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Will The Cowboys’ Ryan Switzer Have To Pry Snaps From Jason Witten?

Ryan Switzer is the Cowboys new offensive toy, but if he’s going to get on the field, he may have to push off someone who never sits down.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has already been made of Ryan Switzer making a difference on offense for the Cowboys. It was part of Burning Question Number 7 in our recent series. In the first OTA, because both Lucky Whitehead and Cole Beasley were out with injuries, Switzer took their snaps and shined. Here’s another article talking about Switzer’s practice, and one from BTB.

But for Switzer to make a difference, he has to first get on the field.

Our former colleague Joey Ickes has this nice write up on how Switzer might pair up with Cole Beasley to form a dual-slot attack of lightning quick possession receivers. Ickes was excited about the possibilities.

But with further examination, the addition of Switzer brings with it an almost innumerable number of possibilities for coordinator Scott Linehan and the Cowboys offense, and a similar array of nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators as they attempt to slow the Dallas group down. ... as Switzer himself seems to realize.

He then used diagrams to show how a basic dual slot attack, with Beasley on one side and Switzer on the other, could break down almost any defensive alignment used to combat it. He concludes with this paragraph.

That’s six different schemes from only two formations in this specific personnel group that can be used to counter just about any look that the defense can give. The Cowboys can attack the short, intermediate and deep areas of the field and put up chunk plays in each, and we didn’t even get into what they can do running the ball with Zeke, or with the pure read-option game with Prescott at quarterback, so this is truly only the tip of the iceberg of what they can do with this group. Indeed, we don't mean to put too much on Switzer will all of this; it'll take all of Dallas weapons to make all of this go. But this is the type of personnel grouping -- part of many -- that will give opposing coordinators nightmares as they prepare for the 2017 Dallas team.

It does seem like a series of defense-busting options.

There is only one question - where is Jason Witten in this scheme?

The answer is - he would have to be on the sidelines, where he has almost never been during his career. We don’t have easy access to Jason Witten’s career snaps, but we do know he has only missed one game in his career, the first week after he broke his jaw. A lacerated spleen didn’t keep him out of action at all. And it’s not just that he doesn’t miss games, like Cal Ripken, Jr., he doesn’t miss plays.

Here are Witten’s snap counts over the last five seasons.

Player Year Snaps Off. Percent
Witten 2016 1016 96%
Witten 2015 1020 99%
Witten 2014 1049 99%
Witten 2013 985 99%
Witten 2012 1079 98%

The only reason for the “low” percentage last year was he was among those rested for the Philadelphia game, where he only played 22 out of 56 snaps.

So, if Jason Witten never comes out, how is Switzer and the dual slot scheme ever going to get a chance to shine? The answer is the Cowboys are going to have to do something they’ve never done under Jason Garrett - sit Witten down for scheme reasons.

Switzer could still play with Witten, as Lucky Whitehead had 143 snaps on offense, or 14% of the offensive plays last year. But that is likely not enough snaps to make a real difference. In those 143 snaps, Whitehead had 10 rushes for 82 yards, and three catches (on three targets) for 48 yards. So Lucky touched the ball nine percent of the plays in which he was on offense. Not a lot.

Will the Cowboys finally bite the bullet and sit their ironman in order to open up new offensive possibilities? Witten’s play last year was largely panned by Football Outsiders. They ranked him 29th among tight ends in DYAR, which measures a player’s total value offered, and gave him a -1 score. He also ranked 29th in DVOA, which rates value per play, with a -7.4. He wasn’t much better in 2015, ranking 24th in DYAR, and 28th in DVOA. In 2014, Witten ranked 5th and 8th, respectively, in those stats, so it appears his game has been slipping.

In stark contrast, Football Outsiders loved the slot play of Cole Beasley, ranking him 5th in DYAR and DVOA last year. Will two short and quick receivers be better than one?

It seems clear that the Cowboys should finally sit Witten at least some of the time. How much will depend on how much success the offense has without him.

Last season, Witten was second in the NFL among tight ends for the number of snaps. Meanwhile, Travis Kelce, the outstanding tight end for Kansas City, who Football Outsiders ranked first in DYAR last year, played in only 87% of his team’s snaps. Other top tight ends were often in the 70%-80% range. If the Cowboys went that direction, it could open up another couple hundred snaps for Mr. Switzer.

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