We continue our conversation with Football Outsiders about the state of the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 (you can see the first installment here, second installment here). The FO Almanac is an awesome resource for any football fan. Not only can you learn about the Cowboys, but all the other teams in the NFL and even some college stuff. Go ahead and pick up a copy if you’re so inclined.
For today's topic, we wondered what they thought of the receivers without Dez Bryant.
Blogging The Boys: The Cowboys receiving corps has been the subject of derision by many since they released Dez Bryant. How do you see them? Was Dez Bryant so good that releasing him means Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns and company can’t get the job done?
Football Outsiders: Actually, it’s exactly the opposite: Bryant hasn’t been good for several years, and getting rid of him could well be addition by subtraction. The Cowboys’ passing attack was much better last year when throwing to other players than Bryant. Some readers have asked why we’re confident about Dallas in 2018 when their wide receivers are so bad on paper. Well, Dez and the other receivers weren’t very good in 2016, and the team still went 13-3. Now, we’re not in love with the players left behind in Dallas either, or the new faces in town. Allen Hurns is the Cowboys’ top wideout by default, but he was never more than a second or third receiver in Jacksonville. Deonte Thompson is on his fourth team in three years, and it says a lot that none of the Ravens, Bears, and Bills wanted to keep him. Michael Gallup was the ninth wide receiver drafted for a reason. And Tavon Austin has literally been the very worst wide receiver in our database, which goes back to 1986. For all his speed, he’s not actually good at getting open, or gaining yards after the catch, and certainly not at catching footballs.
Let’s try and see what we have here. Football Outsiders hints at what has been a contradiction that we’ve pointed out a few times here. Before Dez Bryant's release, all you heard from analysts was that his game had deteriorated, his production was down and that age and injury had caught up to him. Once the Cowboys released him, all you heard was that he was so good, he was a #1 receiver and the Cowboys wouldn’t be able to make up for his production. The truth is probably more in the middle.
One aspect that can’t be denied is that in 2016, when Dez was not the dominant receiver on the team and the targets were spread more evenly (98 Cole Beasley, 96 Bryant, 95 Jason Witten), the Cowboys were a much better team and the offense was much more efficient. In 2017, Bryant got the lion’s share of targets (132 Bryant, 87 Witten, 78 Terrance Williams) and the offense wasn’t as good although there was also the Ezekiel Elliott suspension and Tyron Smith injury. Still, Prescott seems to function better when he spreads the ball around and doesn’t worry about feeding Bryant. This would be the “addition by subtraction” that FO references.
Given all that, FO pretty much hammers the rest of the receivers. Of course, we’ve heard this all offseason. Outside of Cowboys World, you won’t find many who believe that the wide receiver corps can be a positive effect on the offense. It’s hard to sell people on the idea that this group will create the kind of separation needed with precise route-running that is tailored to Prescott’s strengths under the tutelage of new receiver's coach Sanjay Lal. That’s a leap outsiders, and some with the Cowboys fanbase, won’t make until it’s proven on the field. That’s fair enough.
You have to wonder, though, if FO is underselling the abilities of Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup. Hurns is a productive receiver when he’s healthy. Granted, he’s had injury issues but if he can manage a healthy season, his production should be a boost. And while FO says Gallup was the ninth receiver taken for a reason, anybody watching the rookie in camp and in the preseason games sees he has the talent to do some things in this league.
That brings us to poor Tavon Austin. FO really doesn’t like his game at all. In fairness, his other team’s previous to the Cowboys were never able to develop his game to match his unique physical gifts. But to learn he is the worst wide receiver in their database is still kind of shocking. We’ve seen good things in training camp so far, and a little in the first preseason game, but is it fool’s gold? Can Sanjay Lal really transform his game and make him a viable receiver. Again, we’re not going to know until the actual games begin.