Issues In Oxnard: Identifying The Best Players On This Defense – Splash Plays

When you discuss the Cowboys defense in 2014 (or any other year), you start with the obvious discussion of who the potential best players could be.  As we examine this particular depth chart, you have to be rather struck with this important quandary.

Who are the best players on defense?  Where is the star power going to come from in 2014?  If every player on the defense was made available to the entire league, who would be snapped up first as the most coveted players?  And amongst them, who would be required the biggest check?

Regardless of how many feel about the results of spending $50m on Brandon Carr, I would argue that he has been a very solid player for the Cowboys and while maybe he has been slightly less than dominant, he has played every single game and has put up results on most of those occasions.  If they have been a poor defense since his arrival, it would be difficult to pin the failures on Carr – He is simply no match for Calvin Johnson or Brandon Marshall, but then again, without much safety assistance, who is?

Beyond Carr, you then get into the discussion of who is next?  Would Orlando Scandrick be that guy?  Quite possibly.  In fact, if you want to know who would be grabbed by the competition the quickest in a hypothetical reallocation draft from the Cowboys defense, the Top 3 picks might all be corner backs.  With Carr, Scandrick, and the underachieving and even disappointing Morris Claiborne.  Claiborne has plenty of ability, but if anyone needs to demonstrate their true value on the football field (and start by playing every game), it is the #6 overall selection of the 2012 draft.  Of course, Claiborne would be a "potential over performance" play, but I think he might be the 3rd guy taken.

If he isn’t, then surely George Selvie is.  In his 5th year in the NFL at his 4th organization, he finally put it together last season with 7 sacks and is now a year away from perhaps being a real coveted player in free agency at the age of 28 (he will turn 28 in March).  Nothing pays in the NFL like sacks, and if he can find his way to 10 or so this year, he will get paid well.

Then, we look to a healing Henry Melton.  But, I imagine he has to prove what he can do with a healed knee and a lesser supporting cast.  Everyone hopes he will be dominant (or at least 2013 Jason Hatcher), but the football world has only seen him play dominant football when surrounded by 3 HOF caliber players on his front 7.  If Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Julius Peppers from 2010-2012 were coming with him, it would be easier to project him.  At this point, there might be some questions that require answering.

Barry Church might be next or the ability of Bruce Carter.  After that, Tyrone Crawford, JJ Wilcox, and Kyle Wilber would likely all be next as players who have yet to prove much at this level, but bright prospects who have legitimate futures.  And, of course, DeMarcus Lawrence would be ahead of all of them if he was healthy and threaten the Top 5.

Let’s put it this way, there is talent on the defense, but it is really an interesting discussion when you try to weigh one against the next.

Measuring individual value on a defense is always quite tricky.  For instance, a great corner looks much better with the help of a pass rush.  He can only defend so long.  Conversely, if a pass rush has no coverage behind them, then they don’t have time to get home.  Even more so than offense, one weak link can really sabotage the overall success of a defense.

All of this has led me to attempt to measure "splash plays" in this space since the start of the 2011 season.  The idea was that if we can at least tabulate the real great moments, we will have a better idea of who is performing from week to week and who is spending more time in the background.

Splash plays are absolutely a flawed stat, but it is better than not measuring at all (at least that is what I tell myself).

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it.  

I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well.

Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don’t want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.

A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let’s see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.

OK.  So, allow me to review the season totals from 2013 – a year where the defense put this reputation of having maybe the worst defense in the industry on film:
2013 Splash Play Totals
Player Wks 1-4 Wks 5-8 Wks 9-12 Wks 13-16 Totals
1. G Selvie 9 7.5 3.5 8 28
2. J Hatcher 7.5 8 5 5.5 26
3. S Lee 9 12 1.5 0 22.5
4. B Carr 3 10.5 4 3 20.5
5. B Church 8 6 3 2.5 19.5
6. D Ware 7 3 4 5 19
7. O Scandrick 1 5 6 6 18
8. B Carter 5 3 4 4 16
9. N Hayden 3.5 0 3 8 14.5
10. K Wilber 1 4 4.5 1.5 11
11. J Heath 0 1 0.5 6.5 8
12. D Nevis 0 2 4.5 1 7.5
13. J Wynn 0 2 1.5 3.5 7
14. M Claiborne 2 5 0 0 7
15. J Durant 1.5 1 2 1 5.5

The players above who are in bold are those who are returning.  As you can see, health plays a major role in the rankings.  Stay on the field and you have a chance.  So, for Sean Lee, Claiborne, and DeMarcus Ware, it is tough to perform to your normal levels of excellence if you aren’t out there.

By looking at the season in segments of 4 games, you can definitely see the value of good health and also you can examine how a player might have done when the league is now aware of him and taking him more seriously than a warm body.  George Selvie looked like he was fading in November but did step up a few more times in December quite nicely.

Aside from Claiborne, the biggest disappointment here has to be Bruce Carter.  One year ago, the training camp raves were all about the idea that this new defense is going to be perfect for him to set up as Derrick Brooks or Lance Briggs at the Will Linebacker.  The scheme allows him to generally run free and make the plays that the rest of the front in the scheme should make available for him.

Most point to pass defense as the big issue for Carter (and Danny Woodhead did put that out there for all the world to see), but in reality, the bigger issue at that particular spot – and one reason why he is on a very short leash according to some in the organization – is his work against the run.  For your stomach’s sake, don’t watch his performance in New Orleans.  There are some inside that think Justin Durant can do better at the Will spot right now.  That is certainly discouraging to all who thought Carter was worth the trouble in any scheme change.  

Below, please find the 3-year standings on the Splash Play project.  A more in depth study would measure splashes per snap, but I don’t want to confuse things even more to the newbies.  So, this is the raw numbers of just big plays on the defense by player.

To the shock of nobody, DeMarcus Ware has a sizable lead on everyone and barring an insane comeback season from Anthony Spencer (who still doesn’t not appear close to even practice speed) will be the leader to start 2015 and maybe 2016, too.

Ware might have been slipping a bit with his last 2 banged up years, but as you can see, a bad year of D-Ware is still better than good years by most.  

Player 2011   2012   2013   Totals  
1. D Ware 39 30 19 88
2. A Spencer 29 38 0 67
3. S Lee 25 10 22.5 57.5
4. J Hatcher 13 16.5 26 55.5
5. O Scandrick 16 5 18 39
6. B Carr 13 20.5 33.5
7. B Carter 1 15 16 32
8. J Ratliff 24 6 30
9. G Selvie 28 28
10. B Church 3 1 19.5 23.5
11. M Claiborne 16 7 23
12. V Butler 10 8 18
13. N Hayden 14.5 14.5
14. M Spears 8 6 14
15. S Lissemore 8 5 13
So there is some information to chew on as we evaluate where they are at as a defense.  Clearly, they are banking on a lot of players emerging without reputation and honestly, in the NFL, that is the most efficient way to go.  You want to build your defense around young players who have a chance to grow together, and hopefully Lawrence, Crawford, Wilcox, and Wilber, will join Carter, Claiborne, and the veteran defensive backs to start digging out of this hole.
But, there is plenty of work to be done.  More than plenty.