There are plenty of factors in the Dallas Cowboys' recent losses. Some, such as the absences of Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee, are painfully obvious. One that may not be so easily evident is the lack of firepower in the Cowboys' receiver and tight end groups.
This past offseason, Dallas chose to bring the same crew back from last year's promising 13-3 results. They already had Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley under contract. Terrance Williams was re-signed to a modest four-year, $17 million deal. They even brought Brice Butler back on a minimal one-year contract.
Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively, of April's draft. Those would prove to be the only moves that Dallas made to infuse some new talent at receiver.
At tight end, Dallas relied on the returns of James Hanna and Geoff Swaim from season-ending injuries to fill out the depth chart. They also had hopes for second-year project Rico Gathers, who'd spent 2016 on the practice squad.
So how are these guys doing so far this year?
Let's start at the top. It has been a rough season for Desmond Demond Bryant, who despite playing in all 10 games so far is on pace to be below 1,000 yards and less than 10 touchdowns. These are hardly the numbers you want from a guy making franchise WR money.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. "Dez doesn't get throw the ball enough! Of course his numbers are down!"
According to ESPN, Dez Bryant is tied for fourth in the NFL in targets this year. He has been thrown at 98 times, the same as Larry Fitzgerald. Only DeAndre Hopkins (117), Antonio Brown (114), and Jarvis Landry (107) have been credited with more targets so far this year.
Of the top-ten receivers in targets this year, WR or TE, Dez has the fewest catches and yards and the second-worst average for yards on his receptions. His longest single play this season was for 36 yards, which is the second shortest among the top ten.
Bottom line; Dez Bryant has been the least efficient franchise receiver in the NFL so far this year. The question for the Cowboys to figure out is how much of that is on Dez and how much of that is on his quarterback.
Dak Prescott doesn't like to lob it up or throw into tight spaces, which is where Dez Bryant has made his money over his career. When Dak does try these throws, they looked forced and uncomfortable and have led to some turnovers. There is a clear compatibility issue between Bryant and Prescott.
That said, Dez isn't the same guy who used to make plays on those tough throws. He is an old 29, with extra loss of athleticism from his physical style of play. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, because we've only been saying it since he entered the league in 2010. The way Bryant punishes cornerbacks, which Chris Collinsworth highlighted on Sunday, comes with a price. His own body has also suffered in these exchanges.
This is one of those debates where both things can be true at the same time. Dak doesn't give Dez the best opportunity to succeed, but Dez isn't as capable of success as he used to be. And because both things are true, it gives defenses even more freedom as they don't have to be as concerned about Dez Bryant as they used to be.
Naturally, the trickle-down effect of Dez becoming less threatening hurts the rest of the receivers. However. that's not their only problem this season.
Speaking of older guys... Jason Witten.
It pains me to talk of Jason as some fossil given that he was born just six days before I was. However, while we're still both prime for watching Parks & Rec reruns and playing Cards Against Humanity, 35 is a tough age to be playing tight end in the NFL.
When we're winning, Witten's inability to get yards after the catch is something we can joke about. I've more than once compared him to your uncle playing touch or flag at the family picnic. But Jason's decreasing threat level on the field is now a real issue for the Cowboys offense.
Witten is still such a fabulous route-runner that he can get open to make the catch. But that is where his plays end, and defenses are able to scheme for that accordingly. A safety or linebacker only has to be in the vicinity and they can close and make the tackle. There's no threat of Jason going over the top, or beating his man to the edge and turning up field.
Like with Dez, there is less general fear factor now with Jason Witten on the field. Are you starting to see the cumulative effect that has on opposing defenses, and thus on the Cowboys' ability to execute?
Nobody has taken a bigger hit to their production this year than Cole Beasley. Last year's receiving leader has just 26 for 195 yards after 10 games. Cole has found the endzone four times, but that is the only saving grace to an otherwise low year.
While some of this is due to more throws going to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams than in 2016, there is also a major drop in efficiency. Last year, Prescott and Beasley connected on 77% of the throws that went Cole's way. So far in 2017, that number has plummeted to 59%.
Why is it harder for Beasley to get open? Last year's surge has led to increased attention from opponents. Beasley is seeing more coverage than he used to, sometimes even double-teams from a corner and safety..
Consider that for a minute. Cole Beasley is getting double-teamed. Beasley; not Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys should be making defenses pay for that. Dez Bryant should be making them pay. The fact that it's not happening goes back to our original premise; Bryant is no longer able to take over a game and make life easier for his teammates. The fact that a defense would rather double-team Beasley than Dez speaks volumes about how he's now perceived.
Dallas used to make defenses pick their poison. For that to work, the poisons have to actually kill you.
This isn't to say that Dak Prescott is totally absolved. Not even close. He has to work on throwing his receivers open with better ball placement. Dak also has to be more willing to take chances, and then figuring out the right times and situations to do it.
Sounds like Tony Romo in his first few years, doesn't it?
Still, Romo rarely lacked a true top receiver to help make the offense work. From Terrell Owens to Miles Austin to a younger Dez Bryant, Tony had that guy who commanded respect at all times. He also had a younger Jason Witten putting together a Hall-of-Fame career.
Obviously, there's nothing Dallas can do about it now. They have who they have for 2017. But clearly, even with Ezekiel Elliott out of Roger Goodell's doghouse of horrors next season, the Cowboys have to address the WR and TE positions. They have to give Prescott more to work with in case Elliott were to be lost again for any reason, or even just if they came across a rushing defense who didn't allow Zeke to produce.
Back in July, I wrote about the possibility of Dez Bryant being released after 2017. At a certain point, Dallas is going to have to ask itself what it's getting for that $16 million cap hit each season.
As for Witten, we'll see if Jason has another year in him. If he doesn't retire, the Cowboys have to strongly consider bringing in someone to take over as the number-one or who can at least be more of a threat on passing downs. You have to put some fear back into your opponents. People respect the hell out of everything Jason Witten's done in his career, but they no longer fear what he might still do.
Dallas has to restore the pick-your-poison offense, and to do that they have to add more lethal options next offseason. It just might be their biggest need, even more than anything on defense, for 2018.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
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