There has been a lot of buzz about the battle for the third receiver position and quite a bit of scattered thoughts about just what receiving option the third receiver actually is. Some have been calling the third receiver the fourth option due to the presence of Jason Witten. This line of thinking is correct in that Jason Garrett loves to spread the ball around to not only the literal receivers, we at BTB are well versed in this observation. However, I feel like there is some misunderstanding about just how our receiving options flesh out. Witten is brought up a lot and rightfully so, but what about the second tight end? What Felix and the other backs? There are so many receiving options available to this team it can be quite confusing as to the pecking order of receptions, their position, and string. I'd like to share with you my musings on what appears to be a evolving year over year passing game.
The first thing I want to illuminate is just where the Cowboys spread the ball around to. Lets take a look a the past two years and how the receptions stack up by total, position, and string.
The Cowboys employ 12 personnel in the passing game, covering all WRs, TEs, RBs, and the FB. It should come as no surprise to most that Jason Witten is the #1 receiving option, not second, not third. Next comes all top three receivers in order, followed by all three running backs and the 2nd TE. 4th and 5th receivers, the third TE, and the fullback make up the very bottom of receptions.
Here again we have the 12 receiving personnel. Witten remains the #1 receiving option and Miles being the #1 receiver remains the 2nd option. However, a notable change from '09 is that Felix Jones became the 3rd option. After that comes the 2nd and 3rd receivers but then we have some more changes. Marty B manages more receptions than the 2nd and 3rd string RBs and Choice actually got more receptions than Barber despite being the 3rd string. Sam Hurd manages to edge out Barber as well. Gronkowski manages 6 more receptions than Anderson did the year before making him 10th passing option instead of merely the 12th. Ogletree remains the 5th receiver and Manny Johnson came in as the 6th receiver.
It is of note that the loss of John Phillips for the year meant the Cowboys brought in a 6th receiver. I do believe that they prefer to have a 3rd TE than a 6th receiver, that offers much more versatility than an additional limited rep receiver. With Phillips coming back and the addition of Rucker, theres no question here. Additionally, we see the FB becoming more of a passing threat. Whether the FB be Gronkowski or Chapas I think we'll see just a bit more receptions for the position. Garrett loves nothing more than to annoy defenses by making everyone on the field a receiver. If he had offensive linemen who could catch, you bet he'd pass to them.
Now, about that third receiver. Its correct to think of the third receiver being less than the third passing option because of Witten, but thats only half right now. The third receiver in reality was the fifth passing option last year because of Felix. Felix caught more passes than either Dez or Roy Williams? Who would have guessed that going into last year? Now this is one area where I see a trend. Jason Garrett wants to get his RBs more involved in the passing game, including the 2nd back. If DeMarco Murray is all he's cracked up to be, even if he isn't the 2nd RB in rushes, at least this year, I think he will definitely be in receptions.
It's not all about what receiving threat the running backs are either. The thing that will effect the third receivers receptions the most is Dez Bryant. We've all been gushing about having two #1 receivers on our team since he was drafted. But if thats true, what would it really mean? Well, obviously it means both Miles and Dez would have similar high count receptions. What it does not mean is that JG will be calling more passing plays than he has before. I simply would be shocked if that happened. Basically you've got to budget your passing attempts between your players. There literally are only so many balls to go around in a season. How many balls? I'm glad you asked.
There have been a steady amount of passing plays called the past 4 years, 551 attempts on average. What is also steady is Tony Romo's production (high production mind you, haters). Romo has an average of 64.5% completions on his passing attempts which will give you an average of 355 receptions on 551 attempts. You could also look at the average of actual receptions which will give you a slightly lower number, but who cares about that! Point is that for Dez's receptions to go up, they've got to come from somewhere. Oh, but you're ahead of me now aren't you? Thats right, it will most likely come out of the third receivers production.
If you look at the 2nd and 3rd receivers receptions over the past two years you'd see they are quite similar. The top 3 receivers receptions are not 'evenly' staggered the way the running backs carries are. So what occurs to me is quite simple really. Last year Roy and Dez had similar receptions, now Roy is gone. I think JG would love to allow Dez to absorb the bulk of the targets Roy got. Yes, I know, you don't need to point out that you can't necessarily force the ball to someone (though try they might), but on paper and in an ideal world this scenario would take place most likely. So really what I am saying is that whoever the 3rd receiver ends up being this year, I think you will see his receptions be way lower than normal. If Dez really does take most of the 3rd receiver's traditional targets and Murray blossoms in the passing game, you could easily see the 3rd receiver actually being the 6th passing option.
Now, that isn't to say the 3rd receiver won't be important, he most definitely will. Depth reasons are first and foremost obviously, but it's important he's on the field. Firstly, he needs to be out there to be a threat to the opposing defense. Simply being on the field takes some of the pressure off of every other receiver and receiving threat as far as coverages. Additionally it hits home the idea to the defense that the Cowboys will be passing, that spreads the defense and opens the door for the run. Jonathan Bales of DCT had this to say:
"Unfortunately, Garrett rarely ran the ball out of three-receiver sets in ’09 and it appears the efficiency of these packages was compromised by that improper run/pass balance. As you can see above, the Cowboys ran 310 total plays with three wide receivers on the field. Of those plays, just 54 were runs (17.4%)!
Now, we understand the Cowboys are a pass-first team and that three-receiver sets are perhaps ideal for passing, but spreading out the field to run is becoming a hot trend in the NFL. In fact, the Cowboys averaged a gaudy 5.85 yards-per-carry when running out of three-receiver sets last season. Whether this is due to a pre-snap open field or the defense substituting nickel personnel, there is no doubt the Cowboys ran the ball effectively in 2009 with three wide receivers in the game."
In '09 the Cowboys had 3 WR sets in the game a comparable number of plays to 2 WR sets, 310 to 406 respectively. Data for '10 sets was unavailable to me so I can't comment on whether or not more of either set was used. Based on the reception data I'd say it was probably largely the same. Whatever the case, it's still good to have an extra receiver on the field to either setup the run, or simply be a dependable 3rd down target. You can only cover and double-team so many guys. JG wants 5 receiving threats on every play.
Jason Witten came to top the reception charts over our star receivers, then Felix Jones started eating up significant passes too. We could see Dez's receptions approach 1st receiver level while still remaining the #2. The 2nd string RB and FB could see many more targets. This is an evolving passing attack that Jason Garrett is putting together. Who will get what? We'll see, but you'll know he has options.