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The DC Times
A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football
According to my metric, Ware’s best season was actually in 2009 when he recorded only 11 sacks—the second-fewest of his career. Ware actually pressured the quarterback at a higher rate than ever that season, but simply got unlucky with sacks. On the flip side, Ware racked up 20 sacks in 2011 despite reaching the quarterback 19 fewer times than in 2009, by my count. That small dip is represented in the graph.
Ware, who turned 30 in July, certainly still has a few more years of domination left in him. If his career output resembles that of past pass rushers, though, 2012 may be his final legitimate shot at taking down the sack record.
As we close in on completing our 2009 “Grading the ‘Boys” Series (we have just the tight ends and Tony Romo left to grade), we can begin to piece together a list of player rankings. Today comes the defense.
This is not a comprehensive list of everyone who played defense last season, but rather those players who participated in enough plays to gather statistically significant results.
It is also not a ranking of the best defensive players, but rather a list of the most important players to the team (as we see it) in 2009. For example, we don’t think Jay Ratliff is less talented than Keith Brooking, but we do think Brooking’s play and leadership were comparable to Ratliff’s in 2009.
Lastly, players listed in blue are those we expect to improve in 2010. We anticipate a decline in production from those players listed in red, and neither a vast improvement or deterioration in play from those listed in black.
1. Demarcus Ware: 94.0 (A)
Tallied a ridiculous 56 quarterback pressures last season–20 more than any other outside linebacker in the NFL
2. Anthony Spencer: 92.0 (A-)
Racked up 28 more tackles and 1.77 times the hits-per-rush as Ware
3. Mike Jenkins: 89.8 (A-)
Allowed just 49.1 percent completion rate and led all cornerbacks in yards-per-attempt, deflections, and interceptions
4. Terence Newman: 88.2 (B+)
Thrown at less than any cornerback in 2009 (9.49 percent of all snaps) and a supremely underrated tackler (65 tackles, 8.5 percent missed tackle rate)
5. Keith Brooking: 87.6 (B+)
Solid numbers against both the run and pass (led all inside linebackers in tackles, tackle rate, and yards-per-attempt against), but most important grade was ‘A’ in leadership
6. Jay Ratliff 87.0 (B+)
Led all linemen with a .82 percent sack rate from the nose tackle position
7. Igor Olshansky 85.0 (B)
Probably higher on this list than others would like, but acquired a solid 33 tackles last season–11 more than Spears
8. Bradie James: 84.1 (B)
Missed only three tackles (3.4 percent) all season
9. Ken Hamlin: 82.3 (B-)
Missed just four tackles all season to record lowest missed tackle-percentage in secondary
T10. Jason Hatcher 80.2 (B-)
Could see greatest leap forward in production in 2010 as he garnered 17 quarterback pressures last season despite recording only one sack
T10. Marcus Spears 80.2 (B-)
Run-stuffer who will likely be out of Dallas in 2011
12. Stephen Bowen 79.8 (C+)
Led all ends in sack and quarterback hit rate
13. Alan Ball: 78.3 (C+)
Solid against the pass, but missed nearly one-fourth of all tackles attempted
14. Orlando Scandrick: 76.6 (C)
One of the most-targeted cornerbacks in the league (13.91 percent of snaps), will improve vastly in 2010
15. Victor Butler: 76.0 (C)
Showed flashes but must drastically improve run defense to become a more complete player
16. Gerald Sensabaugh: 75.7 (C)
Missed twice as many tackles as Hamlin and allowed 67.4 percent completion percentage
17. Junior Siavii 71.0 (C-)
Recorded zero sacks or quarterback hits in limited action
18. Bobby Carpenter: 69.4 (D+)
Horrible 18.4 missed tackle percentage was 5.4 times that of James
Graham is a sleeper pick for us. Wade Phillips loves drafting OLB's and Graham fits his mold.
The combination of Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer probably makes the Cowboys’ outside linebacker position the strongest on the team (in terms of the starters). We are all a-ware (no pun intended…okay it was intended) of Ware’s dominance. His 12 sacks were sub-par for him (although he still ranked third in the league among OLB’s), but his 17 quarterback hits were fourth in the NFL among all players.
A major factor in the success of the Dallas’ defense in 2009 was due to the emergence of Spencer, who finally became a pass-rushing force. After a slow start, Spencer racked up seven sacks and 26 quarterback hits (the latter led the entire NFL). Don’t forget that 3-4 outside linebackers must occasionally drop into coverage.
Spencer also tallied 56 tackles–the most of any 3-4 OLB in the NFL and 22 more than Ware. His ability to consistently plug the run makes his pass-rush totals all the more impressive.
With such dominating starters outside, could the Cowboys really address the OLB position in the first round of this year’s draft? The answer will be determined by the organization’s thoughts on second-year players Brandon Williams and Victor Butler.
Butler showed flashes in limited time last season, but he is currently more of a pass-rush specialist than a full-time player. Williams is a giant question mark as he lost the entire 2009 season to injury.
Consequently, the Cowboys are a bit thin (or at least questionable) behind Ware and Spencer. Remember that coach Wade Phillips loves drafting OLB’s, and he even went as far as to claim that it is the strongest position in this year’s crop of rookies.
Thus, don’t count out the team drafting a DE/OLB in round one if they determine the pick to hold excellent value. Michigan’s Brandon Graham, who made our “Elite Eight,” could be that player.
Graham, a 6’1”, 268 pound college defensive end, is widely considered a potential 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Graham’s stock has been rising since he tore up the Senior Bowl. He carried that success into the Combine with a 4.69 forty-yard dash and 31 reps on the bench press.
Graham reminds us of Spencer when he came out of Purdue. Both players are pass-rushing monsters but, just as importantly, they are equally stout against the run. For this reason, Graham will be an every-down player in the NFL, whether it’s as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB.
He uses his combination of speed and strength to pressure the quarterback with a variety of moves. He maintains great balance and leverage when rushing, which he needs due to his short arms (just 30 inches). He needs to improve his ability to not let offensive tackles get their hands into his body.
There are questions about Graham’s ability to drop into coverage. Although he is fairly quick in short areas, he is more of a “straight ahead” player and may not be able to effectively get into his drop. He can sometimes display tight hips (although so did Spencer). He could have tremendous value to a 3-4 team if he is able to display proper coverage technique.
We have Graham going No. 12 to the Miami Dolphins in our latest mock draft, although that is higher than most. It is unlikely he will fall to the Cowboys’ selection, but crazier things have happened. Although the team has bigger concerns than outside linebacker, it will be interesting to see what they decide to do should a top-tier player at a “non-need” position unexpectedly drop.
As the 2010 draft approaches, we have been focused on bringing you Mock Drafts, various Cowboys’ Potential Draft Picks, and articles on draft strategy. Sometimes, though, the most effective way to predict the future is to study the past. In determining which path the Cowboys may take come April, we have provided you with a “blast from the past”– the top ten Cowboys’ draft classes of all-time.
Best Pick: Mike Jenkins, CB, USF (First Round)
We admit that we are a bit “new school” (although we would argue more of a mix of old and new), and so we begin this list with one of the Cowboys’ most recent drafts. Five of the six selections have already made significant contributions to the team. We chose Jenkins as the best pick of the draft, but that title could also go to RB Felix Jones as well.
The importance of the 2008 draft was not due only to first-rounders Jenkins and Jones, but also to mid-rounders Tashard Choice (fourth) and Orlando Scandrick (fifth). Martellus Bennett rounds out the 2008 class, and collectively they have provided a talented young base upon which the Cowboys will be able to build for years to come.
Best Pick: Bob Lilly, DT, TCU (First Round)
The 1961 Cowboys’ draft class is the oldest on our list and one of only two draft classes in team history to contain two Hall of Famers (you will see the other class later). Bob Lilly was selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and was amazingly a part of both the 1960’s and 1970’s All-Decade teams. He was also an 11-time Pro Bowl selection.
Lilly was also joined by guard Billy Shaw, a player who was drafted in both the AFL and NFL drafts. Shaw was elected to the Hall of Fame, but unfortunately not as a member of the Cowboys. He is the only Hall of Famer to never play a snap in the NFL.
Top Pick: Ed “Too Tall” Jones, DE, Tennessee State (First Round)
The 1974 Cowboys’ draft class was headlined by first-rounder defensive end Ed Jones. The rookie out of Tennessee State eventually became a three-time All-Pro, leading the Cowboys to a Super Bowl XII championship.
Jones was joined by third round selection Danny White, an All-Pro player who threw for 155 touchdowns and over 21,000 yards.
Best Pick: Leon Lett, DT, Emporia State (Seventh Round)
The 1991 draft class was headlined by a player whose college would remain an unknown to most had the Cowboys not selected him in the seventh round. Despite his share of bonehead plays and off-field struggles, Leon Lett was a dominant tackle who played an integral role in the Cowboys’ run of 90’s Super Bowl championships (Don Beebe would agree).
The Cowboys also secured a multitude of future impact players in that ’91 draft, including Pro Bowl players Russell Maryland and Erik Williams. In addition, Alvin Harper and Dixon Edwards became starters, and CB Larry Brown, a 12th round selection, was the Super Bowl XXX MVP.
Best Pick: Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh (First Round)
Tony Dorsett, a Heisman trophy winner at Pitt, was the 2nd overall pick in the 1977 draft. He tallied 92 total touchdowns and over 12,000 yards in his career. Dorsett became the first player to win a Super Bowl just one year after winning a college national championship.
Dorsett was joined by Pro Bowl WR Tony Hill and 10th round San Jose State quarterback Steve DeBerg in the ’77 class.
Best Pick: Demarcus Ware, OLB, Troy (First Round)
Selecting the best pick from the 2005 draft class was also a difficult task, as the Cowboys were able to obtain incredible value in the seventh round with the selection of DT Jay Ratliff. Ware, though, has been so dominant that he became the choice. Although it is too early to tell (and we don’t want to jinx him), there is an excellent shot that we are watching a future Hall of Famer in Ware.
The Cowboys had two first round selections in 2005, and the second was used on Marcus Spears. In addition, the team was able to acquire Pro Bowler Marion Barber and now ex-Cowboy Chris Canty in the fourth round.
Best Pick: Michael Irvin, WR, “The U” (First Round)
The Cowboys probably could not have hit any better with their first two selections in the 1988 draft, selecting Michael Irvin and LB Ken Norton, Jr. The duo went 1-15 in their rookie season, but Irvin was the first component of “the trio” to be selected, and undoubtedly the heart and soul of the 90’s Cowboys dynasty.
Ken Norton, Jr. was a Pro Bowl linebacker, and Dallas also added impact player DT Chad Hennings in the 11th round.
Best Pick: Randy White, DT, Maryland (First Round)
The 1975 “Dirty Dozen” is frequently thought of as the top Cowboys draft class ever, so perhaps we are short-changing them a bit. In addition to selecting Hall of Famer Randy White in the first round, Dallas obtained eleven other rookies to make the team out of camp, including eight who were regular starters for at least one season.
The class was also headlined by LB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, DE Pat Donovan, and G Herbert Scott, all of whom made the Pro Bowl.
Best Pick: Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA (First Overall)
The Cowboys’ 1989 draft will be remembered for the selection of Troy Aikman as the first overall pick. The importance of hitting on this pick cannot be overstated as, had Dallas missed, it is not crazy to believe the team would currently own only two Super Bowl victories. Instead, Aikman was a HOF player sandwiched between two others in the preceding and following drafts, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. With Smith getting inducted into the Hall of Fame this fall, the trio will be immortalized together in Canton forever.
The selection of Aikman alone may have been enough for this ’89 class to make our top ten list, but the Cowboys also obtained four other Pro Bowl players who were a vital part of their ’92, ’93, and ’95 championship seasons: guard Steve Wisniewski, fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, center Mark Stepnoski, and defensive end Tony Tolbert.
Best Pick: Roger Staubach, QB, Navy (10th Round)
The #1 ranked Cowboys draft class of all-time is also the second-oldest on this list. Back in 1964, the draft was a ridiculously long 20 rounds. During that season, the Cowboys obtained three Pro Bowl players in round seven or later (Staubach, guard Jake Kupp, and WR “Bullet” Bob Hayes). Of course Staubach became a Hall of Famer, throwing for 153 touchdowns and over 22,000 yards.
Incredibly, Staubach was not the only HOF player from the 1964 draft. In the second round, the Cowboys selected a cornerback out of Oregon named Mel Renfro, perhaps the most underrated player in Cowboys’ history. After 52 career interceptions, Renfro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996.
Eric Norwood is one of the draft's top pure pass rushers.
We have discussed at length the Cowboys’ need to add depth to the inside linebacker position. Though outside linebacker is often seen as much less of a need, Dallas is somewhat thin behind starters Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
Second-year players Brandon Williams and Victor Butler are the backups, meaning if either starter goes down due to injury, the Cowboys could be in a bit of trouble. Thus, although not many experts are projecting the Cowboys to target an outside linebacker in the draft (at least not early), it is still a possibility.
This lack of experience, combined with the need for a young playmaker at inside linebacker, makes any player that is versatile enough to play both positions extremely valuable to Dallas. LB Eric Norwood of South Carolina may just be that player.
Norwood is 6’1”, 252 pounds, meaning he has good size to play inside in a 3-4. Despite this, his exceptional pass rush skills have most projecting him solely as an outside linebacker. We do not totally agree with this assessment. Norwood would be somewhat undersized at OLB, meaning teams would target him in the run game. Because of this, he would likely only be a pass rush specialist if a team pigeonholes him as solely an outside linebacker.
Instead, we believe Norwood is capable of playing both inside and outside. He is fairly explosive at his size, registering a 4.67 forty and 36.5 inch vertical leap at the Combine. Playing him at inside linebacker on running downs, particularly short-yardage situations, might allow him to use his ability to pursue the ball-carrier more so than if he was outside.
His incredible pass rushing abilities could be utilized by moving him to outside linebacker in passing situations. In terms of solely rushing the quarterback, we would actually rate Norwood as a top three prospect in this draft.
Norwood is also durable, having never missed a game in his entire college career. This sort of consistency is also matched in his on-field play. Norwood is a sure tackler and is a rather safe pick for where he will be selected.
His biggest weakness is in coverage. He is very instinctual when rushing the quarterback, but sometimes seems lost in coverage. Thus, Norwood would be primarily an edge rusher in the Cowboys’ scheme, as the team would want to hide this weakness as much as possible.
Overall, we see Norwood as a guy who could become the primary backup to Ware and Spencer, perhaps spelling them in passing situations, with the ability to play inside in a pinch or during short-yardage situations. His versatility is what will appeal to Dallas, and Wade Phillips can never have enough talented rush linebackers.
Norwood is projected to go around the third round, but we honestly have no idea why he could get selected this low. It is probable that teams see him as a player with no exceptional qualities and limited upside. His perceived lack of outstanding traits will give whichever team selects him excellent value.
He reminds us of Tashard Choice in that his numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he is a leader who is solid in just about every aspect of the game. We have a feeling Norwood could rise to as high as the second round, but if he is available for the Cowboys in the third, it would be awfully tough to pass on a player with his versatility and pass rushing capabilities.
Anthony Spencer's play was the key to the success of the Dallas D in 2009.
1. The emergence of Anthony Spencer
Anthony Spencer’s play in 2009 was undoubtedly the number one reason Dallas was able to maintain the second-ranked defense in the league. His seven sacks do not do him justice, as he was creating havoc in the backfield from week one. Once the first sack came, the rest followed in bunches.
Perhaps just as important as sacks is quarterback hits. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Spencer was first among all linebackers in the NFL in quarterback hits with 26. In comparison, Demarcus Ware was second with just 17. Statistically, Spencer got in position to obtain a lot more sacks than he did. Expect his sack total to possibly double in 2010.
Further, Spencer is perhaps the best outside linebacker in the league versus the run. He led all 3-4 outside linebackers in tackles with 56. Spencer’s ability to stop the run goes unappreciated by most of those analyzing his success in 2009, but it is nearly as important as his sacks.
Bringing in Julius Peppers would create a multitude of problems. With the money he would receive, he would have to start over Spencer. But is he even an upgrade? We would argue not. He would be a downgrade against the run, and any increase in sacks that Peppers would bring would be negated by the fact that the team would be setting back Spencer, one of the league’s up-and-coming stars.
Those who know the team know that Spencer broke out in 2009, but we expect him to really break out next season. In fact, we would go as far as to say that we would be surprised if he does not make the Pro Bowl.
2. His age
Peppers is 30-years old. That certainly isn’t too old to make plays, but when taking into consideration who he is replacing, the move just does not make sense. Again, the team would be setting back the development of a younger player who may not even be a downgrade. It is better to allow a young player to gain experience than to make a mistake, both in talent evaluation and financially, on an older player.
Peppers has never even played in a 3-4 defense.
3. Ability to sign other players
The NFL’s new Final Eight plan limits the Cowboys’ ability to sign free agents this offseason. In fact, the team is only allowed to obtain one big-money guy, meaning Peppers would force Dallas to upgrade all of the other need areas through the draft. The draft is certainly the primary tool through which teams can improve, but immediate impacts generally come from free agents, and there are certainly positions which could benefit from a free agent signing more than outside linebacker.
4. No 3-4 experience
Speaking of outside linebacker, it is a position that Julius Peppers have never even played. He is a 4-3 defensive end. Although Peppers claimed last season he was interested in playing outside linebacker for a 3-4 team, it is a task in which he has never taken part.
That is not to say that Peppers doesn’t have the tools or ability to make the transition, but why take the chance? Peppers is nearly 30 pounds heavier than Spencer. This would certainly limit his ability to drop into coverage effectively, another task he has not performed on a consistent basis.
5. Brandon Williams and Victor Butler
Although inconsistent, Victor Butler showed in '09 that he can be an effective pass-rusher.
Williams and Butler, two rookie selections from last season, are the current backups at outside linebacker. While you would like a bit more experience behind Ware and Spencer, at a certain point you just have to give the young guys a shot. Who knows where the Cowboys would have finished last season had Miles Austin not been given a chance to perform.
Williams was injured in ’09, but Butler showed some signs of being an effective pass rush specialist. He needs to add bulk, but there may be some situations where he could be counted on to come in and hold down the fort while Ware or Spencer get a breather.
Further, if the team does want to upgrade the backup spot, there are certainly more logical options than adding a 30-year old 4-3 defensive end who will command a huge contract.
6. Poor attitude and takes plays off
The Cowboys just finished ridding themselves of players they deemed distractions in the locker room (T.O., Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones). Why bring in a player who is known for having a poor attitude? Although we think team chemistry is somewhat overrated, the team obviously placed an emphasis on it last offseason so there is no reason to mess with that now.
More important than his off-field attitude is Peppers’ on-field play. We are in no way doubting his skill set, but there have been rumblings of Peppers taking plays off. While we have not watched enough film on him to say for sure, the fact that former teammates of the Panthers’ star have called him out is discouraging.
Overall, replacing a young player who is a key component of the Dallas defense with an aging veteran who has never played in a 3-4 defense and is known to not give 100 percent just isn’t an option for the Cowboys.