Last season, Cole Beasley led the Dallas Cowboys in receiving. In 2017 he is a distant fourth in catches and on pace to have less than half of his overall production from 2016. Why has Beasley's role changed this year, and does it mean anything about his future with the Cowboys?
In 16 games last season, Beasley had 75 catches for 833 yards and five touchdowns. Through the first eight games of 2017, Cole has just 22 catches for 165 yards. He does have four touchdowns, so no damage to that side of his game. But clearly, the other two production areas are way down.
Not only are the total catches and yards down but so are the efficiency measures. Last year, Beasley's production came on 98 targets. That means 77% of the passes thrown his way were completions. He averaged 11.1 yards per reception.
In 2017, Beasley is only getting catches on 59% of his 37 targets. His average per-catch has dropped to just 7.5 yards. So not only is Cole getting the ball less, but it's been less effective for the Cowboys offense when he does get it.
To be clear, none of this is a criticism of Cole Beasley. These stats are pure factual data, so what we're looking at is why this change has occurred.
There's a little bit of “chicken and the egg” to this conversation. The decline in efficiency may be why we've seen fewer balls coming Beasley's way. On the other hand, maybe he's not getting the ball enough to put up better numbers. Much like some running backs need a certain amount of carries to find rhythm and be effective, other offensive players need touches to get into the flow of a game.
One thing that isn't the issue is the overall production from the Cowboys' passing game. Dak Prescott is on pace for about the same yardage and slightly more completions than last season. The same number of receptions, if not a little more, are out there for the receivers.
Let's look at those other receivers. Dez Bryant's role has increased as he's healthier and had his first full offseason with Dak Prescott at QB. He already has 38 catches after just 50 all of last season. The same uptick is seen in Terrance Williams; already with 30 catches after just 44 in all of 2016.
One reason for this is that Beasley established his threat level last year and defenses have adjusted. He is seeing some double teams and, at the least, more attention than he used to. Teams are willing to force Prescott to look elsewhere by taking away such a reliable target as Beasley, who not only highly efficient last year but has some proved ability to break off a big play when he gets the ball in space.
Another reason for this shift in targets from Beasley to the wideouts is the development of Dak Prescott. Last year we called Beasley another “security blanket” for Prescott, and we saw many times that Cole got the ball on those clutch 3rd-down plays that Tony Romo used to always send Jason Witten's way. For Prescott last year, Beasley's ability to get open in short yardage was a welcome sight as he tried to safely manage the game.
Now Dak Prescott is trying to be more aggressive, which so far hasn't been bad for the Cowboys offense. He already has 16 touchdowns this season compared to just 23 all of last year. Dallas' points-per-game is up from about 26 to 28 from last year, and the passing offense is ranked 17th instead of 23rd.
What's more, increased utilization of big-play threats has opened up more opportunities for Dak to pick up yards with his feet. He already 195 rushing yards, averaging 7.5 yards-per-carry, over just 282 yards and a 4.9 average in 2016. Because teams have to respect Dez and Terrance more, there's less clutter closer to the line of scrimmage and Prescott has openings.
One guy that isn't a factor is rookie Ryan Switzer, who many look at as a Beasley clone and eventual replacement. Switzer has barely been seen on offense, having just two catches on as many targets. One of those plays came when Cole Beasley left the Washington game with a concussion.
Switzer isn't hurting Cole's role now, but what about next year? Does his presence, and the decreasing use of Beasley in the offense, mean trouble for Cole's job security in 2018?
2018 will be the final year of Beasley's contract. He will count $4.25 million against the salary cap with only $1 million in dead money if released. Dallas can create $3.25 million in cap space by releasing him in the offseason.
The Cowboys have some major financial concerns ahead. They want to get Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin re-signed and also have breakout star DeMarcus Lawrence on an expiring contract. They will likely be giving David Irving the first-round tender for Restricted Free Agents, which should be about $4 million.
Cutting Cole Beasley after 2017 isn't something any of us want to think about, but it may be a cold reality of the Cowboys salary cap situation. Given where he is right now in the offensive scheme, and the presence of Ryan Switzer behind him, it's a possibility that can't be ignored.