With a roster that no longer has Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, some people are nervous about about the 2018 Dallas Cowboys passing game.
It's possible the #Cowboys have the worst wide receiver AND tight end corps in the league...We better be running for 200 a game.— Roy White III (@RDubThree) May 3, 2018
Of course, we haven’t seen a single snap yet so takes like the one above are based off a depth chart that doesn’t have a true wide receiver one. What’s the implied definition of a “WR1”? The answer is the receiver that the passing game is funneled through, and one that opposing defensive coordinators have to plan for and usually double-team. Though the prototype still exists in today’s game, not every team has one. When it comes to the Cowboys, you can make an argument that they haven’t had one since 2014.
With such a powerful running game, the Cowboys have elected to change their passing game into a committee effort. Whoever is open is going to get the football and they feel that it will make for a much more efficient passing offense. What the Cowboys are attempting to build around Dak Prescott is no different than what other teams have done in the past with their quarterbacks. The Cowboys will not be void of talent at wide receiver but it will be Prescott who determines the next breakout guys for the offense.
When you think of that WR1 prototype a few names come to mind such as Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., and certainly Antonio Brown. The majority of NFL teams just don’t have that, or they have a quarterback that doesn’t need one. Drew Brees took a second-round receiver, Michael Thomas, and turned him into a star. Tom Brady’s top receiver is his tight end, Rob Gronkowski, who Brady had to spend ample time without due to injury. That’s fine because Brady has continued on with the Julian Edelman’s or Chris Hogan’s of the world. Aaron Rodgers makes new receivers every year and though Prescott doesn’t have the resumé of those QBs yet, the concept is the same.
In 2016, Prescott led the Cowboys to victories over the 49ers, Bengals, and Packers in three straight weeks with a depth chart consisting of Brice Butler, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley. They won 13 games with their leading receiver ranking 44th in the NFL in terms receiving yards and 28th in receptions. The Eagles just won the Super Bowl with their leading receiver, Zach Ertz, ranking 30th in the league and their big free agent acquisition, Alshon Jeffery, ranking 34th. Neither guy reached 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdowns.
Without question, the Cowboys can’t solely rely on a rushing attack to do everything for them. The quarterback has plenty of room to grow and must improve his ball placement among other things after this past season. Still, the Cowboys have moved away from having a number one guy to coveting a stable of receivers that add different dimensions to their offense.
This isn’t to say that they don’t have any guys with potential to develop into the next star receiver. They’ve just made adjustments to the type of receiver they want to pair with Prescott. More than anything else, they’ve been hunting for receivers that create separation from the defender, making themselves reliable targets. Following the 2016 season, Dez Bryant was one of the worst receivers at creating separation:
“Dez Bryant averaged 1.85 yards of separation at target. He ranked 54th out of 55 receivers to see 50 or more targets out wide.”
Another important aspect the coaches have put an emphasis on is pure route-running ability, they want guys that can sell their routes well while also having a defined understanding of the full route tree. This is precisely why they went after guys like Allen Hurns. Here’s what our sister site, Gang Green Nation, had to say about Hurns back in 2014:
Quickness: He doesn’t have top end speed, but he is very quick over a short area and enough pace to really challenge players downfield as well.
Recognition: Always seems to find a way to get open, doesn’t have the best acceleration, but he really sells his routes, and manages to find the soft areas in zone.
Physical blocker: He is lean and thin, but he puts 100% effort into the blocking game, and surprisingly, he’s actually quite a good consistent blocker on the outside.
Separation: Someone tried to tell me he won’t get separation at the next level, I don’t understand that. He gets separation consistently with crisp routes and fast breaks.
Multi-threat: He can go deep, run the intermediate, Miami liked to get him the ball on screens and swing passes too, he can do a lot of things well.
Route running: I really liked what I saw from Hurns in terms of his route running ability, he gets in and out of his breaks quickly and smoothly, which is why he was able to amass 1000+ yards at Miami.
The Cowboys also spent their third-round selection on Michael Gallup. By now, everyone is pretty hyped about what Gallup can bring to the room. Here’s a clipping from my previous post on Gallup:
Gallup does not have game-breaking speed but plays much faster than his 4.51 40 time would suggest. There’s no way he could lead the NCAA in yards after catch the past two seasons without good play speed. What you see on tape is a guy who consistently drives the defender off his backpedal. Gallup plays extremely light on his feet with good burst in and out of his breaks.
Where Gallup really learned to set himself apart was with his technique. When you’re not the biggest (6’1, 205 lbs) or fastest guy on the field, you have to make up for it with polished technique, which is exactly what Gallup brings to the table. In this class, a lot of praise was given to Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, and Anthony Miller for their route-running ability. The same could be said for Gallup, who is an incredibly savvy route salesman.
Here is #Cowboys WR Michael Gallup's route tree in 2017, according to @PFF pic.twitter.com/fc5sI45f3s— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) April 28, 2018
That same Matt Harmon who talked about Bryant’s inability to create separation sings an entirely different tune about Michael Gallup. In Harmon’s eyes, Gallup is very likely the steal at the position for this year’s crop:
“Gallups’ gave me something of a poor man’s Michael Crabtree-vibe, which is a high compliment given how I’ve viewed Crabtree over the years. The last player who I compared to Crabtree was Michael Thomas back in 2016. Somewhere in this three degrees of Michael we see a path to an exciting career for Gallup. If he lands with the right team, he could earn a role early in his rookie season due to his ace in the hole hands and solid routes.
If your team is looking for a receiver outside of the first round and has a particular need on the perimeter, get excited if they target Michael Gallup. He has the skills to out-produce some of the players destined to go before him on draft day.”
Lastly, the Cowboys are putting speed among their priorities on offense. This is why you see additions like Deonte Thompson and especially with Tavon Austin. Both guys are fast receivers and the Cowboys will use Austin in a hybrid role but want us to think of him as a running back. These two players are actually quite opposite of each other though they both show tremendous quickness and agility.
Thompson has long speed where he can beat the defender and go over the top for huge gains. Austin will be used in space and hopefully we’ll watch him zoom right past all defenders to the end zone. Bryan Broaddus’ scouting report on Austin says more of the same:
- As you might expect, given his draft status, this is a player with tremendous quickness and balance. Shifty with the footwork.
- Shows the ability to make something out of nothing. Can run himself out of trouble. Will keep bouncing until he finds a spot.
- Much like a running back, Austin has the vision to see the lanes and make the cuts.
- Only needs a little bit of space to make something happen. Explosive with the ball in his hands.
- He does very little down the field as a receiver. Jet sweeps from the slot, one back sweeps and screens.
“Surface analysts” may not see enough “name value” on the roster at receiver, which will play into their arguments. The Cowboys will argue that what they’ve done at receiver is actually going to make their passing offense much more efficient than we saw in 2017. If you dig just a little deeper to find out exactly what the Cowboys are looking for, you see that this team has an array of talent. They are just prioritizing a different kind of receiver.