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Dallas Cowboys Position Reviews: Wide Receivers

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Dez Bryant: highlight reel catches included.
Dez Bryant: highlight reel catches included.

We continue our position reviews with wide receivers today. At first glance, it would seem that the wide receivers had a good year.

Miles Austin notched his second 1,000+ yard receiving season. The emergence of the mercurial Dez Bryant added extra excitement to the Cowboy passing game and even Roy Williams showed occasional flashes at the beginning of the season.

For only the third time in franchise history the Cowboys recorded more than 4,000 passing yards. Their 4,042 passing yards rank them sixth in the league, their combined 2,318 yards after catch rank them second in the league only to the Chargers

And all this despite playing with the backup QB for a large part of the season. Yet all that glitters may not be gold.

Once again, we'll use the Profootballfocus (PFF) and Football Outsiders (FO) data for this review. Please refer to the running back position review if you are unfamiliar with their metrics.

The enigma named Miles Austin.

The trouble with using two different sources and metrics for these evaluations is that sometimes they do not match. In the case of Miles Austin, they are almost diametrically opposed. One way to deal with this is to pick the source that one personally feels is correct and say they are right, and then to simply label the other source wrong, say it doesn't pass the 'eye test' and claim that source to be compiled by a bunch of doofuses. But that's not the way we roll here.

Let's start with Austin's pure volume stats before getting into the nasty details: Miles Austin was the 14th ranked WR with 1,041 receiving yards, ranked a joint 21st with seven TD receptions and ranked 14th with 50 first down receptions. That's all pretty impressive, and makes Austin a solid top 15 WR in the league last year.

Accordingly, FO rate him as the 17th best WR by DVOA and 13th best WR by DYAR. That sounds about right, doesn't it? But then PFF come along and grade Austin's regular season effort with a -6.8, which ranks Austin 94th out of 110 wider receivers. Clearly, they must be out of their mind. How did they ever arrive at this ridiculously low number?

Again, let's look at some other volume stats that Miles Austin compiled this year. Miles Austin caught 69 of 119 passes thrown his way last year for a reception rate of 58% - 55th among the top 80 receivers by yards. According to Stats Inc. Austin led all receivers in the NFC with 10 dropped passes. And while Austin had five games with 100+ receiving yards, he also had five games with 22 or less receiving yards. Finally, Austin also lead all wide receivers with seven accepted penalties last year.

So how do FO and PFF arrive at so vastly different numbers? They measure different things. FO's DVOA is limited by what's included in the official NFL play-by-play, so it can't measure for example whether Austin was in double or single coverage or whether the defender made a highlight reel play or not to deny the reception. PFF do add those and other contextual factors to the raw statistics. Their grading also takes into account other variables like penalties, blocking, dropped passes, interceptions and other data that are not regularly used in wide receiver rankings.

So who's right? They both are. They just focus on different aspects of a wide receiver's game. And like any stat, they are much better when understood in context. Did Austin have a good season in terms of production? Of course he did. Was he also quite erratic in his production, penalty- and mistake prone? Unfortunately, yes.

Increasingly we judge players based on how much they help fantasy teams win and lose, not by what they actually contribute on the field and how they help or hinder their teams in winning games. Focusing only on volume stats will work for your fantasy team but will not help you understand how a real team and a real player actually performed.

Having said all that, let's now move on to the meat and potatoes of our WR stats.

Overall Grade / DVOA Cowboys Wide Receivers:

We've covered the Austin paradigm in detail, thankfully Dez Bryant and Roy Williams are a little more consistent. Bryant, despite missing significant playing time, is already ahead of Roy Williams. Roy Williams had yet another year in Dallas which showed him to be just an average receiver.

Player PFF Grade Rank Better Than FO DVOA Rank Better Than
Miles Austin
94/110 9% 17/85 80%
Dez Bryant 35/110 68% 35/85 59%
Roy Williams 56/110 49% 41/85 52%

As we take a deeper look at the individual PFF grades below, a clearer picture emerges of the WR performance and exactly where each player had his strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind that the PFF grades are cumulative grades, i.e. you get graded for each game and the grades are then added up to give you the season total. Dez Bryant for example missed four games in which he could potentially have added significantly to his season total.

Player # of snaps 2010 Overall Grade Pass Run Block Penalty '09 Grade 09 Snaps
Miles Austin
1019 -6.8 -0.8 1.1 -4.2 -2.9 13.2 728
Roy Williams
690 -1.5 -4.8 0.0 2.2 -1.1 -8.3 824
Dez Bryant
431 2.7 4.8 -0.7 -0.7 -0.7 - - - -
Sam Hurd
214 -0.8 -1.1 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.8 101
Kevin Ogletree
43 -2.0 -1.0 0.0 -0.1 -0.9 1.2 44
Manuel Johnson
42 -0.7 -2.2 0.0 1.4 0.1 - - - -

This breakdown makes it clearer why Austin is graded the way he is. His seven penalties obviously count against him, and his run blocking grades out in the bottom seven of all wide receivers. Now, you can always discuss whether a wide receiver should be measured on run blocking, especially for your number one receiver, but that's the way it's done here. Obviously, I don't know whether Austin's blocking performance is due to skill or will, but last year he was graded 'only' with a -1.0, so that's a significant and worrying decline.

Austin's seven rushing attempts for 93 yards and a TD provide a slight bump in his grade, and if it's any consolation, on pure pass catching, he's still the number two receiver on the team behind Dez Bryant.

Dez Bryant. What a lucky find. And I don't need no stinkin' stats to tell me that. You can only wonder what he could have looked like had he remained healthy in training camp and throughout the season. Here's looking forward to next season.

Roy Williams' blocking prowess has been a running joke on this board for quite some time, this year the numbers actually back that up. Roy Williams graded out as the fifth best blocking receiver in the league. Unfortunately, on pure receiving, he graded out as the worst receiver on the team. For a glorified blocking tight end, he is paid too much and, ironically, isn't good enough at catching the ball.

Hurd, Ogletree and Johnson all only played bit parts on the offense. What's concerning overall, and Kitna at QB is no excuse for this, is that the overall 2010 grades for the total receiving corps look pretty bad for a unit that supposedly was one of the few bright spots of the team last year.

If these numbers are anywhere close to where the Cowboys will end up grading their players, not only does letting Ray Sherman go make a lot more sense, but the receiver position suddenly becomes a position of need. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys pick up a slot receiver in the middle to late rounds of the draft or sign a solid free agent. Especially if they release Roy Williams.

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