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Of course, we shouldn’t expect Claiborne’s efficiency to match that of the Cowboys’ top cornerback. Based on historical production from first-round cornerbacks and the ‘Boys current defense, Claiborne will probably be targeted at least 110 times this year. By allowing a completion rate of 58.0 percent and 8.00 yards-per-attempt, Claiborne would be sitting at 64 receptions for 512 yards.
While I don’t agree with the release of Andre Gurode, I think Costa is ready. He looked good in the preseason and should be an upgrade over Gurode in the run game. Remember, despite the notion that Gurode’s strength was as a run blocker, I gave him a “D” in that categoryin 2010. Instead of impacting the center position, Gurode’s release indirectly affects the guard position (as Costa probably would have started there over rookie Bill Nagy).
6. Abram Elam
I didn’t talk much about Elam during the preseason, but I wasn’t impressed with his play. I like his athleticism and on paper he appears to be a good fit, but I didn’t see the sort of range in coverage this team desperately covets from the safety position. As of now, I am holding out hope that Rob Ryan knows Elam well enough to understand he’s a good fit here. Either way, he’s a more vital cog in the defense than most realize.
5. Sean Lee
In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, I gave Sean Lee a “B-“–the highest grade of any inside ‘backer. Lee beat out Bradie James and Keith Brooking in regards to tackles-per-play, missed tackle percentage, yards-per-attempt against, and yards-per-snap while in coverage (despite playing the majority of his snaps in passing situations). He was underwhelming in the preseason, but I think you’ll see a really effective player in 2011.
4. Felix Jones
Jones led Cowboys running backs in every significant category in 2010, which is why he received an 86.3% from me in my 2010 Running Back Grades. Jones is the team’s best inside runner, outside runner, pass-catcher, and short-yardage runner. His presence on this list is less about his talent and more about his health. The Cowboys need Jones to stay healthy throughout the season to have any shot of making the playoffs. DeMarco Murray looks promising, but the play-making ability of Jones cannot be replaced if he goes down.
3. Tyron Smith
Smith is questionable this week against the Jets, and I think Dallas should sit him if he isn’t 100% ready to go. This is certainly an important game, but not as important as Smith’s future health. For a rookie, the Cowboys are leaning on Smith about as much as is possible. He’ll be an upgrade over Marc Colombo from a year ago, and perhaps a significant one. If Tony Romo has even an average amount of time to throw the football this season, this offense will be dangerous. Smith and fellow bookend Doug Free are big parts of that.
2. Mike Jenkins
After a 2009 season in which he received one of my highest grades, Jenkins regressed badly in 2010. I gave him a 64.6% overall grade, including a D- against the run. Jenkins allowed a 67.4% completion rate (higher than his grade, which is sad), six touchdowns, 11.17 yards-per-attempt, 1.07 yards-per-snap, and missed 12.9% of tackles. The lack of pass rush certainly contributed to Jenkins’ struggles last season, but there is no doubt he needs to improve in a big way. With Terence Newman currently down, Jenkins’ play is more vital than ever.
1. Anthony Spencer
The player who just claimed he “mailed it in” at times in 2010 is perhaps the player the Dallas Cowboys need to improve the most in 2011. Rob Ryan’s scheme should help some, as should the push from backup outside linebacker Victor Butler. Look for Ryan to place Spencer, Butler and DeMarcus Ware on the field at the same time often this season, as well as create innovative looks that should help Spencer get to the quarterback.
I didn’t think Spencer’s 2010 play was atrocious, but it can undoubtedly improve (click here for 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades). His success is strongly linked to the play of the secondary. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think Spencer racks up double-digit sacks this season.
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
In Parts I-III of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we analyzed the production of the offensive line and running backs. We now swing over to the defense to critique the play of the Cowboys’ top three cornerbacks.
As is the case with every position in football, the success of the defensive backs is very dependent on the play of other positions, particularly those rushing the passer. Thus, it can become difficult when comparing CB’s from different teams because the efficiency of their respective pass-rushers is directly correlated to the cornerbacks’ own success.
It is easier to compare CB’s on the same team, particularly if they do not match up with specific receivers. This is the case on the Cowboys, as Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins generally play one side of the field regardless of where the opposition’s receivers line up.
Playing in the slot can be a bit different, and so we must be careful when comparing Orlando Scandrick’s stats with those of Newman and Jenkins. The percentage of snaps that Scandrick is targeted, for example, will be higher than the starting cornerbacks because he is on the field in all passing situations, but not necessarily on running downs.
Still, we can gather the numbers and effectively isolate a player’s success to the best of our ability. Below are the results of the Dallas cornerbacks’ 2009 play and the corresponding Dallas Cowboys Times grades.
Chart Key: TA=Thrown At, Rec=Receptions Yielded, PD=Passes Defended, Yds/Att=Yards Per Attempt Thrown At
The best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
Some of the stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.
The final chart details our own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating. It incorporates the factors we believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a cornerback. The amount of points a player scores in each category is less important than the difference between his score and the average score. For example, a point total of 20.0 in a category where the league average is 5.0 helps a player more than a score of 100.0 in a category whose league average is 90.0.
The final grade is weighted 4:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.
2009 Cornerback Pass Defense Totals
Pass Defense: B+
So much has been made of Mike Jenkins’ progression in 2009 that people tend to forget how outstanding Terence Newman played. Newman’s health and ability to perform at his best was undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for the success of the Dallas defense.
Newman was the least targeted Cowboys’ cornerback in ’09, getting thrown at on just 9.49 percent of all snaps. This statistic is very representative of the way opposing coaches feel about a player. Newman may be underrated among general fans, but those in the league are very aware of his ability.
Newman recorded an impressive .728 passing yards allowed per snap, surpassed only slightly by Jenkins. The 7.66 yards-per-attempt against Newman was the worst of all three cornerbacks, but this could be due to the fact that quarterbacks do not generally test him. When Newman does get thrown at, there is a good bet his receiver is fairly open.
2009 Cornerback Pass Defense Efficiency
A common knock on Terence throughout his entire career has been his inability to make a play on the ball. It is a valid criticism, as Newman logged just three interceptions last season, and we see it as his biggest weakness. The largest difference between Newman and Jenkins in ’09 was this ability to make big plays. Nonetheless, Newman is almost always in position, which surely aids his teammates in their quest to force turnovers.
The statistic which we value most, our own Pass Defense Rating (below), has Newman ranked slightly behind Jenkins in terms of 2009 pass defense efficiency. Newman checked in with 236.39 points. In comparison, Darrelle Revis, the most dominant pass defender by far last season, recorded 336.38 points.
Run Defense: A-
The most underrated component of Newman’s game is his willingness to stop the run. He recorded the most tackles and missed the least of any cornerback on the team last season. In fact, his 8.5 percent missed tackle percentage was one of the best in the league.
Pass Defense: A-
No player on Dallas took as big a leap forward in 2009 as Mike Jenkins. Jenkins, remember, began the season in a rotation with Orlando Scandrick as the Cowboys’ starting cornerback. His play soon justified his stay in the starting lineup.
Jenkins gave up a completion on just 49.1 percent of passes thrown his way, leading the team. He also led all three CB’s in yards-per-attempt, yards-per-snap, pass deflections, and, most importantly, interceptions (six).
2009 Cornerback Run Support Statistics
Because interceptions can sometimes be fluky and vary greatly from year to year, we do not put an extreme emphasis on them in our custom Pass Defense Rating. Despite this, Jenkins led the team with 267.96 points. Rankings among teammates, more so than among competitors, are very accurate because teammates deal with the same pass rush and game situations.
While we would rate Newman’s ability to purely cover as equivalent or superior to Jenkins’, the former USF cornerback gets the better grade because of his increased play-making ability.
Run Defense: C+
Jenkins was ridiculed for dodging a tackle against the Giants in his rookie season, and it was obvious he placed emphasis on improving his run support in 2009. Still, this part of Jenkins’ game needs work. He recorded less tackles than Scandrick despite playing significantly more snaps. He also missed 14.6 percent of all tackles he attempted. This is not horrendous, but it can certainly improve. Newman has proven that run support is more about “want to” than being physically-imposing.
Pass Defense: C
Scandrick took a step back in 2009. The fact that he even had a chance to start this season after being drafted in the fifth round in 2008 is a testament to how well he played in his rookie season.
Our Pass Defense Rating ranks is capable of effectively ranking cornerbacks who play on the same team.
In ’09, however, Scandrick was one of the most targeted defensive backs in the NFL (13.91 percent of all snaps). Despite this and giving up completions on 62.9 percent of passes his way, Scandrick did a good job of limiting the yards-per-attempt to just 6.83 (Jenkins was only slightly better at 6.71).
Scandrick tallied only 151.90 points in our Pass Defense Rating, though, because of his high target rate and inability to make plays on the ball.
The problem with Scandrick was not that he was out of position or got beat a lot. As we watched the film, it was apparent Scandrick’s speed and quickness allowed him to cover well, but, for whatever reason, he got outplayed once the ball was in the air.
Thus, his number one offseason priority may be working to get his head turned around in coverage to locate the ball, then subsequently using his athleticism to make a play.
Run Defense: B-
Scandrick is slight of frame, but he doesn’t get manhandled in the run game. He actually recorded three more tackles than Jenkins This number could be inflated, however, because Scandrick lined up closer to the ball-carrier and also gave up a significant number of completions where he was able to immediately make a tackle.
Still, Scandrick had a lower percentage of missed tackles than Jenkins. Tackling from the nickel position is generally more difficult than it is for a cornerback lined up out wide because a nickel cornerback is in the open field and does not have the ability to utilize the sideline as an extra defender.
Final Cornerback Rankings
1. Mike Jenkins: 89.8 (A-)
2. Terence Newman: 88.2 (B+)
Orlando Scandrick may have competition in 2010, perhaps from Javier Arenas.
3. Orlando Scandrick: 76.6 (C)
So where do the Cowboys go from here concerning the cornerback position? It is obvious they are highly talented on the outside with Newman and Jenkins, but should they upgrade the nickel spot?
In our opinion, Scandrick has the ability to significantly improve his performance in 2010. It is quite apparent that he is very close to taking that next step. The most important aspect of his success will be gaining experience. With experience comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes success.
Sometimes it appeared as though Scandrick was a bit hesitant on the field in ’09, and the knowledge he will gain from more experience will allow him to “stop thinking” and let his natural ability take over. There is no doubt that he has the requisite talent to be an incredible cover corner.
We could also see the Cowboys addressing the position during the middle or late rounds of the draft. One player we are very high on is Alabama CB Javier Arenas. Arenas primary role in Dallas would be as a return man, but he could also push Scandrick for the nickel spot. Perhaps a little competition is just what Orlando needs to thrive in 2010.
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.
Alabama CB Javier Arenas could be the Cowboys' third round selection as a return specialist who would add depth at CB.
The Cowboys trio of cornerbacks are just about as good as one could hope for. Starters Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins were Pro Bowlers. Nickel second-year man Orlando Scandrick did take a step back from his rookie year, but improved vastly in the second half of the 2009 season.
Despite being on the field for just 573 snaps (as compared to 944 and 1,007 for Jenkins and Newman, respectively), Scandrick was targeted nearly as much as the starters. In fact, Scandrick was targeted on 14.5 percent of snaps which he took the field, highest in the entire NFL. While a large part of this number is certainly due to the talent of Jenkins and Newman, Scandrick did struggle a bit in the slot. His speed allows him to nearly always be in position, but he just did not make plays on the ball.
Still, Scandrick is a solid third cornerback. The Cowboys, if you remember, even began the 2009 season rotating starts between Scandrick and Jenkins before ultimately handing the job over to Mike.
As we all know, though, you can never have too many talented cornerbacks. Newman stayed healthy all of last season, but that is a bit of a rarity. The team cannot expect that again and should be well-equipped to deal with an injury or two down the stretch.
The depth of the position allows the team to not necessarily focus on cornerback, but simply select one in the middle or late rounds if he is the best player on their board. Alabama CB Javier Arenas, who we profiled as one of our ten players to watch at the NFL Combine this week, might be a good selection. The versatility he provides with his return abilities would justify the pick.
Let’s start with the physical: Arenas is small. He might have been a first round selection if it wasn’t for his 5’9” frame. At that height, you would want Arenas to have blazing speed, but he doesn’t. He may run a mid-4.4 at the Combine.
Despite his lack of top-end speed, Arenas is a very good athlete. At corner, he has very fluid hips and adequate ball skills. He may have trouble competing to get the ball at its highest point, so his vertical leap could be more important than it is for other prospects.
Arenas is a tremendous return man that is capable of returning both punts and kickoffs. In 2009, he averaged over 15 and 29 yards on punt returns and kick returns, respectively. He displays outstanding vision on returns and doesn’t take too many wasted steps, getting upfield smoothly. He often resembles a running back once he gets his hands on the ball.
Overall, Arenas’ fluidity and return ability reminds us of Boise State prospect and fellow cornerback Kyle Wilson. Again, if Arenas was two inches taller, we believe he would be a borderline first round selection.
With teams placing an increased emphasis on the return game, the ability to return both punts and kickoffs could vault Arenas into the second round. To go there, though, he would have to prove to a team that he is capable of playing as a nickel CB.
Arenas would be an incredible pick in the back of the third round (Cowboys select #91). If he drops that far and Dallas has not yet upgraded the returner spots, expect Arenas to be a possibility to come in and become a return specialist who will add depth to the cornerback spot, perhaps pushing Alan Ball to full-time free safety.