For the most part, the Dallas Cowboys’ draft was largely what we expected: defense, defense, defense. They opened with a pass rusher, stacked up a bunch of defensive backs, and then added in a couple of interior defensive linemen for Rod Marinelli to play with. The selections all made sense.
Except for the two offensive picks. Somewhat surprisingly, the Cowboys took not one but two wide receivers, Ryan Switzer in the fourth round and Noah Brown in the seventh. The recent history of the Cowboys had not seen them investing a lot of draft capital in their wide receivers. Only two of the corps from last year, Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, came to the team as Dallas draft picks. Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead were both UDFAs, and Brice Butler was acquired via trade with the Oakland Raiders. Dallas has been more likely to draft a tight end in recent years.
So what has changed? Well, there are several factors. (A hat tip here to Joey Ickes, who was involved in a long discussion on Twitter where he raised and expanded on several of the ideas here.)
The obvious one is that there were definitely two tiers of wide receivers for Dallas in 2016: Dez, Beas, and TWill in the top tier, with Lucky and Brice in the second. So bringing in a couple of rookies to push them makes sense. Add in that the return game was an ongoing issue all season, and Switzer has an excellent record as a return man, and it is pretty obvious how the competition is lining up. Switzer is direct competition for Whitehead, and as a fourth-round draft pick, he can pretty much be assumed as making the 53-man roster. That leaves Brown in a competition with Whitehead, Butler, and Andy Jones for the fifth and possibly a sixth WR spot. The team also signed Quincy McDuffie and Uzoma Nwachkuwu prior to the draft and are expected to sign UDFA Brian Brown, but the latter three are going to have to do something spectacular to be anything more than camp bodies.
Another factor is age. Bryant and Beasley are both 28, and Williams is 27. There is a chance that one or more of them will be reaching the end of their careers in two or three seasons, so it makes sense to start looking for another, younger group to be ready to fill in for them. Further, Beasley’s contract is set to end in 2018, Bryant’s in 2019, and Williams’ in 2020. So the timing would be nearly perfect for Switzer and Brown to step into top roles if they do make the team. The Cowboys do a very good job of looking three to four years ahead with their personnel decisions, and this looks to be exactly the case here.
And then there is the Dak effect. The offense is now going to be tailored to Dak Prescott. Last season, by necessity, the team was still using an offensive game plan that had been originally designed for Tony Romo, who had more of a gunslinger style. Prescott seems to have more success with the quicker short passes, where both Beasley and Switzer seem most valuable.
If both the new draftees make the team, it opens up a couple of personnel options for the Cowboys.
The first is the 10 personnel group (this is where Joey was really pounding the table). Put both Beasley and Switzer on the field with Bryant and Williams, and the defense has some major problems. Bryant demands double coverage from almost any secondary to keep him from tearing things up, while Williams is also very effective as a mid to deep range target. And the two small, quick receivers will be there for those quick hits in the five to ten yard range. Opponents will have to try and cover at least one of them with a linebacker, a clear mismatch, or go with a dime coverage. And if they go dime, then Prescott can hand off to Elliott to exploit the lack of run defenders. There is also the run/pass option that Prescott is so great with. And Elliott can also catch the ball out of the backfield. 10 personnel offers a real chance to move the ball rapidly, especially when the Cowboys go hurry up.
When Dallas gets into the red zone, they can go with a 12 package, putting Bryant and Brown, both big, physical receivers who excel at catching in traffic, on the field with Jason Witten and Rico Gathers. Gathers is getting talked about as having a role on the 53 this year, and that quartet of receivers all can win contested catches. Further, the 12 package is also a very effective running grouping, so the defense has to be ready to defend that as well. Bryant is effective blocking, and that is something Brown says he is also very good at. It becomes a nightmare for the defense. If you crowd the box, you have at least one of those big, physical, and in the case of Bryant and Witten, very crafty receivers in single coverage. All four can go up to get the ball and outmuscle most defensive backs. If the secondary elects to flood the end zone to try and stop back shoulder and jump ball throws, then Elliott and Prescott can both hurt them with their legs.
As mentioned, Switzer is highly likely to make the roster, but Brown faces the challenge of having to beat out at least one and probably two veteran receivers, depending on how many Dallas carries on the 53. But his youth and very affordable price work to his advantage. And his performance in college makes it clear that he is a real threat to win a spot with the team.
The drafting of two wide receivers was surprising on the surface. But it shows that the brain trust for the Cowboys knows what it is doing. Wide receiver is always fun to watch in training camp, and this year may be one of the most entertaining yet.