As the 2015 season continues to spiral down the drain, let us continue our look ahead by determining areas for improvement in the Dallas Cowboys' roster. Previously, our look at the defense showed a need for playmaking stars, but by and large they have been solid. After the Jets game, the Cowboys are 6th overall in passing yards allowed per game and 9th in total yards allowed. Even in scoring, they are a decent 15th, with the four points per game keeping them out of the top ten easily accounted for by the rash of pick-sixes and other offensively generated points.
Contrast that with the offense. 29th in yards per game, 30th in points per game (right behind the Cleveland Browns), 29th in passing yards per game, and 30th in passer rating, although they are a the 10th-ranked rushing offense, indicating that perhaps the offensive line has been better than we realize. Nonetheless the putrid offensive performance - despite all the high draft picks and big contracts - has been a devastating blow to the season and to the psyche of Cowboys fans everywhere.
In another column, I outlined how the complete and utter lack of any production from Dez Bryant has been the death of this season. For those who do not want to go through the whole thing I can summarize it nicely:
Dez Bryant, 2015: 63 targets, 42.9% catch rate, 5.57 yards per target, 2 TD
Roy Williams, 2010: 64 targets, 57.3% catch rate, 8.28 yards per target, 5 TD
In the comments I've seen people point out that Roy Williams had Romo throwing to him (for 6 games), that he had Terrell Owens opposite him (he didn't), and that Jason Witten was there to take some of the load off (true). None of that matters. The point is that Dez has been massively underperforming -- about 2/3 as effective as Williams in his final season in Dallas - and it cannot all be put on back-up quarterbacking. Every other receiver or TE on the team is near their 2014 catch rate (see the above link for details). Only Dez is down, and he is down by 33%, meaning he's catching two out of every three passes he caught last year. He has taken himself out of the game and until he gets back into it, grading the offense is a difficult and dicey proposition at best. Nonetheless, here are my best guesses.
The big three have been very good. We've noticed a little more Tyron Smith than usual, in a bad way, but he's still been outstanding. Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, continue to be absolutely top notch at their positions. Ron Leary has given way to La'el Collins, and Collins has been a very good rookie. Some mistakes, but when you watch some of the plays he makes, especially on the second level, it bodes well for the future of the line. Doug Free is starting to show his age, but continues to battle and is a working part of a very good line. Chaz Green is supposed to be the tackle of the future, but I would absolutely draft further competition there. Free will make a good swing tackle in the closing years of his contract. McKenzie Bernadeau has been reduced to an afterthought and is pricey as a back up. I think we might let Bernadeau go and retain Leary as a back up, while possibly training Zack Martin at center or getting a UDFA center in to compete for the back-up spot. Alternately, we might dangle Leary.
Ron Leary is a restricted free agent this year. Dallas could give him a 1st and 3rd tender to retain his services, but I think they might give him a second-round tender and see if another team bites. If they don't like the team (say the Eagles, who need guards desperately) they can match the offer. But if they are ok letting Leary go, they can reap a nice juicy second-round pick in compensation. I'm interested to see what they do there.
There's really only been one and he's been quite serviceable, despite what people have thought. Many point to the removal of DeMarco Murray as the reason for the offensive woes, but a look at his stats versus Darren McFadden's quickly shows that what I said at the time is absolutely true: DeMarco Murray misses this line more than they miss him. While McFadden he has not been 2014 DeMarco Murray, he's been quite serviceable and is well on his way to a 1,000 yard season and a 4.3 yard per carry average. The team as a whole is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, good for 9th in the NFL, and the running game behind McFadden, with brief appearances by a motley cast of the now-defunct Joseph Randle and a parade of former Seattle Seahawks in Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, and Rod Smith has been decent. They should draft a running back next year if one comes up, but the lack of a feature back is not what holds this offense back and it should continue to be a low priority.
The TE corps remains what it was. Jason Witten owns. Gavin Escobar and James Hanna get rare shots. Escobar continues to be underrated as a blocker and Hanna continues to be overrated as a speed threat. Hanna is in the last season of his contract and, despite being a pretty decent special teams player, was seen as likely to be elsewhere next year - until Escobar tore his right Achilles last night. Suddenly Geoff Swaim could find himself with a much larger role,and the Cowboys may have a need at the position.
I've already gone on about Dez. Other receivers have suffered as a result of Dez's not being a threat, but they are by and large catching what's thrown their way at similar rates to previous years. They are just getting fewer yards per catch, mostly because teams do not fear Dez and are quicker to rally to the ball. Terrance Williams already has three more catches than last year and will likely eclipse his previous season marks for yardage when all is said and done. Without Dez to open things up for him, Cole Beasley has suffered the most in yards per catch -- 1.3 yards less than last year. But he has more catches and more yards than ever before already. Devin Street is catching a much higher percentage of his targets, but with 7 targets last year and 10 this year, the sample size is small. Brice Butler has been a nice find, but his hamstring has kept him on the sidelines. Lucky Whitehead seems to be finally filling in the Dwayne Harris role a little bit. Hopefully he can continue to improve.
Not much to be said here. Tony Romo has been hurt. Brandon Weeden was poor. Matt Cassel disn't get any better results, as there has been even less playmaking on offense than on defense. Back up quarterbacks don't do much in the NFL besides get a few balls into the hands of their playmakers. When your $14 million a year prime offensive playmaker is catching less than half of what's thrown his way, it's going to make you look terrible. Yes, the balls have been off target. But Dez gets paid to make plays on balls that are contested and haul in most of what he gets his hands on. He has not done that, and the entire offense is suffering.
The Cowboys got their first chance to evaluate Kellen Moore yesterday, but I don't think you can get a fair evaluation when the offense is this far thrown off. I have no objection to seeing what we have in Moore over the next two games, but a fair evaluation will require having a real Dez Bryant on the field.
So who do we draft?
This Quarterback class is not considered the greatest, but eyes need to be on that position for sure. Right Tackle remains a desire, as does running back. Alternately, another top receiver could certainly help an offense that, contrary to popular opinion, needs a receiving threat to work properly.
It's likely Dallas will have a top pick in the spring. Who do you see them getting?