Whenever a team is loaded with playmaking options on offense, the question arises - who’s going to get the most use?
The 2017 Dallas Cowboys are returning most of their offense intact. Dak Prescott is in year two, the running game is led by Ezekiel Elliott, and the top receivers are Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams, with Jason Witten back again at tight end.
The Cowboys lost some bottom-roster players - Lance Dunbar and Gavin Escobar - and they may end up cutting a couple more, with Alfred Morris and Lucky Whitehead likely on the bubble.
There are also some new faces. Ryan Switzer is everyone’s favorite new toy, and Rico Gathers has a chance to stick. Plus the Cowboys drafted big receiver Noah Brown, and have some other receiving options like Andy Jones that they stashed on the practice squad. James Hanna could also return at tight end.
How are all these players going to fit? Let’s start with the easier question - at running back.
Here are the Cowboys’ 2016 totals.
How is this likely to change in 2017?
It’s not likely to change much. Zeke got 21.5 carries per game in 2016, and that’s unlikely to change in 2017, as the Cowboys would probably like to moderate the wear and tear he takes. That leaves about 10 rushes per game from all the other runners, including Dak Prescott, who is unlikely to moderate his rushing attempts. Darren McFadden alone received 14.9 attempts per game in 2015, so he could easily carry all of the backup load if necessary. Ryan Switzer could also reprise Lucky Whitehead’s 10 jet sweeps if he supplants him on the roster.
Here are the Cowboys’ 2016 totals.
This is where change is likely to come.
Will Dez Bryant resume his perch atop the receiving charts?
In 2014, Dez was targeted 136 times in 16 games, or 8.5 targets/game, whereas he was targeted 96 times in 13 games, or 7.4 targets/game last year. But his catch percentage was much higher in 2014 as well - 64.7% versus 52.1% last year. With the emergence of Cole Beasley and others, Bryant’s targets per game might stay the same in 2017, but his yardage and touchdowns should increase significantly.
Is Jason Witten due for fewer targets?
The days of Jason Witten receiving 140+ targets (2007 and 2012) are certainly over. But he also hasn’t had fewer than 89 targets since his rookie season. Is this the year that number takes a couple of notches down? As we wrote here, if the Cowboys are going to play some dual-slot offense to utilize the quickness of both Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer, then Jason Witten is going to have to come off the field more than he ever has.
Will Ezekiel Elliott get used more in the passing game?
Zeke had only 39 targets in 15 games, for 2.1 targets a game. David Johnson, by comparison, was targeted 120 times! It seems certain that Zeke will see more targets, but where will they come from? Lance Dunbar received 24 targets, but some of those are likely to go to Darren McFadden if he’s the primary backup to Zeke. Perhaps Zeke could bump up to something like 60 targets in year two. (DeMarco Murray was targeted 64 times in 2014, though that was when Cole Beasley got 49 targets, not 98.) Another team might use him more than that, but with Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer providing excellent options, the Cowboys have the luxury of not overusing Zeke.
How many targets might Ryan Switzer get?
Switzer is a wild card because no one knows how good he might be, or how quickly he might adapt to the pro game. He has better measurables coming in than Cole Beasley did, and he had a huge number of long TD plays in college, suggesting he might be much more threatening after the catch than Beasley. But is he going to rob snaps and targets from Beasley? Or is he going to take snaps from Jason Witten or other wide receivers on the roster? This is a big unknown.
Rico Gathers anyone?
As long as Jason Witten has been around, second tight ends have only received scraps in Dallas. Martellus Bennett is a quality tight end. He was targeted 128 times in Chicago one year, and has had 73 or more targets each year since leaving Dallas, and has averaged more than five TDs per year. Yet his peak in Dallas was 47 targets, and all four of his TDs (in four seasons) came his rookie year. It’s one thing for a slot receiver like Ryan Switzer to take snaps from Jason Witten. As Cole Beasley proved, a quick slot guy can be more effective than a tight end. But can another tight end take some of Witten’s targets? That’s harder to see. Gathers, of course, also has to beat out Geoff Swaim and James Hanna for playing time. That may depend more on his blocking skills than his receiving acumen. If Gathers proves adept in the red zone, perhaps that’s where he’ll make his mark.
Will the Cowboys keep a sixth wideout?
The numbers from 2016 do not suggest that this would be worth it. The fourth wide receiver - Brice Butler - only received 32 targets, and that was largely because Dez Bryant missed three games. If the Cowboys decided to keep Noah Brown, for example, to keep him from being poached if waived to put on the practice squad, there would be almost no snaps or targets to give him. He would most likely be inactive.
Will the Cowboys play more snaps on offense this year?
Up until now, we’ve assumed that the number of snaps would likely remain about the same. But there is room for growth in these numbers. The Cowboys played 1,010 snaps on offense last year, which ranked 20th in the NFL. That’s a big product of the fact they run the ball so much, and aren’t attempting to hurry up play so their defense will be less exposed. New Orleans led the NFL with 1,105 plays on offense. New England played 1,056 snaps, but still ran the ball almost as much as Dallas (482 to the Cowboys’ 499). Perhaps that would be a max number for Dallas.
Even 40 more targets would allow the Cowboys to increase production from some players without cutting as much into others.
Should be an interesting year on offense.