Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
18 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Once again, despite copious talent, the Cowboys enter a season looking to avenge the disappointment of last year. And once again, fair or unfair, the disappointment is perceived to mostly be Tony Romo’s fault. His costly interception at the end of the Week 17 Redskins game is fresher in our minds than his stellar 10-touchdown, one-interception month of December. Even if Romo is as "un-clutch" as his critics believe (which is debatable; last year he had a 26.0% passing DVOA in "late and close" situations, the same as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers), the bigger issue is the team around him. The running backs have been hit or miss, the line has been prone to mistakes, and the receivers have a habit of running incorrect routes. Whoever is calling the shots for this offense (Jason Garrett? Bill Callahan?) must simplify the ever-expanding playbook. Otherwise, this group will never find its identity and settle down.
QB: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton
RB: DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner, Lawrence Vickers (FB); Lost: Felix Jones
Romo’s ticket to improvement hinges on him getting smarter in the pre-snap phase and more disciplined and trusting of the play designs in the post-snap phase. Skill-wise, there’s nothing to complain about with the 10-year veteran. Performance-wise, Romo’s internal clock can run too fast at times and too slow at others. I see this in the way he occasionally gets frenetic in the pocket, reckless in downfield attempts, or latched on to certain progressions.
On the ground, Murray offers good north/south decisiveness. He’s not much of a wiggler, though. If Tanner ever wants to have a bigger role -– including more third-down reps –- he must become a sounder pass-blocker. Vickers can be a stout, stabilizing presence on early downs.
WR: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley; Lost: Kevin Ogletree
TE: Jason Witten, James Hanna; Lost: John Phillips
Bryant is one of the three or four most gifted receivers in the NFL. If he could just learn to play the position, he’d be unstoppable. Right now, he struggles to read defenses and run precise routes, particularly late in the down. That might be one reason the Cowboys only aligned him on the far outside. Another reason could be because having Bryant at the X-Iso spot is a great way to stretch the double teams that he so often attracts. That benefits guys like Harris, Beasley, and, of course, Austin. (Austin, by the way, was considered a star after 1,320 yards and 28.6% DVOA in 2009 but has averaged 8.8% DVOA and only 856 receiving yards in the three years since.)
Inside, Witten is the consummate pro, while Hanna, a 2012 sixth-round pick, is an intriguing project with upside. It will be fascinating to see if he can develop into a lighter version of Aaron Hernandez.
LT: Tyron Smith LG: Nate Livings C: Phil Costa RG: Mackenzy Bernadeau RT: Doug Free
Backups: Jeremy Parnell, Ryan Cook; Lost: Derrick Dockery
Free has struggled immensely with penalties and against anyone with even a modicum of bull-rushing ability. Perhaps he’ll bounce back and regain his pre-contract form of 2010, but all evidence from the past two years suggests he’s somehow getting worse. On the other side, Smith had similar problems last year, though not nearly to the same degree. His gradual improvement suggests the promising future the Cowboys expect, though he must continue to hone his footwork. That will curtail his occasional problems with power in the run game and speed in the pass game. In the middle, the hope is that Costa can stay healthy and continue to evolve into a much-needed steadying force between these two so-so guards. He was looking good before his foot injury last October.
No defense in 2013 will undergo as dramatic a scheme change as the Cowboys. Rob Ryan and his profusely complex 3-4 scheme are out; Monte Kiffin and his simpler 4-3 are in. The Cowboys are determined to create more turnovers in 2013. They believe a simpler scheme with more zone concepts will propagate this. To teach these zones, Jerry Jones wanted the guy who originally masterminded a lot of them. But there are many not-so-subtle whispers of doubt around the league about Kiffin's viability as a coordinator. He’s a legend, yes, but he’s also 73 and three years removed from his last pro job. Even worse, his scheme was extremely overmatched during his three-year sojourn in the college ranks.
DE: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Kyle Wilber, Tyrone Crawford Lost: Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman
DT: Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Rob Callaway; Lost: Josh Brent
Ware will excel at defensive end because players like Ware excel just about anywhere. Having been the weak outside linebacker in a 3-4, Ware has spent the bulk of his career essentially playing the same one-gap edge concepts that he’ll play in this scheme. The guy making a real change is Spencer. He was a terrific playside run-defender as an outside linebacker; can that continue now that he’s lining up with a hand in the dirt? Ratliff and Hatcher are both built for one-gap penetration, but it’d be smart for the Cowboys to cultivate better depth and long-term prospects behind them. If the Cowboys decide they need a wide-bodied plugger inside, they may have to look in the draft, as Lissemore is just barely north of 300 pounds and Callaway is a young journeyman.
OLB: Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Alex Albright, Ernie Sims; Lost: Victor Butler, Brady Poppinga
ILB: Sean Lee, Cameron Sheffield; Lost: Dan Connor
Carter and Lee both have sensational speed and instincts. The change in scheme was centered largely around putting them in position to make more plays on the ball. The key is staying healthy, which neither did last year. Durant was a solid signing given his experience in Detroit’s similar Cover-2 based scheme. Of course, given the proliferation of three-receiver sets across the NFL, he’ll play less than half the snaps. Sims is solid depth, but the Cowboys will need Albright to develop and learn to firmly take on lead-blockers in traffic. He looked okay at that last season, though the sample size was small.
CB: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore; Lost: Mike Jenkins, Michael Coe
S: Barry Church, Will Allen, Danny McCray, Matt Johnson; Lost: Gerald Sensabaugh, Eric Frampton, Charlie Peprah
Cornerback is set for the next few years, while safety is up in the air. In a zone scheme, there’s not a lot of stress placed on the outside defenders -- but that’s only if the safeties are adept. Thus, the development of Church and Johnson will play a critical role in how this defense does. The fact that Allen was signed late in free agency might suggest that the Cowboys are not entirely comfortable with either player at this point.
Claiborne, like Janoris Jenkins of the Rams, is colored "black" to indicate that he's already established himself as a reasonable starting corner after just one year. Obviously, his potential is much higher, depending on how Kiffin uses him. It’s somewhat perplexing that the Cowboys are committing to a zone scheme considering they inked Carr to a $50 million deal, traded a boatload to draft Claiborne, and secured Scandrick, a rising man-to-man slot corner, to a six-year, $28 million deal in 2011. It’s possible they envision running the type of "zone" scheme that Seattle runs, which means these corners will essentially play press-man with outside leverage. That’s a very challenging coverage for offensive players to beat, but it's also just as challenging for defensive players to execute. We’ll have to see what Kiffin does here.
K: Dan Bailey; P: Chris Jones; Lost: Brian Moorman
Bailey had a good year on field goals in 2012, but that's typical field-goal kicker inconsistency. He was average the year before, and he's not very good on kickoffs. Jones tore his ACL in October but will be back in the job again come September.
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