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Hot sauce: The undervaluation of Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley

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Despite a lot of evidence of just how effective he is, many don’t understand his importance to the Cowboys.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
He is basically always open.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of shiny new toys this year, plus a few that sat on the shelf in 2016 but are expected to make big contributions now. And there are the known quantities, such as Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, and the trio of Pro Bowl offensive linemen. You can include Byron Jones and Anthony Brown in that group as well. But one player that should have a big role for the team this year is often overlooked or even somewhat disrespected - slot receiver Cole Beasley.

Beasley has become a real asset in the passing game. He earned a reputation as a possession receiver when Tony Romo was still the quarterback, and for Prescott, he became even more of a security blanket than the wily Witten. He seems able to get open at will. The drafting of Ryan Switzer was seen by some as almost redundant, since they have so many similar qualities to their game, but in a sense, it was just validation of Beasley’s value. The Cowboys wanted to make sure they had a backup plan for him.

Yet when various writers and analysts dissect the Cowboys, they seldom see what Beasley represents. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently did a ranking of the offensive arsenals of all 32 NFL teams. This focused solely on the running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends of the squads. Barnwell was overall favorably impressed by the Cowboys’ group, ranking them fifth overall in the league. But he was oddly dismissive of Beasley.

Cole Beasley is a useful slot receiver, but his 76.5 percent catch rate in 2016 was a career high.

That is a bit of damning with faint praise, and leaves out a significant point about the numbers: Beasley’s catch rate was the highest in the league, according to Football Outsider’s rankings of wide receivers with at least 50 passes thrown to them. Why it being his career high was noteworthy is a bit puzzling. And based on his work so far in Oxnard, Beasley is not going to be any less elusive or sure-handed this year.

One reason Beasley is overlooked may be because of the obsession so many writers have with volume stats. He only had a total of 833 yards on 75 receptions (out of 98 balls thrown to him). This is similar to how some point to Prescott’s relatively low total of only 3,667 passing yards as showing that he is not truly an elite QB when compared to the 18 quarterbacks who had more in 2016. But that overlooks the balanced attack that Dallas uses. Having the league’s leading rusher last season meant that they did not have to rely on the passing game the way so many other teams were forced to. The Cowboys did not rack up huge numbers in the passing game, but they were very, very effective yards, and Beasley’s stats were the most efficient of all the team’s receivers. Just a little over two thirds of all his catches resulted in a first down or touchdown. He not only was able to get open and catch the ball, he got beyond the sticks.

Another factor is that Beasley is in a way a role player. What is not appreciated by all is just how important that role is. In a typical Cowboys 11 personnel package, they will have Bryant and Terrance Williams to provide deep threats, Witten and Beasley to work the underneath routes, and Elliott to keep the defense honest as well as offering another receiving option out of the backfield. No defense can shut down all those options with any regularity. And Beasley and Witten present two very different challenges while working the same areas of the field. Beasley is the embodiment of elusiveness and quickness, while Witten uses his size and craftiness to work himself open. And last year, Prescott already had a remarkable rapport with Beasley. They displayed an ability to know what the other was going to do that you just don’t often see when one half of the combination is a rookie.

That WR ranking in Football Outsiders linked above had Beasley as the fifth-best receiver in the league in terms of both total value to the team and value per play, based on their DVOA and DYAR statistics. While that is admittedly according to their own criteria, those numbers seem to track very well with results on the field for the players. The point is that Beasley is not just a key element of the Dallas offense, he is one of the best in the league at what he is supposed to do, which is catch the ball and keep drives going.

With all the other developments for the Cowboys so far this year, both on and off the field, Beasley continues to be somewhat below the radar, despite just doing what he always does when he is in the lineup. And that is how his game works. He seems to disappear from coverage, only to be right where he needs to be when the ball is delivered to him. We can expect there to be plenty of sauce this season, even if some don’t realize it.