Far too many Dallas Cowboys fans are down on free agent cornerback Byron Jones simply because of his paltry interception totals…that…is a mistake.
Cornerback Byron Jones is about to hit the market in free agency and far too many Dallas Cowboys are ok with it. Worse yet, the willingness to part with the former first round pick has more to do one ridiculously unstable statistic than his actual performance on the field. The stat I speak of is interceptions, of course.
Since joining the league in 2015, Byron Jones has only picked off two passes in 73 games. This staggeringly bad number defies virtually all laws of chance. In fact, Dallas Morning News’ Michael Gehlken pointed out the other day, it’s historically bad. No other DB in the NFL has failed to snag at least five picks in his first 70 starts. While this is concerning, it only tells a fraction of the story and is extremely misleading.
Judging a player primarily on interceptions ignores context as well as the other 99% of plays. Much like using TD/INT ratio for appraising quarterbacks, it’s a flawed practice that exposes evaluator more than the player.
For instance, a CB that repeatedly gambles and relies solely on the big play is more of a liability than an asset. QBs are going to target the living daylights out of the guy and exploit his feast or famine nature. As a result, the gambling CB is going to see considerably more targets than a more consistent coverage man who always puts himself in position. Sure the INT numbers look great, but reality tells us this player is a walking disaster.
After grading each and every snap, Pro Football Focus rated Byron Jones as the No. 1 defensive free agent this year. He finished with the 11th best coverage grade in the NFL when put in single coverage -which happened quite frequently last season.
Despite playing on an island so often, Byron Jones was rarely targeted. Opposing QBs do their homework and they know Byron Jones is one of the most consistent CBs in the NFL. He never gets burned and always puts himself in position to defend the pass. Even though he has bad INT numbers, QBs are scared to throw at him.
Last season, Byron was targeted just 64 times giving up just 395 yards on the season. Now look at 2020’s INT leaders: Stephon Gilmore led the NFL with 6 INTS but he was targeted 101 times! He also gave up 599 yards to pass-catchers.
Tre’Davious White had 6 INTs as well. He was targeted 90 times giving up 626 yards. Marcus Peters had 5 INTs in 2019. He was targeted 90 times giving up 597 yards.
Does this explain the vast disparity in interceptions between Byron Jones and the NFL’s interception leaders? No, but it tells us that opposing QBs have been more willing to target these known “ballhawks” more than they are to target Byron. That’s pretty telling.
We also have to weigh the system in which these players are playing. Byron is often in single coverage playing press-bail technique. His back is almost always to the ball, limiting his opportunities for picks. It’s no wonder the Dallas Cowboys’ CBs have consistently been in the bottom of the NFL in interceptions during the Rod Marinelli era. The scheme they run makes interceptions considerably more difficult.
With a scheme change under Mike Nolan we should see Dallas’ INT totals balloon, regardless of who’s playing in the secondary. That’s just because Nolan’s scheme will be more INT-friendly (and a little thing called regression to the mean).
Similarly, we can expect Byron Jones’ INT numbers to go up virtually anywhere he goes next season. The scheme plays such a big role.
So what does this all mean?
Byron Jones is one of the best outside cornerbacks in the NFL and his paltry interception totals are more about scheme and opportunity than it is about his inability to catch. With that said, Jones has shown he has below-average ball skills and relies on his tight and consistent coverage to dissuade passers from targeting him.
To the casual fan, grading secondary play is one of the hardest things to do. If you’re not breaking down the All-22, you’re inevitably missing 75% of what’s going on in the defensive backfield. Regular TV broadcasts are not only incomplete, but they’re misleading.
But having watched the All-22 all season long, I can say without a doubt, Byron was one of the stickiest CBs in the NFL and the best Dallas has seen in roughly a decade (but in all fairness, I didn’t watch the All-22 a decade ago so I can’t really be sure how far back it dates).
Tag Byron Jones
Signs and statements dating back to last offseason all seem to indicate the Dallas Cowboys are willing to let Byron Jones walk in free agency this year. Like Dallas, I also value Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper over Byron, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think letting him leave is a mistake.
Ideally, we get a mega-deal done with Dak by March. We know it’s eventually going to be done and we know it’s basically in the $32-$35M per year range. Let’s stop posturing and just ink it. That will allow Dallas to franchise Amari in 2020 and transition tag Byron. Remember, 2020 is the rare year teams can do both.
With Byron playing under the tag we can put my hypothesis to the test. If Byron suddenly pulls in picks under a new coveage scheme, we’ll know it was the Marinelli/Kris Richard scheme holding him back all along. If he doesn’t increase his numbers then we get a much better idea of who he is – a sticky CB1 with historically poor ball skills.