.5 tackles-for-loss in the past two seasons at Arkansas. Smith is one of the most undervalued players in this class because teams will get scared by his height. And oh yeah, he can also jump 37 inches vertically.

Here’s the rest of the article.

Also be sure to get the sold out April draft guide with a $14.99 digital subscription to Star Magazine. That includes 32 issues a year, weekly during the season, August-January, and monthly during the offseason, February-July.


Dallas Cowboys Draft Updates

I published a bunch of draft analysis in the past few days. A quick update:

Re-Grading Cowboys’ Past 5 Drafts (and the worst picks over that time)

Mock Draft Roundup

Assigning Odds to Potential First-Round Picks

Also be sure to get the sold out April draft guide with a $14.99 digital subscription to Star Magazine. That includes 32 issues a year, weekly during the season, August-January, and monthly during the offseason, February-July.

You’ll immediately get the special 2014 Draft Guide, as well as future access to the Training Camp Preview in July, Season Review in February, and the one-of-a-kind Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Swimsuit issue in June.


Buy the Official Dallas Cowboys Draft Guide from Star Magazine

There’s all kinds of draft information floating around these days, but how much of it is really tailored specifically to the Cowboys? Sometimes you just want to skip over the latest Jadaveon Clowney rumors and learn more about the guys who could actually be suiting up for Dallas in 2014.

The official Dallas Cowboys draft guide from Star Magazine gives you just that. I’ve worked with Star Magazine quite a bit in the past, and they truly produce some of the best Cowboys content available. How good? I have five huge stacks of issues piling up around my apartment because I refuse to throw them away.

Here are some specs on the draft guide:

  • Draft profiles on over 80 players and rankings for more than 300
  • Feature stories with the Cowboys’ scouting staff, including interviews with assistant director of player personnel Will McClay, director of scouting Tom Ciskowski and college scouting coordinator Chris Hall
  • Picks for the Cowboys in all seven rounds, 11 selections total. Plus, our first-round mock

You can get access to the sold out April draft guide with a $14.99 digital subscription to Star Magazine. That includes 32 issues a year, weekly during the season, August-January, and monthly during the offseason, February-July.

Again, you’ll immediately get the special 2014 Draft Guide, as well as future access to the Training Camp Preview in July, Season Review in February, and the one-of-a-kind Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Swimsuit issue in June.


Dallas Cowboys: How to Fill FS Void and Why Anthony Spencer Isn’t Signed

I have a bunch of new articles over at Bleacher Report, which you can always find right here. My latest is on why Anthony Spencer is still available:


The most obvious reason that Spencer is still a free agent is that teams are scared off by his knee. Spencer had season-ending micro-fracture knee surgery that is going to keep him out of at least some portion of 2014 training camp, according to ESPN Dallas.

There’s just a lot of uncertainty surrounding Spencer’s potential 2014 contributions because no one knows how healthy he’s going to be. Teams are scared to invest even short-term money into a player who, in a best-case scenario, is still going to miss much of training camp.


Related to Spencer’s health is his age. He’s not a young up-and-coming 25-year-old defensive end anymore. Already 30-years old, Spencer is at an age when many players begin to break down.

Yes, we can play the “what if he remains healthy?” game all day, but the truth is that although injuries are somewhat fluky, older players 1) get injured more frequently and 2) take longer to recover from them than younger players. It’s not a foregone conclusion that Spencer will bounce back from such a serious injury.

Spencer’s age also puts him at the top looking down in terms of career trajectory. Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value, I charted typical defensive end production by age.

As a function of a player’s personal career-best production, the average defensive end peaks at ages 25 and 26. However, pass-rushers can typically maintain a high level of production—near or above 90 percent of their previous peak—into their early-30s. That’s a pretty large window relative to other positions.

One of the reasons for that is because players tend to lose speed quickly with age, but not power or length (obviously). Although quickness is important for defensive ends, length and power are underrated components of getting to the passer. That’s a good sign for Spencer, who has never really relied on his speed for production.

If you’re looking at Spencer on the career trajectory graph, you see that most players his age are still productive. However, there’s a pretty steep drop on the horizon, and teams are fearful that, because of his injuries, Spencer is very close to hitting that point. There’s some upside to a short-term deal, but the risks are large, too.


Another thing we need to keep in mind about Spencer is that it’s not like he was ever a consistently high-level player in terms of getting to the quarterback. In seven NFL seasons, Spencer recorded more than six sacks just once (in 2012). Let that sink in.

Now, Spencer brings a lot to the table in other areas, but teams pay for sacks. If you throw out 2012 as an outlier—which isn’t that hard of a pill to swallow since averaged only 4.3 sacks in the prior five seasons—you have an aging player projected at a moderate sack total even if he stays healthy. That’s not really a recipe to break the bank.


Another is what the ‘Boys should do about free safety:

The First-Round Route

There are two safeties projected to go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft—Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. On tape, most analysts are rating the two players similarly, with Clinton-Dix perhaps leading by the narrowest of margins.

Athletically, the players are extremely similar.

Clinton-Dix is quicker than Pryor, at least in terms of the short shuttle, but the two possess extremely similar explosiveness. Now, let’s compare the duo to two other recent first-round safety selections.

Both Clinton-Dix and Pryor are faster than 2013 first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), but Vaccaro is quicker. None of the three players matches up with former LSU safety Eric Reid—the player the Cowboys could have drafted before they traded down and nabbed center Travis Frederick. Reid is bigger, faster and more explosive than the two safeties projected to be selected in the first 32 picks this year.

Again, we need to consider the tape—especially at a position like safety that’s hard to assess in terms of on-field stats. All other things being equal, we should side with the more athletic players, who typically find the most NFL success. We can talk about heart and other intangibles all day long, but there’s a reason you and I aren’t getting drafted this year. I have all the determination in the world, but it’s this pesky 5.50 40-yard dash that’s holding me back.

Because neither Clinton-Dix and Pryor have the film of a high first-round pick and since their measurables are substandard for how high they’ll be drafted, they’re unlikely to offer much value.


The Mid-Round Route

One of the ways NFL teams should be drafting is to assess position scarcity, i.e. how easily can we replace a player/position in later rounds? That’s one reason why a “best player available” draft strategyisn’t optimal. It’s shortsighted in that it doesn’t account for position depth.

In regard to free safeties, the Cowboys should ask themselves how scarce the early-round safeties are and how easily their talent could be replaced at a cheaper price. All other things being equal, it makes sense to pay as cheap a price as possible. When a player or positionisn’t scarce, that’s easier to do.

There are multiple safety arbitrage opportunities in this year’s draft. Let’s take a look at the athletic profiles for Clinton-Dix and Pryor versus two safeties projected to get drafted in the middle/late rounds: Wyoming’s Marqueston Huff and North Carolina State’s DontaeJohnson.

I gave each safety a raw athleticism score simply by ranking them in each category. The top performer got four points, the next-best received three points, and so on.

You can see that not only are Huff and Johnson going to be much cheaper than Clinton-Dix and Johnson, but they’re also more athletic. Again, yes, we need to consider their film and college backgrounds, but that should already be priced into their draft slot. We’re concerned not only with talent, but also talent relative to cost. Relative to their draft slots, Huff and Johnson are more likely than Clinton-Dix and Pryor to offer value.


The Don’t-Draft-a-Safety-at-All Route

The Cowboys’ final option is to forgo the safety position entirely. Wilcox, Johnson and Heath might not sound like the greatest of options, but let’s compare them to the four aforementioned rookies in terms of measurables.

One of the things the Cowboys have done really well is emphasize athleticism in the middle and late rounds (and with their undrafted free agents). That’s led to quality additions like running back DeMarcoMurray and wide receiver Miles Austin.

Well, their safety trio is more athletic than the majority of 2014 prospects. Wilcox doesn’t have great top-end speed, but his quality vertical, broad jump and short shuttle suggests he’s an explosive player.

Heath struggled last year and there are some concerns there, but he’s still only 22 years old, has an awesome size/speed combination, and turned in the best broad jump of the group.

Johnson—the player I believe will start and excel for Dallas in 2014—has elite size, good speed and ridiculous explosiveness. In terms of raw athleticism, he scores the highest out of all seven of these safeties.

The Cowboys don’t have experience at free safety on their roster, but they have upside.


The Final Verdict

If the Cowboys can acquire value on a player like Dontae Johnson, there’s no reason they shouldn’t bring him in to compete. However, reaching on a safety in the early rounds seems like a losing proposition in this year’s draft because their talent can probably be acquired later, accompanied by a cheaper price tag.

Otherwise, there’s no reason for Dallas to force drafting a safety this year. The main reason for that is that they have power in numbers. With three highly athletic free safeties currently on the roster, the Cowboys actually have safety. The odds of each individual player breaking out might not be outstanding, but the probability of one of them turning into a capable starter is pretty good.

The Cowboys have a lot of weaknesses they need to address via the draft, but free safety isn’t as big of one as you might think.