Saturday, April 17, 2010
Updated: April 19, 9:47 AM ET
Numbers game: Cowboys can improve
By Jason Vida
ESPN Stats & Information
After a season that included an NFC East title and their first playoff win since 1996, the offseason has surely been one of the most pleasant and least busy at Dallas Cowboys headquarters in recent memory. Jerry Jones' biggest move was to retain the services of a member of the organization who won't even take the field in 2010, inking coach Wade Phillips to a new deal. For the first time in a long time, the Cowboys have few glaring holes to fill in the offseason.
Along with the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cowboys were one of just four teams to finish in the top 10 in the league in total offense and total defense last season. But ESPN Stats & Information tracked every game of the 2009 regular season, giving us the ability to break down plays by direction, formation, personnel and several other categories and find areas in which even the best NFL teams need to improve. If the Cowboys want to repeat as NFC East champs for the first time since the days of Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin (1996, to be exact), here are three needs they should fill in this year's draft:
A defensive back who can support the run
The Cowboys allowed less than 91 yards on the ground per game in 2009, the fourth-best figure in the NFL and Dallas' best since the 2003 season. But not every personnel package can take equal credit for shutting down opposing running backs. In base defenses, the Cowboys held opponents to a solid 3.6 yards per carry. However, when the Cowboys switched to their nickel and dime defenses, bringing one or more extra defensive backs into the game, that number jumped to 7.4 yards per rush, the worst in the NFL by a wide margin. Frustrated by his struggles in pass coverage, the Cowboys waived safety Roy Williams last offseason. Williams' departure might have strengthened Dallas' back four against the pass, but his absence also diminished the unit's ability to stop the run. A defensive back who is a physical presence like Williams and is comfortable making plays near the line of scrimmage should be high on the team's draft wish list.
Another option at wide receiver
When the Cowboys gave up first, third and sixth-round picks to acquire Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions midway through the 2008 season, they thought they were acquiring a receiver who would eventually overtake Terrell Owens as the team's top wideout. But 25 games and 57 catches later, Williams has been supplanted by Miles Austin as Tony Romo's favorite target. Since Williams played his first game with a star on his helmet in Week 7 of the 2008 season, his 57 receptions are tied for the 106th most in the NFL, behind less notable and less expensive wideouts such as Jason Avant, Josh Reed and Malcom Floyd. Williams caught just 38 of the 85 balls thrown his way in 2009. And with only 10 targets on passes of more than 20 yards downfield, Williams' lack of receptions can't be attributed to failing to connect on repeated deep routes. In fact, Williams' catch percentage (receptions/targets) on passes less than 20 yards downfield was 48 percent in 2009 (36 receptions on 75 targets). Of all the players in the league who were targeted at least 70 times on passes of that distance (69 total), only the Oakland Raiders' Louis Murphy had a lower catch percentage than Williams. There's no longer any question as to whether Williams is a No. 1 receiver. He's not. There should also be serious doubts as to his ability to play second fiddle. Dallas would be wise to draft another option at wide receiver.
A kicker who can split the uprights
With one of the league's best units on both sides of the ball in 2009, the Cowboys' biggest weakness last season might have been in the kicking game. After a six-game stretch in which he missed seven of his 11 field goal attempts, Dallas waived Nick Folk in December and brought in Shaun Suisham, who had been sent packing by the Washington Redskins just weeks earlier. For the season, the two combined to miss on 10 of their 23 attempts from 30 or more yards. The 10 misses on field goals of that distance were the most by the Cowboys since 2001 (11) and tied for the most in the league last season. Fortunately for the Cowboys, kickers come cheap in the draft. Since 2000, more than half of the kickers selected (14 of 25) have come off the board in the sixth or seventh round. Using a late-round selection to shore up a woeful kicking game could keep the Cowboys atop the division in 2010.