For years, the Dallas Cowboys ran a variation of the Air Coryell offensive scheme meshed with timing elements in the passing game. Jason Garrett learned it under the tutelage of Norv Turner and others while watching Troy Aikman run it to perfection. Up through the 2018 season with Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator, the Cowboys were still running variations of that scheme. In 2019, when Kellen Moore was promoted to offensive coordinator, the Cowboys offense started to change some with more pre-snap motion, the incorporation of bunch formations and rub routes, and various other updates to the system.
Now Mike McCarthy comes along. He brings with him the West Coast offense, the other major scheme in the NFL. Moore is still the offensive coordinator, but there will undoubtedly be some influence from McCarthy on the offense the Cowboys run. One area this could affect is the kind of receivers the Cowboys gravitate toward.
Before we go too far down this path, we should recognize that any talented receiver can prosper in either scheme. Sometimes we get caught up in trying to classify players in this scheme or that scheme when in reality they cross over much more than a simple categorization would seem to allow.
In West Coast influenced offenses, receivers who are precision route runners that are quick and can make things happen after the catch are the ideal. Vertical speed and size are not the top characteristics, although having a receiver with size who is also very quick and agile would be ideal, but those players are rare. We know in the past the Cowboys preferred big receivers who could make plays down field using their physical abilites. Our old friend rabblerousr broke this down in an article a few years ago:
A brief perusal of this list reveals that all of the likely lads are at least 6’1” and about 200 pounds, with preference given to guys who are 6’2” and 205 or more pounds. The Cowboys value big receivers, particularly on the outside, where WRs need to be physical enough to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage; be large enough to screen off defensive backs on comeback routes; and have the length and heft to make contested catches and secure jump balls.
They may now be looking for guys who are quick and can make plays with the ball in their hands, regardless of size. Straight-line speed would take a backseat to quickness and agility, along with route-running.
NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah brings this point up in a recent discussion of the best draft prospects that would fit with specific NFL teams. For Dallas, he still likes Xavier McKinney in the first round, but then moves on to receivers after that.
Alabama S Xavier McKinney is the top safety in the draft and would be a strong addition to the Cowboys with the No. 17 selection. “He’s a great communicator,” Jeremiah said. “... He’s one of the draft’s safest players and would be an unbelievably good fit in Dallas.” In subsequent rounds, watch for Dallas to address the receiver position, particularly if the Cowboys can’t hang onto free agent WR Amari Cooper. Dallas values run-after-catch ability in wide receivers, something either Florida’s Van Jefferson or Ohio State’s K.J. Hill could provide. “(Jefferson’s) a really polished route runner with strong hands,” Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah matter-of-factly drops this line in his discussion: Dallas values run-after-catch ability in wide receivers. Anybody who has followed the Cowboys knows that this wasn’t always the case. Size with players like Dez Bryant who could muscle defenders and fight for catches seemed to be the preferred mold.
Van Jefferson, a player Jeremiah links to the Cowboys as a good fit, is tall (6’ 2”) but is thin and excels with the ball in his hands. Our own Cole Patterson broke down his game earlier and noted his route running and after the catch abilities.
After the catch: Another aspect of Jefferson’s game that is attractive is his ability to hurt defenses after the catch. While not the dangerous prospect that Henry Ruggs is, Jefferson has the ability to get up field and get yards after securing the catch:
Van Jefferson immediately makes Virginia pay for the turnover and takes the ball 53 yards into Cavalier territory pic.twitter.com/TVahVzkto0— libgator (@lib_gator) December 31, 2019
It’s probably not a good idea to run too far with this idea of a changing prototype for Cowboys receivers, after all a good receiver is a good receiver. But, when it comes to the draft, considering smaller receivers who are elite with the ball in their hands isn’t a bad idea now that the Cowboys will certainly have elements of the West Coast offense in their scheme.
In fact, wide receiver may be just one of the positions where the new coaching regime will look towards a slightly different prototype than what we’ve become used to under Garrett. There’s already been speculation about moving on from the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Rod Marinelli preferred in favor of bigger bodies on the defensive line, and Jourdan Lewis may already have broken the mold of the “6-foot plus” corner the Cowboys seemed to prefer over past years.