When the Dallas Cowboys released Dez Bryant this past offseason, then didn’t sign a “name” receiver to replace him, instead “only” signing Allen Hurns (plus Deonte Thompson), there was much condemnation from the chattering class. When the Cowboys didn’t draft a receiver until the third round in the 2018 draft, it was deemed a disaster by some. Now, all we hear is the Cowboys receiving group is awful, the front-office gave Dak Prescott no one to work with, teams are just going to load up against the run and shut down the offense.
It’s funny, many of these same critics were spending their time previously saying Bryant wasn’t the same receiver anymore, that the Cowboys were forcing him the ball, that his drops and attitude were hurting the team. Now that he is gone, they speak like he was the only one doing anything for the Cowboys in the passing game. But Dez is gone, and a new receiving corps is in place. Let’s discuss.
Besides switching up the receiver personnel, the Cowboys also got a new receivers coach in Sanjay Lal. One thing Lal brought to the Cowboys was an emphasis on technique. Just look what veteran Cole Beasley had to say about Lal earlier this summer.
Cole Beasley a big fan of new Cowboys WR coach Sanjay Lal: It feels like the first time we’re actually being taught how to run routes instead of just naturally doing— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) June 12, 2018
Beasley: When you get to NFL and you’re supposed to know, stuff is assumed. Lal narrows down step by step, doesn't assume anything from basics. Beasley working to use speed for out routes too now, not just under https://t.co/qJ60RQxnmL— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) June 12, 2018
Lal is teaching everything, he is breaking down technique to the smallest detail. In another video Beasley noted that Lal has terminology for almost every step in a route. Much like players in the secondary noted how things have changed under Kris Richard and his emphasis on technique in jamming receivers at the start of the route, Lal leaves nothing to chance, either. Technique is required in his world.
So technique became a buzzword. Out of that comes a second buzzword of the Cowboys receiver renovation - separation. If you went back and watched film of the Cowboys receivers in 2017, you would see what Dak Prescott saw much of the time, guys who are covered. Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams aren’t exactly known as route-runners. They rely more on physical gifts. Jason Witten was a technician, but age was starting to catch up to him. Among the Cowboys main targets, only Cole Beasely was thought of as a guy who could create separation routinely, that is until 2017 when defenses put bracket coverage on him and the Cowboys failed to counter that.
So this offseason, the Cowboys are working on getting receiver separation for Prescott to allow him to do what he does best - protect the ball, run through his progressions and deliver an accurate pass. They are becoming more varied in their pre-snap sets, allowing personnel to move around more and line up in different positions. This should help keep the defense off-balance.
Once the ball is snapped, though, it’s up to the receivers to make it happen. They need to transfer the techniques they’ve learned, and their natural feel for route-running, into action. Two guys, battle-tested vets, seem to be exemplifying all of this in training camp.
Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns get it.
Watch this clip of Beasley.
All you high school receivers out there. Watch Cole Beasley sink his hips at the top of this route. Try to emulate that. Working on Jordan Lewis pic.twitter.com/z9be1kYGii— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) July 30, 2018
Beasley heads straight up field and then gives his first move to the outside, keeping Jourdan Lewis on the inside. He knows it’s an out-breaking pattern so his first job is accomplished. Then he gives Lewis a stop-and-start fake move in the middle of the route, throwing Lewis off-balance and forcing him to recover. By the time Lewis recovers, Beasley is sinking his hips (as noted by Laufenberg above) and making a hard plant with his foot for his out cut. Finally he cuts back towards the quarterback instead of straight out to the sideline, keeping Lewis from any chance of undercutting the route. This is unbelievable technique from Beasley (BTW, kudos to Lewis, who almost manages to stay with Beasley on this, that is some fine work from a defender).
Here’s more good work from Beasley.
Cole Beasley leaves Chidobe Awuzie behind in 1-on-1 drills: pic.twitter.com/onbapvwZ6U— Brandon George (@DMN_George) July 29, 2018
Beasley again uses his hips and plant foot at the cut point of the route to lose a defender. In this case, he drops Chidobe Awuzie off at the bus stop and continues on.
Allen Hurns is also using his skills in camp, too.
WR Allen Hurns vs. CB Donovan Olumba: pic.twitter.com/w8dpcMmTPz— Brandon George (@DMN_George) July 29, 2018
Hurns does a nice job of pushing his defender deep, forcing him to respect the possibility that he will continue the route downfield. At the top of his route, Hurns gives a slight fake for an inside cut, settles his body down and gives hard cut to the outside, freeing himself up for an easy pitch and catch.
In this next clip, is a subtle movement that makes all the difference.
As Hurns starts his crossing route, he notices that linebacker Jaylon Smith drops into coverage, essentially into his path. Instead of staying at that depth, Hurns adjusts slightly to get deeper and create a little separation with Smith allowing him to continue to run free. Once he gets around Smith he heads to his spot and provides and open target for Prescott.
Obviously these are just a handful of plays from training camp, but they are instructive. The Cowboys are not going to rely on athleticism and gunslinging as they have in the past. Tony Romo was a different kind of quarterback than Dak Prescott, and the Cowboys are wise to realize this and start making adjustments. Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan, however slowly, are finally making some adjustments as to how this offense will work, specifically in the passing game. So far, there is hope that it is working.