There are two types of opinions out there that shape people’s confidence level in the Cowboys potential for 2018 on offense at the wide receiver position:
Type 1: Those that believe the Cowboys will actually be more efficient without a presumed number one receiver and that will complement their running game.
Type 2: Those that believe that Cowboys WR-by-committee approach will fail without a star wide out in place commanding extra attention.
Dak Prescott said that he’s quite fond of the idea of spreading the ball around, much like he was able to do in his rookie season. It was clear the Cowboys wanted to emphasize getting Dez Bryant the ball last season and it basically backfired on them. Now, the Cowboys spent most of this offseason overhauling the position.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com wrote an article about his belief that Prescott will be in a better place without having to feel pressure to get the ball to a presumed number one receiver.
“Prescott watched his efficiency numbers slip when he kept targeting Bryant, instead of utilizing everyone. Freed from the burden of appeasing Dez’s desires, the young quarterback can simply make his reads and hit the open man. This is how the majority of elite quarterbacks operate -- and it’s the way systematic play callers prefer the offense to flow on game day.”
Brooks actually took it one step further and researched the top paid receivers. He found that the majority of teams with a top wide out didn’t make the playoffs:
Eyeing the 10 highest-paid receivers from 2017 -- by average salary, according to Spotrac -- I noticed that just three big-money guys were on playoff teams (Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery). While you could argue that some guys on the list saw their playoff hopes diminish due to injuries to the QB1 (Davante Adams, T.Y. Hilton and DeAndre Hopkins), the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the league’s so-called marquee pass catchers were on the outside looking in when the tournament rolled around last January.
Perhaps the most interesting part of his article though was from his time spent with Mike Holmgren. Brooks played for Holmgren when he was the head coach of the Packers and then scouted for him later on when he was coaching the Seahawks:
“One thing I learned from Mike Holmgren -- as a player (on the Packers) and as a scout (on the Seahawks) -- is the importance of building the passing game around B and B+ playmakers. This is something he constantly talked about, in terms of salary cap allocation. And when it came to actual skill sets, Holmgren preferred disciplined route runners and dynamic catch-and-run specialists (former punt returners) on the perimeter, instead of explosive athletes with unpolished games. As a Super Bowl-winning head coach and offensive coordinator, Holmgren understood how an elite quarterback and rock-solid scheme could elevate pass catchers, which is why he didn’t value No. 1 receivers like some coaches and executives do. Don’t believe me? Just look at how three-time NFL MVP Brett Favre helped Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Mark Chmura and others become household names in the Packers’ system. Holmgren also guided the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL with Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius and Darrell Jackson as Matt Hasselbeck’s top three receivers.”
Everything the Cowboys have done this offseason would suggest they are adopting that same mentality. The part that really hits home are those words like “disciplined route runner and dynamic catch-and-run specialists”. It’s why they brought in a known teacher like Sanjay Lal, who is already much different than Cowboys receivers’ coaches in recent memory, as Brandon George writes:
Lal cares about the finer details of routes, from how to line up in a proper stance, to finding the right depth, to maximizing leverage, to camouflaging a forthcoming break, and so on.
“It’s choreography,” Lal said of route running. “If you have a free-access look, you can’t be thinking about yards and depth. This has to be muscle memory. We’re working our footwork, our angles, how far our feet spread apart at the top of a break, where our shoulders are, where our eyes are pointed, and you’ve got to coach the minutia or it doesn’t happen.
Lal said he evaluated every Cowboys receiver from 2017 upon his hiring, breaking down strengths and weaknesses, and then went to work.
”My goal, I take pride in, ‘They say he can’t run this route,’ “ Lal said. “Well, that’s not going to be the case anymore. We’re going to coach it, and he’s going to be able to run the comeback even though they said he can’t.”
Lal said he doesn’t want to box in any receiver.
Going back to what Brooks said about Mike Holmgren, I checked the actual stats of his best season with the Packers (1996 Super Bowl win) and Seahawks (2005 Super Bowl loss).
To further elaborate on Brooks’ point about Holmgren, when he won Super Bowl XXXI, he had the great Brett Favre, but his leading receiver was Antonio Freeman (56 rec., 933 yards, 9 TD’s), a second-year player that was the Packers third-round pick in 1995. Freeman would go on to have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with help from Favre. The same could be said for Holmgren’s 2005 Seahawks that made it all the way to the Super Bowl. With Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, the leading receiver, as Brooks mentioned, was Bobby Engram (67 rec., 778 yards, three TD’s), a 32-year old sub-six foot receiver the Bears had let walk after five seasons.
The overarching theme is clearly the belief in your quarterback. The Cowboys believe that they have an elite quarterback in the making with Dak Prescott. Every decision they have made all points back to tailoring the perfect offense just for him. We’re not saying that Dak is on the level of a Hall of Famer like Brett Favre but he’s shown enough qualities to suggest he can be an elite quarterback.
So, the “money” question really doesn't revolve around the receivers at all - it’s simply about whether Dak Prescott can do what the best of the best can, and utilize the talent around him to the fullest?