Over the next few weeks, I'll be publishing a series of "Top 5" articles. In today's installment, I'll utilize stats to show which players on the team perform better than the general public believes. Without further ado. ...
5. Jason Hatcher
Hatcher broke out just a bit in 2011 with a career-high 4.5 sacks and 28 total tackles. Some of that success was the result of receiving the most snaps he's ever gotten in any of his six NFL seasons, but Hatcher was also quite efficient. Defensive ends in 3-4 defenses aren't generally expected to produce big numbers, but Hatcher racked up a pressure on 5.2 percent of the snaps on which he rushed the passer. That rate was superior to all other Cowboys' defensive linemen, including nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
4. Sean Lissemore
Lissemore played only one-quarter of the team's defensive snaps in 2011, but he was as efficient as just about any defender not named DeMarcus Ware. He tackled the ball-carrier on 6.4 percent of his snaps, despite playing 58.0 percent of them against the pass. That rate was well ahead of the Cowboys' other defensive ends, including run-stopper Kenyon Coleman, who played only 47.3 percent of his snaps against the pass.
In addition, Lissemore generated 13 total pressures in 2011. The only defensive end to exceed Lissemore's total pressures was Hatcher, even though Hatcher, Coleman and Marcus Spears all played far more snaps than Lissemore.
3. Anthony Spencer
A lot of fans view Spencer as a run-stopping outside linebacker who struggles reaching the quarterback. While Spencer's sack totals aren't necessarily where both he and the team might like, he probably generates more pressure than you think.
Since 2009, the top 15 outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses have averaged right around nine sacks, nine hits, and 30 pressures per year. Spencer is right in line with those elite players, totaling seven sacks, 14 hits, and 30 pressures per season. He's obviously not at the level of DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake and the league's other top-tier edge rushers, but you could make a case that Spencer is a top-10 outside linebacker based solely on pass-rushing ability.
Plus, Spencer is actually in coverage on 27.5 percent of pass plays. That's one of the highest rates in the NFL among those at his position, and much higher than the 12.9 percent of pass plays during which Ware is in coverage.
On top of that, Spencer may very well be the best run-defending 3-4 outside linebacker in the entire NFL. Since 2009, he has ranked first, second, and second each year in total tackles, leading all 3-4 outside linebackers over that span. He has racked up 162 tackles over the past three seasons, nine more than second-place linebacker James Harrison.
2. Tony Romo
Romo's career passer rating of 96.9 is the second-highest in the history of the NFL. Even though passer rating isn't a perfect measure of quarterback success, that should really be enough to at least put Romo in the conversation as one of the league's premiere signal-callers.
People often claim Romo isn't clutch, but as I outlined in my article on Romo's fourth-quarter and late-season play, that simply isn't the case. Romo actually has a higher rating in the fourth quarter than in the first three quarters, a higher rating in close games than in blowouts, a higher rating when trailing than when leading, and the same rating in December and January as in the season's first three months.
The reason many people overlook Romo when discussing the NFL's elite quarterbacks is because he hasn't advanced far in the playoffs. It isn't really fair, but Romo won't jump into the "elite" conversation until the Cowboys win in January.
1. Victor Butler
Butler has been a personal favorite of mine for a few years, primarily because his efficiency is outstanding. Butler played only 233 snaps in 2011, up from an average of 141 in the previous two seasons.
Over his three-year career, however, Butler has generated pressure on 7.0 percent of the snaps he has rushed the passer. That's a rate higher than Spencer's 6.7 percent during the same span. Spencer does it over a larger number of plays, but it's still interesting that Butler is reaching the quarterback so often.
Contrary to popular belief, Butler isn't a major liability against the run. He excels as a pass rusher, but I've tracked Butler as missing only three tackles over his entire three-year career.
With Spencer in a contract year and rookie Kyle Wilber pushing for playing time, this could be a make-or-break season for Butler.