In 2018, Dallas has turned over it's receiver group in very significant ways. The two players with the most targets in 2017, Dez Bryant (132) and Jason Witten (87) are both gone. Dez was cut for salary cap and other reasons, while all-time great Jason Witten decided to retire after 15 seasons. Brice Butler also left as a free agent and signed with Arizona.
Here's what the receiving group looked like in 2017:
Other players caught passes, but other than the running backs, they didn't amount to enough to make any sort of difference.
In 2018, the receiving group looks much different.
Those six wide receivers seem to be the leaders at this point, but things remain very fluid. What about Cedrick Wilson or Noah Brown? And will Austin be used as a wide receiver, or more like a combination of Lucky Whitehead and his jet sweeps, and Lance Dunbar and his swing passes out of the backfield?
At tight end, without Jason Witten, who's going to get the targets? Rico Gathers? Dalton Schultz? Blake Jarwin? I doubt it will be Geoff Swaim, even though he will get his snaps.
Let's look at some data before we go any further. The table below looks at the top Cowboys receivers (WRs and TEs) in 2017 and 2016 by targets, receptions, catch percentage, yards per reception, TDs. It then adds Football Outsiders ranking for DYAR - Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement, and DVOA - Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average.
DYAR means a receiver with more total value. DVOA means more value per play. The DVOA percentage is the percentage above or below an average receiver.
What can we glean from this data?
In 2016, two of our receivers had very good stats:
- Cole Beasley was 5th in the NFL in DYAR (341) and DVOA (31%)
- Terrance Williams was 17th in DYAR (214), but 4th in DVOA (31.1%)
- Dez Bryant was 31st in DYAR (153) and 32nd in DVOA (7.5%)
- Jason Witten was 29th among tight ends in DYAR (0), and 29th in DVOA (-7.2%)
- Brice Butler didn't get enough snaps to be ranked, but added 6 DYAR, and was negative in DVOA (-10%)
- Terrance Williams was 54th in DYAR (67) and 52nd in DVOA (-2%)
- Dez Bryant was 72nd in DYAR (-10) and 72nd in DVOA (-13.6%)
- Cole Beasley was 74th in DYAR (-22) and 74th in DVOA (-17%)
- Jason Witten was 20th in DYAR (41) and 24th in DVOA (-0.2%).
- Brice Butler added 134 DYAR, the highest total for anyone not receiving 50 passes. His DVOA was also off the charts at 68.1%
What happened in 2017, and have the Cowboys found a solution by changing out their receivers?
- Why did Cole Beasley go from being a top-5 receiver in the NFL, to being 74th out of 86 receivers targeted at least 50 times?
- Why did Terrance Williams, who was worth even more per play than Beasley in 2016, drop off to the point of being a slightly below average receiver?
- Why did Dez Bryant decline from being above average to being near the bottom of the NFL in production?
- How, in the middle of these declines, did Brice Butler emerge into a per-play monster?
What can we expect in 2018?
I've put in some data for the additions to the roster. Allen Hurns in 2017 missed a few games, which kept his DYAR down, but he ranked 9th in the NFL in DVOA. I've also included his best year - 2015 - to give an idea of what his ceiling might be. It's the best year in terms of production, but his DVOA was slightly below last year. Hurns played a lot out of the slot, so one wonders if this will translate if he's put into a more traditional outside receiving role.
It's anyone's guess, really, as to whether this group of receivers will be better. A lot of us are excited because there is at least the possibility of improvement. It's unlikely things will be as staid as they have been, with Dez, Williams, Beasley, and Witten always in the same roles. With this new group, anyone can line up in the slot, and all but Beasley and Austin can take any of the outside receiving roles.
My feeling is that, with new receivers coach Sanjay Lal's help, this group will be more reliable targets for Dak, and less predictable for defenses to take away. Cole Beasley, off his 2017 performance, is going to have to prove he can get open again. It's possible he'll be supplanted in the slot much more often by the much taller Allen Hurns, with Williams and Gallup on the outside. Rico Gathers could also give Dak a big target and one who can stretch the field, and it's possible both Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin will have more juice down the field than Jason Witten has had for years.
But the key to it all may be the offensive line and the threat Ezekiel Elliott poses to defenses. Once the pass protection evaporated last year, the passing game went with it. Keep Dak protected, give him run-pass options, keep defenses guessing, and the offense might hit a high gear again.
Through all of this I haven't really said anything about Dak Prescott. Many blame him for the passing game woes, saying that his accuracy was off last year. My take is that Dak didn't change as much as the players around him. For example, was Cole Beasley open like he was in 2016 and Dak just missed him? I don't think that's true at all. Was Dez Bryant just as open in 2017, and did he catch all of the balls that Dak put on his hands? Was Terrance Williams open as much as he was in 2016? I don't think so. Did the offensive line give him as much protection? Definitely not. Was Zeke always there to threaten defenses? No. That's not to say that Dak was blameless. But it seems like other factors played a bigger role.
Improvement is by no means a certainty, but it would be hard to do worse than 2017. The question is, can the Cowboys be as good or better than they were in 2016?