DallasCowboys.com recently published its list of the top 10 Cowboys heading into camp in 2014, so I figured I’d try my hand at ranking the best players on the roster. The key word there is “best.” I’m not looking to rank players in terms of how valuable they are to Dallas—that list would start and end with quarterback Tony Romo—but instead simply rank players based solely on their on-field talent.
That means that the players aren’t competing with one another (as they would be if I were ranking players based on their value to the team) but instead competing with others around the league at their position.
That is, I’m comparing Romo not directly to wide receiver Dez Bryant, for example, but instead to other quarterbacks in the NFL. The players are ranked in terms of how well they match up with others around the league at their position.
So, what am I looking for?
On-field stats are obviously important—all other things equal, I want to favor players who have produced in the past—but that’s not all I’m concerned with. Since I’m ranking players based on their expected 2014 play, I need to look for certain predictors of success. Past production is one way to predict future play—perhaps the best—but it’s not the only way.
With that primer, let’s take a look at my top 10 Dallas Cowboys in 2014.
10. DT Tyrone Crawford
I’m starting this list off with a surprise because defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford probably won’t even start for Dallas and has yet to record a sack in his NFL career. Two things make me think Crawford will make a big impact this year, though.
First, he has certain traits indicative of future success among defensive linemen, such as long arms and quality college production—and he's young enough that the latter still matters. Second, the Cowboys coaches and scouts seem to really like him. When the stats and film guys agree on a player, that’s a good sign.
9. DE George Selvie
When I predicted George Selvie to break out before the 2013 season, there were certainly a lot of doubters. After off of a seven-sack season, the general perception is that Selvie will regress in 2014. Like Crawford, Selvie was excluded from the DallasCowboys.com list of top 10 players.
We need to figure out if Selvie is a potentially elite player who underachieved early in his career or a mediocre one who got lucky in 2013. Based on the fact that he barely played early in his career and that he also has the second-most tackles for loss of any player in NCAA football since 2000, I’m going with the former.
8. S Barry Church
When I projected a breakout year for safety Barry Church in 2013, I actually thought I might be slightly optimistic at 80 tackles. Church went on to record 135 tackles—the most for any safety in the NFL.
Part of his success was due to the Cowboys’ scheme, and part of it was due to the front seven just not being very effective, but Church also deserves credit as a talented—not elite, but talented—player in the back end of Dallas’ defense.
7. CB Orlando Scandrick
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick made my list of the Cowboys’ most overrated players, and he’s the only person on that list to also be on this one.
That tells us two things. First, those rankings combined talent with public perception, so Scandrick’s presence had more to do with the fact that I just think people believe he’s better than he is. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a good cornerback, because he's definitely been above-average the past few years.
In 2013, Scandrick allowed 1.03 yards for every snap that he was in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was good for 22nd in the NFL, so it’s a quality number, especially considering the Cowboys had a poor pass rush in 2013.
My only concern with Scandrick is his size. I think he’s somewhat equivalent to a small, lean wide receiver who can give decent production, but he won’t ever be a dominant player because he can’t score touchdowns. In the same way, Scandrick probably won’t ever record a lot of picks, and he is not an above-average player in the red zone.
6. RB DeMarco Murray
There were lots of reasons that I was leading the DeMarco Murray hype train last season; most notably, he’s big, fast and catches passes. That’s what you want out of a running back.
Now that Murray has broken out, we seem to forget that at this time last year, everyone labeled him injury-prone and said he’d never produce in Dallas.
Wait, is he still injury-prone? Does one season of health negate that, or is "injury-prone" a backward-looking term that has no predictive value?
My point here is that there wasn’t really overwhelming evidence to suggest that Murray was injury-prone in the past, but there was a lot of evidence to suggest he was a really good running back. The 2013 season confirmed it, but we shouldn’t have needed it.
5. C Travis Frederick
In the 2013 preseason, I predicted we’d see a much-improved running game from Dallas, citing a few different stats and also using preseason play-calling as evidence. I bring that up to mention that the Cowboys’ running game was bound to be improved in 2013, so the idea that rookie center Travis Frederick was the sole reason for the improvement is incorrect.
He was a big part of it, though. We know that because the Cowboys averaged—get ready for this—6.01 yards per carry with Frederick at the point of attack in 2013. That’s 6.01 yards per carry behind a center! Considering no one really considers guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary elite players, that number reflects really well on Frederick.
4. DT Henry Melton
Defensive tackle Henry Melton barely made the DallasCowboys.com top 10 list, which is understandable since he barely played last season and few in Dallas have had the opportunity to watch him up close. If we’re projecting Melton in 2014, though, there’s a lot on which to be bullish.
First of all, Melton was really good as a pass-rusher in 2011 and 2012, recording 13 total sacks. He also pressured the quarterback 47 times, according to Pro Football Focus. Based on my research, that level of pressure will result in 12 sacks over the long run, so Melton didn’t get extremely “lucky” in any way with those sacks; he deserved to be around that number based on the quality of his rush.
Melton should fit nicely into Dallas’ scheme this year, and you could make an argument that he’s the favorite to lead the team in sacks, even playing from the inside. The disruption he could cause has the potential to be extremely valuable to the Cowboys.
Further, at age 27, Melton should be entering the prime of his career.
3. QB Tony Romo
Quarterback Tony Romo is so polarizing that, no matter where he’s ranked, you’ll inevitably hear that he is simultaneously much too high and way too low. That’s kind of the nature of assessing quarterbacks, especially in Dallas.
There are so many ways that we can try to grade Romo’s play—efficiency, passer rating, team wins—but proponents and detractors can find whatever numbers they’d like to support their argument. What we should all be able to agree on, however, is that Romo has been extremely efficient during his career, but that efficiency hasn’t translated into postseason success for whatever reason.
The reason I have Romo rated so high and believe he’s truly one of the league’s best passers is that he’s consistently been able to put up numbers that suggest he’s one of the game’s top quarterbacks—not bulk stats like yards, but rather awesome efficiency stats.
Love him or hate him, it’s going to be tough to argue that Romo isn’t at least a well above-average quarterback when he has a career yards per attempt of 7.8 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2.06-to-1.
And, yes, he’s clutch.
2. OT Tyron Smith
Pro Football Focus is an extremely valuable service when grading offensive linemen because, unlike with skill players, there aren’t readily available stats for the big boys. PFF has changed that by grading linemen in a way that otherwise might not be quantifiable.
PFF ranked Tyron Smith as the seventh-best offensive tackle in the NFL last year, including fifth-best in pass protection. Those who watched Cowboys games saw Smith’s dominance on a weekly basis.
The scariest part? He’s probably not even close to his ceiling. Remember, Smith came into the NFL at such a young age that he’s still only 23 years old. Look at where he falls on the career trajectory for the typical offensive tackle via Pro Football Reference’s approximate value.
1. WR Dez Bryant
And finally, in what should be the least shocking placement on this list, wide receiver Dez Bryant checks in as the Cowboys’ best player. There are so many ways we can argue for Bryant’s dominance, but my favorite is his red-zone play.
Bryant is the best red-zone receiver in the NFL—maybe the best scorer at any position period. His ability to beat defenses in a variety of ways and finish at an unprecedented rate is why I believe he’s, at worst, the third-best wide receiver in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon.