The second installment of my interview with the "Football Scientist," K.C. Joyner looks at Jason Witten, the receiving corps, the Morgan-for-Bryant trade, the QBs in the NFC East and the top passing attacks and secondaries the Cowboys will face in 2005.
14. You mentioned in the first responses that your book covered WRs, TEs and QBs. Why no analysis of running backs as receivers?
Joyner: I didn't include RBs in the analysis as receivers because most of their routes are checkdown routes or very short routes like wide routes. I plan to do more route analysis next year on receivers, but if I do anything for RBs it will be on screen routes and the like. I wanted to do one this year (I was dying to see how good GB was on screens) but just ran out of time!
15. Let's address a very sore subject for the readers. Jason Witten has, in their opinion, received a raw deal from most of the preseason analysts. Where does he sit in your tight end hierarchy, and can you give a brief rundown of his game?
Joyner: I like Jason Witten a whole lot. I'll even throw in another freebie from the book to show you:
Witten was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league last year. He ranked 3rd in overall attempts, 5th in completion percentage, tied for 6th in yards per attempt, and 6th in lowest total tight/good coverage percentage. He was one of the most vertical tight ends in the league, ranking 2nd in deep attempts and 7th in deep attempt percentage. His short completion percentage ranked him 4th, and his medium completion percentage ranked him tied for 5th.
Two things best showcase his value to the Dallas offense. First, despite his high percentage of deep passes, he also led the league in short pass attempts. The second is his frequent use at WR.
Witten was used as a WR on 39 of his 129 attempts. He caught 29 of those passes for 353 yards and 3 TDs. When you factor into those numbers that Witten had only 3 attempts from the WR position between weeks 1-7, you begin to understand his evolving role last year as the WR injuries occurred.
It will be very interesting to see how the Cowboys use Witten this year if Glenn and Morgan both come back strong. I can't imagine Parcells not finding a way to get this guy the ball even if the receiving corps is fully healthy and productive. This guy is simply too good of a receiver to not get the ball in his hands.
Witten has a skill set that is second probably only to Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. He does more things well than almost any other TE (at least from a receiving standpoint) and I think he is the inside favorite to be the NFC Pro Bowl TE this year.
16. One of the bigger surprises this offseason has been the inattention to the WR position. Considering the age and injury histories of Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn, do you think Bill Parcells is playing with fire here?
Joyner: Yes I do, but I think the Boys are looking at it from a one-year perspective. They do have some young receivers who may or may not pan out. If one of those do pan out, and with Witten's receiving ability, then they would be OK. I just think they saw other personnel issues that needed more attention.
17. One of the problems the Cowboys faced in '04 was their lack of depth at WR. They had a hard time fielding three-WR sets, and once Glenn was injured, their base two-WR sets were pedestrian. Is Quincy Morgan up to the task of being the deep threat Dallas needs to make its 3-WR sets work?
Joyner: I hate to give away another freebie, but the best way to describe Morgan is again in the analysis from the book:
He had a very disappointing season. Morgan ranked 81st in completion percentage, tied for 78th in yards per attempt, and 85th in tight/good coverage percentage. He was just as bad on vertical routes, which are supposed to be his specialty. He was 81st in deep completion percentage and 75th in deep tight/good coverage percentage despite facing soft coverage only 4.5% of the time.
I know Morgan was injured a lot, but there was something I saw him do late last season that gave me pause. He ran 2 deep-in routes and he slowed down toward the end of each of the routes. Now you can't do that on any route, but you especially can't do that on a deep-in, as the QB is throwing to a spot and you have to get there. One of the passes was intercepted and the other was nearly intercepted. I don't know why Morgan didn't run them out, but it looked like he didn't want anything to do with the traffic in the middle.
Morgan is a speed receiver who isn't getting open deep and has issues going over the middle. He better fix at least one of those problems or he simply won't be thrown the ball very often.
Morgan may not be the answer, but as I mentioned in #16, I think one of the other prospects might be.
18. Let's revisit the Morgan-for-Antonio Bryant trade. At the time, it was presented as Dallas cutting its losses, given Bryant's bad behavior and erratic route running. I've had many friends express fear that Bryant could blossom and make this deal look bad. What, in your opinion, are the chances of this occuring? How do you rate each of them?
Joyner: It was the best deal each team could cut. Neither of these receivers were working out in their situations last year, so it was a risky deal on both sides. I think the Browns are going to find out why Trent Dilfer wasn't a starting QB (his decision making is among the worst in football) and that will hurt Bryant. Bryant didn't look that much better on film for Cleveland than he did for Dallas last year. It may turn out the Boys will get the bad end of the deal if Morgan doesn't get his act together, but I can't hold that against them because Bryant obviously wasn't working out either.
19. I've argued that Darren Woodson's injury last August gutted the pass defense, because it effected all four secondary positions. Dallas moved Roy Williams to FS, which is not his best position and played its CBs seven yards off the ball in early games, when it played a lot of press coverage in '03. Williams is moving back to SS this year. How much better could Roy Williams be playing there?
Joyner: Roy Williams isn't very good in coverage and moving him to SS would reduce his coverage liabilities. He's also a great run stuffer and blitzer, and it will help the Boys tremendously the closer they can get him to the line of scrimmage. I know Dallas has been looking at a number of FS prospects, and if I were them I would keep Roy at SS no matter what. I think Williams is a B level coverage person and even if the Boys found a player who was a B- level player, they would be better off playing Williams at SS. The upside of him at SS more than outweighs the slight coverage advantage he'd give you over a subpar FS prospect. What they ought to try to do is trade for a good backup FS on another team, maybe hit up the Cardinals for one of theirs. FS isn't the hardest position to fill, it just takes a heady player who reads plays well, and they shouldn't give up Williams SS abilities for that.
20. Right now, Izell Reese is the favorite to start at FS. Can Dallas depend on him to play centerfield in a blitzing, man-to-man scheme?
Joyner: I haven't seen enough of Reese to give a definitive opinion. He's been OK in the tape I have seen of him, probably a bit better than the Cowboys had last year.
21. The secondary got a lot of well-deserved blame for the defense's decline last year. But the linebackers didn't help either did they? Can you give a brief overview of that unit's play against the pass?
Joyner: I can't say that I saw a whole lot of good or bad out of the Cowboys LBs from a coverage standpoint. The thing that stood out with me is that the Boys opponents always seemed to target the CBs or safeties, so they didn't need to go after the LBs. One of the most in-depth pieces of analysis I did in the book was on the Patriots LBs and the positive impact they had on the Patriots overall zone coverage scheme. The Cowboys like to play more man coverage than zone, at least when they can, so the LBs aren't in position as often to help the CBs as they would be in a predominately zone coverage scheme.
22. A successful season starts in your division. How do the QBs in the NFC East rate?
Joyner: That's a fairly open-ended question, so I'll just give a quick blurb on each as a start. I think Donovan McNabb is one of the top 2 or 3 QBs in all of football. He does the things well in the passing game that you want a QB to do (stand in against the rush, spot the open receiver, throw an accurate pass) and he does them as well as any other QB in football sans Tom Brady. Patrick Ramsey/Mark Brunell both feel the pass rush far too much to be effective, and Giants fans are in an uproar on some of their blogs because of how badly I rated Eli Manning. I got an email from one sympathetic fan telling me that "pedigree doesn't even work very well in dogs, and it certainly doesn't work for QBs", which basically nutshells my thoughts on Eli. If his last name wasn't Manning, he'd just be Tony Romo (and I don't mean that as a knock on Romo).
23. The Giants, Eagles and Redskins all shuffled WRs this spring. What did the Giants gain in signing Plaxico Burress?
Joyner: Plax is a very good receiver and did give them a needed upgrade. He vertical numbers last year weren't good, though part of that had to do with the limitations on the Steelers passing attack as a whole. Plax will have the same problems this year, though, so I don't expect a huge season from him.
24. Did the Redskins outthink themselves trading Laveranues Coles for Santana Moss?
Joyner: In a nutshell, probably not. Coles is supposed to be a speedy deep threat, but he was thrown more short passes last year than any other receiver. Coles' injuries have kept him from being the deep threat he should be, and with the Jets having Justin McCareins as a vertical receiver, it was a deal that helped both teams.
25. I doubt it will happen, but let's say for arguments sake that Terrell Owens holds out for part of the season. How much would the Eagles' passing game suffer?
Joyner: It would suffer, but the thing I point out about the Eagles is that McNabb's skill set allowed them to get away with pedestrian receivers for years. The Eagles knew McNabb's ability would stretch their thin receiving corps enough to win during the regular season, but their postseason woes made it clear they needed to upgrade. If TO is out, they will still find a way to win in the regular season.
26. In the SI piece you singled out Champ Bailey as an overrated CB and the Eagles' Sheldon Brown as a vastly underappreciated one. Are there any other unsung CBs in the division? Or safeties for that matter?
Joyner: I thought Gibril Wilson of the Giants played well enough in 10 games to win the defensive rookie of the year award last year.
27. Teams don't play in a vacuum. The Cowboys will have to line up against thirteen different defenses this year. Who are some of the better CBs and which are the better secondaries from outside the division that they will have to face in '05?
Joyner: Not many good ones, I can tell you that. Arizona, Detroit, and San Diego are all better than they get credit for, but if I were a fantasy coach, I'd be going crazy over the lousy secondaries the Cowboys will be facing. KC, Oakland, Seattle (at least at CB), SF, none of these secondaries are any good. From that standpoint, if Drew faces his problems and the receivers pan out and/or stay healthy, it could be a big passing year for Dallas.
28. On the flip side, which are some of the better passing attacks the Dallas defense will face?
Joyner: Believe it or not, it's most of the same teams that I named in 27. Oakland has a good chance of being a very good passing team, Seattle has the talent if they can get their act together, and KC will be good as long as their O line is healthy. Carolina is one of the most vertical passing teams in the league, and Detroit could be very dangerous if Jeff Garcia gets into the starting lineup.
Thanks again, K.C. I think I speak for all the readers.
Joyner: Rafael, thanks again for the forum.