Analyzing the Cowboys' receivers - will they be better in 2018?

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:

Dez Bryant
Cole Beasley
Terrance Williams
Brice Butler
Jason Witten

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.

Allen Hurns
Cole Beasley
Terrance Williams
Michael Gallup?
Deonte Thompson?
Tavon Austin?

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.

Name Year Tgts Rec % Y/R TD DYAR Rnk DVOA Rnk
Dez Bryant 2017 132 69 52.3 12.1 6 -10 72 -13.60% 72
2016 96 50 52.1 15.9 8 153 31 7.50% 32
Cole Beasley 2017 63 36 57.1 8.7 4 -22 74 -17% 74
2016 98 75 76.5 11.1 5 341 5 31% 5
Terrance Williams 2017 78 53 67.9 10.7 0 67 54 -2% 52
2016 61 44 72.1 13.5 4 214 17 31.10% 4
Brice Butler 2017 23 15 65.2 21.1 3 134 NR 61.40% NR
2016 32 16 50 13.7 3 6 NR -10.40% NR
Jason Witten 2017 87 63 72.4 8.9 5 41 20 -0.20% 24
2016 95 69 72.6 9.8 3 0 29 -7.20% 29
Allen Hurns 2017 56 39 69.6 12.4 2 149 26 20.60% 9
2015 105 64 61 16.1 10 236 16 16.10% 12
Deonte Thompson 2017 69 38 55.1 14.6 2 63 55 -1% 48
Tavon Austin 2017 22 13 59.1 3.6 0 -99 NR -68.10% NR
2016 106 58 54.7 8.8 3 -219 94 -39.10% 94

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 also above average.
  • Dez Bryant was 31st in DYAR (153) and 32nd in DVOA (7.5%)
Jason Witten was below average.
  • Jason Witten was 29th among tight ends in DYAR (0), and 29th in DVOA (-7.2%)
Brice Butler brought up the rear.
  • Brice Butler didn't get enough snaps to be ranked, but added 6 DYAR, and was negative in DVOA (-10%)
In 2017, most of our receivers fell off a cliff
  • 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 actually a bit better according to DYAR and DVOA, but not much.
  • Jason Witten was 20th in DYAR (41) and 24th in DVOA (-0.2%).
Brice Butler, however, was by far the most productive receiver in the NFL on a per-snap basis.
  • 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?

The data above demonstrates WHAT happened in 2017, but not really WHY it happened.
  • 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?
I think most people's assumptions is that defenses caught on to the Cowboys offense and decided to take Cole Beasley out by doubling him.

As for Dez Bryant, it was likely a factor of continued decline in his skill set, including the inability to separate, and an above average number of balls that went off his hands.

Meanwhile, Jason Witten continued to catch a lot of passes, but didn't really add much from a DYAR or DVOA standpoint.

My own take is that the poor receiving was part of a snowball effect. In the first half of the year, the Cowboys offense wasn't quite as sharp as it was in 2016, but it was humming along pretty well. They were scoring 28 points per game through that point, or slightly better than 2016's 26.3 ppg average.

But then Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott went out, the Atlanta game happened, and the offense shut down completely. Without Zeke as a threat, and with Dak running for his life, the receiving game hit the skids. Cole Beasley wasn't effective at all. Dez got the most targets, but many of those throws seemed forced. And no one could step up and take up the slack. Even though Brice Butler was fantastic, he still only caught 15 passes, or less than one per game.

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.

Deonte Thompson seems to have been signed to replace Brice Butler's role as a deep threat. He received a lot more targets in this role for Buffalo and Chicago last year, but he wasn't close to Butler's 2017 efficiency.

Tavon Austin, meanwhile, demonstrated for the Rams that he was quite horrible as a receiver both of the last two years. So it's not hard to see why the Rams would trade him. One would hope he's not used much in a standard receiving role, but rather as a jet sweep guy and someone who can receive runs and swing passes out of the backfield.

The other additions are the two drafted rookies - Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Gallup was super productive the last two years, can run all the routes, and can likely line up anywhere. Wilson looks to be more of an understudy to Thompson on deep routes. Noah Brown was next to worthless as a receiver in 2017. Can he make a leap forward this year? He's likely going to need to to make the roster.

Rookie wide receivers don't always emerge, but they can. Last year, Cooper Kupp had an outstanding year for the Rams, ranking 10th in DYAR and 5th in DVOA. Kupp was drafted in the third round, just like Michael Gallup. Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster, a second round pick of the Steelers, ranked 6th in DYAR and 1st in DVOA.

At tight end, things are even more uncertain, as no one knows what the Cowboys have in Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or Dalton Schultz. They only need to achieve league average to replicate Jason Witten's receiving numbers, but can they even do that?


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?

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