The next in a series of posts looking at each position group on the Dallas Cowboys roster, and determining just how much of a priority it will be this offseason. (The links to the rest of the series at the bottom)
Position Group - Wide receiver
What a difference a year makes. In 2016, with the Cowboys offense humming, the Dallas receiver group looked solid, with only minor complaints here and there. After 2017, perhaps no group is under more scrutiny by observers of the Cowboys. Is it time for a major overhaul, or will a few slight tweaks solve the problem? That is the decision facing the organization, but if you’ve followed the Cowboys under Jason Garrett, you probably know that a complete overhaul isn’t likely. Still, some changes will need to be made.
Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer, Brice Butler, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, Brian Brown, KD Cannon
Dez Bryant - Bryant’s 2017 season was so frustrating that there has been open talk from fans and media about dumping him and his high salary. Bryant’s numbers have been in decline for a few years and there is no shortage of theories as to why. Among the top theories: age and injury are slowing him down, he needs a QB like Tony Romo to thrive, the Cowboys are utilizing him wrong at this stage in his career. One could suggest that these are not mutually exclusive theories, that a little bit of all of them are contributing to the issues. Throw on top of that his inordinate amount of drops this past season, and you have a Cowboys mini-crisis.
It’s doubtful the Cowboys will outright release Bryant, he can still be a useful piece of the offense and his dead money would be substantial. They might try to tinker with his contract either through a pay-cut (he’s unlikely to take that) or through a restructure (which would be a mistake by the Cowboys). The most likely outcome, on the financial side, is he just continues to play under his current contract.
On the field, the Cowboys absolutely should start using him differently. We’ve made the argument on these pages, and even Brice Butler made it during his crazy interview. Bryant’s ability, along with Dak Prescott’s ability, to convert the deep jump-ball route, and the back-shoulder fade, is no longer a viable part of the regular offense. Bryant should see more slants, square-ins, hitches and crossing patterns where he can use his big body to shield the defenders from the ball and drive the tacklers for yards after catch. Of course, none of this matters if he doesn’t stop dropping passes.
Terrance Williams - After signing a four-year deal this past offseason, Williams will be here for a bit. And at this point, he is unlikely to change. He has moments and games where he proves to be valuable, then he’ll have stretches when he disappears. There is also his body-catching which can lead to drops that has plagued him since he was a rookie. Williams doesn’t have the speed to blow by defenders, and his route running is average, though it has improved. A case could be made for him to receive fewer snaps in 2018 so the Cowboys can try some other personnel packages, and open up the opportunity for some younger guys.
Cole Beasley - Perhaps no Cowboys offensive player had as a big a drop-off from 2016 to 2017. Beasley was a third-down converting machine in ‘16, with a lot of other catches to go with it. In ‘17, defenses decided to bracket Beasley, who runs only a few types of patterns short, and he became ineffective. Is this on Beasley, or is it on the Cowboys for not being to either a) get Beasley involved with other patterns or formations, or b) not being able to force defenses out of the double coverage by creating mismatches elsewhere? An argument can be made that the Cowboys could move Beasley around some to try and get him open, or by adding a another quick slot receiver on certain formations instead of playing Jason Witten on every down, they could have loosened defenses up. Beasley can still be effective, but it’s up to the Cowboys to give him opportunities.
Ryan Switzer - Speaking of quick slot receivers, Switzer never got a real opportunity in the offense until the last game of the season. With Beasley out, Switzer got plenty of playing time and had a good game. Now, the Eagles were mainly giving him single coverage instead of the bracketing we often saw on Beasley, but there was still promise there. A formation of four-wide with Beasley and Switzer manning the slots should absolutely become a semi-regular occurrence in the 2018 offense.
Brice Butler - Yes, he had some good moments catching deep passes, in fact, he’s the one Dak had the best connection with on deep passes. But after his media interviews the other day, it’s extremely unlikely the free agent returns to Dallas. The Cowboys should look at film and see why the Dak-to-Brice connection worked deep, and try to replicate it more often.
Noah Brown - Is he a one-trick pony? Brown is as good of a blocker from the receiver position as you will see, but can he do more than that? It’s hard to survive in this league for long on blocking alone as a receiver, the Cowboys will need to find out if he can get open and catch the ball, too.
Lance Lenoir, Brian Brown, KD Cannon - These guys are on futures/reserve contracts and will be allowed to battle for a roster spot, but at this point it’s hard to project any of them being significant players in 2018.
Offseason Priority - High
The Cowboys desperately need to re-work how this group operates. They may add only one new, significant player to the group, but that, along with re-thinking the offensive scheme, could produce big changes. There is a thought that the Cowboys need someone with speed who can challenge defenses vertically. Physically Bryant can’t, and Williams has not shown that ability. It’s also not Beasley’s or Switzer’s game. Butler was the one guy who seemed to be able to do it, but his inconsistency with his hands and the Cowboys lack of faith in him meant he didn’t play much. Maybe the Cowboys look for a burner to open things up and take some of Williams’ (or Bryant’s) snaps.
If the Cowboys want to remain a vertical passing team, then they probably do need an injection of speed outside. But they could also alter the scheme to work with their current personnel some, too. Adding a talented receiver, either early in the draft, or by paying good money in free agency, is a move the Cowboys surely must make. If they don’t, then it’s a sign that they will continue to run the exact same offense they have been, and that they believe the struggle in the passing game was a fluke last season.