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Hidden Strength: Cowboys Wide Receivers Better Than Many Think

2016 was a down year for Dez Bryant, but not for the WRs overall - and Dez is healthy again.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
He gets overlooked a lot, but TWill had an excellent season last year.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the focus this offseason has been on the many additions to the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, but one exception has been how fourth round draft pick Ryan Switzer has shone in the OTAs. He is seen as a very strong addition to the receiving corps. And that may be more significant than we realize, because there are some strong indications from last year that the Cowboys may have one of the best wide receiver groups in the NFL this season.

This may seem a bit surprising to many, because the acknowledged leader of the group, Dez Bryant, had an off year. Battling some injury concerns, he not only failed to break 1,000 yards, he was second on the team in yardage to slot receiver Cole Beasley. Partly due to his physical problems, he may have been slow developing the rapport with new quarterback Dak Prescott that Beasley obviously did.

But now Bryant is healthy, and that is very good news for the Cowboys. Because even with his down year, Dallas had one of the most potent receiving duos in the league - thanks to Beasley and the often overlooked Terrance Williams.

Football Outsiders did a recent article on receiving plus-minus, a followup/complimentary piece to their take on passing plus-minus. We looked at their passing results last week, and they showed that Prescott was very good indeed. Now there is more good news about his targets.

Here is their quick description of what they are trying to measure:

Receiving plus-minus estimates how many catches a receiver caught compared to what an average receiver would have caught, given the location of those targets. It does not consider targets listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion." Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player's target total.

Using their calculations, Beasley comes in at number five in the league. He is one of the more underrated receivers in the league, in part due to the fact that Bryant is such a huge presence, drawing so much attention. Dallas fans know how valuable Beasley is to their team and to Prescott. But what is surprising is that Williams shows up on the list at number thirteen. That makes the Cowboys one of only three teams with two receivers in the top 20.

Interestingly enough, Dallas has two wide receivers in the top 20, but neither is All-Pro Dez Bryant. For whatever reason, rookie Dak Prescott was not nearly as efficient when throwing to Bryant, who will tend to draw the tougher defensive matchup, and who was not always 100 percent healthy in 2016. Still, Prescott was -2.0 to Bryant, tied with Brice Butler for his lowest plus-minus to any teammate. We know Cole Beasley catches the underneath routes out of the slot, but one thing Dallas changed this year was to get Terrance Williams more involved in the intermediate game. Bryant's targets were nearly a full 4 yards deeper than Williams', so that certainly had something to do with the numbers being down. Bryant has been a +21.9 in his career with Tony Romo at quarterback, but -11.0 with Dallas' other passers. Prescott will have to get better at throwing to his No. 1 receiver, but this is a minor quibble to have on a Dallas offense that seems set for a long run of success.

As well as illuminating the value of Williams, this is one more bit of evidence countering the false impression that Prescott is only good in the short passing game. And now, things may get even better. While Switzer’s arrival has opened up all sorts of possibilities to confound defenses by putting him and Beasley on the field together, the fact that Bryant now has a chance to work more with Prescott adds yet anther dimension. With Dez as a deep threat (and often drawing an extra defensive back in coverage), Williams working the intermediate part of the field, and Beasley and/or Switzer running loose in the short area, opposing secondaries may simply be overwhelmed by the options Dak will have. And that is without even considering tight ends or running backs in the pattern.

It is always worth remembering that we are just in the OTAs, and there is a long, long way to go until the regular season. It is easy to get too optimistic. But unlike runaway enthusiasm for untested rookies, this is based on returning veterans. While Switzer may add even more to the mix, everyone else involved is coming back this year. And unlike 2016, Prescott is now getting the first team reps that went to Tony Romo prior to his injury. While so many seem convinced he is due a sophomore slump, everything about him would indicate that he is going to be better with the additional preparation, not worse.

Now he has proven weapons, a healthier top receiver, and at least one shiny new toy to work with in his receiving corps (we haven’t even considered who might be the fifth WR in the mix, although that is not usually much of a factor). This could become a real aerial show for the Cowboys.

And, you know, that running game is not going to be shabby, either. While there are still a lot of questions to be answered on defense, it is very easy to believe that Dallas will be a real offensive powerhouse this year. Don’t expect much to be hidden once the games get underway.