The Cowboys certainly moved quickly, bringing in veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton for a workout Monday morning and inking him to a deal by that afternoon. The timing is intriguing, too, and not just because Dallas walked away from a thorough flirtation with the high profile Odell Beckham Jr. without a deal.
The timing on this one is also intriguing because it came just one day - almost exactly 24 hours, actually - after the Cowboys offense struggled in a narrow win over the lowly Texans. That game featured James Washington’s Cowboys debut as well, though Washington - who was on a pitch count - couldn’t haul in his lone target of the game.
The Cowboys have had interest in upgrading their receiver corps for some time now, coming close to trades for Houston’s Brandin Cooks and Denver’s Jerry Jeudy at the trade deadline before turning their attention to Beckham. But until this week’s game, the offense had been performing at such a high level that some questioned if Dallas even needed such an upgrade.
Against the Texans, though, a glaring weakness in the Cowboys’ offense was exposed. For much of the season (that he’s played), Dak Prescott has been crushing teams over the middle of the field on short and intermediate passes. In fact, 47.8% of Prescott’s passes this year have come between the numbers of the field and been under 20 yards down the field.
Prescott has completed 73.3% of those attempts and is averaging an 89.4 passer rating. However, when throwing outside the numbers in either direction on passes more than 10 yards down the field, Prescott is completing just 46.3% of his passes and averaging an 83.5 passer rating. Additionally, seven of his nine interceptions this year have come on these types of throws.
Houston seemingly understood this and primarily sat in zone coverage on Sunday, clogging up the throwing lanes on those intermediate middle-of-field throws Prescott likes so much. They dared him to beat them deep down the field and, until the final drive of the game, Prescott refused to challenge them. Part of that has to do with the lack of a true vertical threat that can take the top off defenses, and that’s where Hilton comes in.
Hilton was drafted to the Colts in 2012, part of the same draft class that netted them Andrew Luck. Coming out of FIU, Hilton wasn’t a fully developed prospect just yet but he did excel on the deep passes. As a rookie, Hilton averaged 17.2 yards per reception and emerged as a reliable deep threat for Luck.
The next year, Hilton cemented himself as a top target in the Colts’ offense and it served as the first of what would be five 1,000+ yard seasons over the next six years. While Hilton grew into an all-around threat, his deep ball remained a calling card. In 2018, Hilton’s last season with Luck throwing him the ball, he averaged 10.7 yards before catch per reception (YBC/R) and had an average depth of target (ADOT) of 11.2 yards.
Hilton actually increased those numbers once Luck left, although his overall production declined as instability at quarterback became the norm in Indianapolis. Hilton had an ADOT of over 12 yards in each of his last two seasons while averaging 10.1 YBC/R in 2020 and 11.3 YBC/R in 2021.
Compare those numbers to where the Cowboys currently sit. Noah Brown leads the team in YBC/R at 11.2, just a hair under Hilton’s total last year. Michael Gallup - who has been the team’s only reliable deep threat over the years, but is still progressing from his ACL tear a year ago - leads the team in ADOT with 11.7 yards among receivers with at least 10 targets. Hilton posted better numbers in both categories last year at age 32.
A major factor in Hilton’s deep threat prowess during his days with the Colts was his pure speed. Hilton ran a 4.34 second 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Combine, the fifth fastest of any position group that year. By contrast, the receiver with the fastest 40 time on the Cowboys at the moment is rookie Jalen Tolbert. Even then, Tolbert only ran a 4.49 40-yard dash.
Of course, it remains to be seen what Hilton still has left in the tank. He turned 33 just last month, hasn’t hit 800 receiving yards in any of his last three seasons, and comes to the Cowboys having been out of football work since the conclusion of the regular season last year. It’s unrealistic to expect him to return to his former self, but Hilton brings experience and veteran leadership to a very young receiver room.
Similarly to Beckham, Hilton also represents a known name. Opposing defenses will have to respect Hilton when he’s on the field even if he’s not the same player he once was. Hilton running a deep route offers a more credible threat than anyone the Cowboys currently have just based on name recognition alone. And after a game in which that very fact seemed to be exploited by the opponent, Hilton’s addition gives the Cowboys just what they needed as they make a playoff push.