ESPN's John Clayton: Two Cowboys Among Top Ten Breakout Players For 2012

Dez Bryant: Probably too young to remember Atari's "Breakout" arcade game.

Allow me to digress for a little bit: Outside of pop-up windows for adult-only content, there is nothing that I find more annoying on the internet than those obnoxious slide shows some sites would make you suffer through. Who the heck wants to have to click something ten times to read an article? And more importantly, which advertiser in his right mind would advertise on sites that hyper-inflate their clicks in that way?

In principle, when it says 'click here to begin slidehow', I don't.

Except today I did. Because I saw a link that said "Clayton's Top 10 Breakout Players for 2013." And like a moth to a flame I clicked the link. I was already mentally hyperventilating at the thought of a Cowboys-free top ten, when I found out two surprising things: Firstly, the top ten list contains eleven players - a fact which I take as a personal affront - and secondly, the list contains not one but two Cowboys players in Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith.

(I do realize there's a certain irony that after my lead-in, you had to click to 'continue reading this post', but I am totally at peace with myself about that - and my Beta-blockers help with that as well.)

Here's what John Clayton wrote about why he thinks Bryant and Smith will be breakout players in 2013:

4. Dez Bryant: Cowboys fans and Jerry Jones have been teased by Bryant's incredible ability to make plays in practice. The third receiver spot is in question, which means Bryant should get more balls thrown his way and have his first 1,000-yard season.

8. Tyron Smith: Smith fit in well as a right tackle during his rookie year, but his move to left tackle should allow him to excel. New offensive line coach Bill Callahan is raving about his skills. He should cut down from the 9.5 sacks allowed last year.

Clayton raises an interesting question about the role of the 3rd receiver on the Cowboys' offense. How many looks should the third guy get if the top two guys are healthy? I would suggest it's a lot less than most Cowboys fans have come to expect, and there are two reasons for that:

  • 2008-2010: The ineffectiveness of Roy Williams as a wide receiver. Williams, originally brought in to be at least the number two guy, if not the number one guy (he sure was paid that way), never made it past being the number three guy in terms of production on the field. This weird situation meant that the Cowboys were giving their number three guy a lot more looks than he normally would have warranted.
  • 2011: Injuries to starters. Miles Austin missed six games, Dez Braynt was injured early and Jerry Jones thought his conditioning suffered as a result. Laurent Robinson came in at just the right time and had the most productive season a third WR has had with the Cowboys in a long time, if ever.

What this means is that over the last three years we've become accustomed to the third wide receiver being good for 500+ yards every year. But if we look back a little further to 2007 and 2008, we see that with a functioning starting wide receiver duo, the third wide receiver (Hurd in 2007 and Williams in 2008) averaged about 40 targets per season or about three targets a game. In fact, in both of those years, the third wide receiver wasn't even the fourth receiving target; running back Marion Barber was the fourth receiving target in both years.

In a post a couple of days back on the Cowboys' ball distribution,we looked at who the top three receivers were in each year under Garrett as the offensive playcaller. I've added the third WR in italics to the chart.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS
Owens 144 1,355 Owens 140 1,052 Austin 125 1,320 Witten 128 1,002 Witten 117 942
Witten 142 1,145 Witten 121 952 Witten 125 1,030 Austin 119 1,041 Bryant 103 928
Crayton 81 697 Crayton 70 550 Williams 88 596 Bryant 72 561 Robinson 81 858
Hurd
37 314 Williams 43 198 Crayton 67 622 Williams 64 530 Austin 73 579

With a healthy Miles Austin and Dez Bryant as well as Jason Witten, the Cowboys will have three receiving targets who are all capable of getting 1,000+ receiving yards. There won't be all that much room for the third wide receiver.

On Tyron Smith, I'm as hopeful as the next guy, but honestly, didn't we hear much the same things about Doug Free last offseason? Let me paraphrase what John Clayton writes:

"Doug Free fit in well as a right tackle during his seven starts in 2009, but his move to left tackle should allow him to excel. Decorated offensive line coach Hudson Houck is raving about his skills. Free only allowed one sack in a nine-game stretch from week 10 through the divisional round of the playoffs, which should bode well for his move to left tackle."

Again, I don't want to be a party-pooper here about Smith's chances at left tackle, but that move is far from being an automatic success. It'll take a lot of hard work not just from Smith, but from all people involved to make the move work. Luckily though, we know that if there's one thing Smith does really well it's to work hard, so that gives me a little more confidence about the move than the facts warrant.

But hey, two Cowboys on the 11-player breakout list for 2012 (and no Eagles or Giants anywhere in sight)? I'll take that any day of the week.

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