Dallas Cowboys Offense: Can RB Lance Dunbar Be A Space Cowboy?

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

In limited preseason action, Dunbar has shown he is able to gain large chunks of yardage in space. Can he maintain that production in the regular season?

In his review of the first half of the Cardinals game, Dave Halprin yesterday had this to say about Cowboys RB Lance Dunbar:

The Cowboys should spend many hours every week thinking about ways to get Lance Dunbar isolated against linebackers in the short passing game. It's just plain larceny. Two short catches, a 43-yard play and an 18-yard play as results. There is no way linebackers can keep up with him, and if a defense is in man with everybody turned away from the QB, he's going to run for a long time.

Dave's assessment is shared by Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com.

Dunbar has the ability to change the game, in the open field with the ball in his hands. It was a simple route in the flat, matched up with a linebacker in space. In these situations, Dunbar is going to win every time. There is so much explosiveness in his game, that it will be difficult to keep him off the field when these games are played for real.

What both Dave and Broaddus are describing is the concept of a space player, which Chris Brown wrote about in an article on Grantland.com about two years ago:

In recent years, the NFL has seen a dramatic rise in the number and quality of skill players who do their damage not just by moving the pile or outrunning defenders, but also by working the flats and soft spots on the football field. These naturally gifted players need just a little bit of open territory to operate, and when they get it they incinerate defenses. They operate in the area between the short dive up the middle and the long bomb down the sideline. They are "space players."

Brown then goes on to talk about space players in the running game and space players in the passing game, specifically referencing Wes Welker and the prototype of a space player, Darren Sproles. And it's no surprise that in both 2011 and 2012, Welker and Sproles ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Yards after Catch (YAC) respectively.

Running backs get almost all of their receiving yards as YAC, and when you stop to think about it, that actually makes sense. Running backs rarely run deep routes, instead, most of their receptions come on screen passes, underneath routes or simple dump-offs. As a result, almost all of their receiving yards qualify as YAC, as Chris Brown observed.

Players like Sproles, on the other hand, just need a glimpse of open field, created either by defensive alignments or the coach's schemes, and once there they thrive. They are looking for creases between defenders and one-on-one situations against guys unable to cover them.

And that ability to create yards after catch is immediately evident in a look at the numbers. Here's how the YAC/Reception compared in 2012 among wide receivers, tight ends and running backs:

RBs: 8.2
WRs: 4.5
TEs: 4.4

Using those numbers as benchmarks, the table below illustrates how the 2012 Cowboys offensive players (min. 20 receptions) stacked up:

POS Player Receptions YAC/Reception NFL Average
RB Felix Jones 25 9.0 8.2
DeMarco Murray 35 7.0
WR Dez Bryant 92 5.0 4.5
Miles Austin 66 4.5
Kevin Ogletree 32 2.6
TE Jason Witten 110 2.8 4.4

Dwayne Harris (17 receptions) and James Hanna (8 receptions) both had encouraging YAC/REC numbers of 6.3 and 6.0 respectively, while Cole Beasley (15 receptions) only had 4.1 yards.

Similarly, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones didn't have that many receptions last year (35 and 25 respectively), so we need to exercise some caution as we look at these numbers. To get a better feel for how the Cowboys' main offensive players have performed over the years, I reviewed the last four seasons to see if there was some kind of pattern to discern.

  • In 2010, Felix Jones had a YAC/Reception on 48 caught passes of 11.7. That number ranked Felix Jones No. 1 in the league among all running backs with more than five receptions for the season. 2010 was also the healthiest year Felix Jones enjoyed in the NFL, and his stats show what he could have contributed to the Cowboys offense, had he been able to stay healthy.
  • Miles Austin had his breakout year in 2009, and notched an outstanding 7.2 YAC/REC that year, easily the best value among all 38 receivers with more than 800 receiving yards. The number dropped to 6.3 in 2010 when he caught passes for the bulk of the season from Jon Kitna, and dropped further to 4.9 in 2011 and 4.5 in 2012 as Austin struggled with injuries in both seasons. At full health, Austin should once again be a YAC threat this season.
  • Dez Bryant has been very steady in his YAC production, going from 4.6 yards per reception in his rookie season to 4.8 in 2011 and 5.0 in 2012.
  • Jason Witten has been a little more erratic, going from 4.3 in 2010 down to 3.8 in 2011, back up to 4.5 in 2011 and down again to 2.8 last season.

After three preseason games, Pro Football Focus shows Lance Dunbar with 78 yards after catch on six receptions for a YAC/Reception of 13.0 yards. In 2012, C.J. Spillier had the best YAC/REC of all RBs in the league with 12.1 yards on 43 receptions, closely followed by Ahmad Bradshaw with 12.0 yards on 23 receptions. In limited preseason action, Dunbar has shown he can be can be a highly dynamic receiver on the field who is able to gain large chunks of yardage in space - something the Cowboys had hoped to find in Felix Jones.

So keep an eye out for a healthy Miles Austin and a dynamic Lance Dunbar in 2013, particularly on their yards after catch. You may end up watching two honest to goodness Space Cowboys.

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