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Cowboys Receiving Threats Are No Longer Threatening

Jess Haynie

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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?

Dez Bryant

WR Dez Bryant

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.

What The Dallas Cowboys Offense Must Prove On Monday Night 1

Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant and QB Dak Prescott

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.

Jason Witten

TE Jason Witten

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?

Cole Beasley

WR Cole Beasley

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.

Cowboys Headlines - The Dak Prescott Hype: Why It's Completely Okay To Buy In

QB Dak Prescott

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.


Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Roster Projection: Preseason Week 3

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Need More From Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton 1

Another preseason game has come and gone, and we're gathering further information to help put together the Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster for 2019. How did the events of the last week help to shape our last projection?

Let's dive right in. You can see last week's projection here.

Quarterback (2)

Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush

Changes: Removed Mike White

With Rush having clearly won the backup job already, the question now becomes if White will make the roster at all. As I wrote about yesterday, Dallas may be ready to go back to their past strategy of keeping only two quarterbacks and freeing up a roster spot for another position.

It would be one thing if White was getting outplayed by Rush and still showing some signs of future potential. But the second-year QB hasn't looked good at all, and Dallas has little reason now to worry about losing him if White is placed on the practice squad.

With so many other needs throughout the team, as we'll get into throughout this article, that roster spot just appears to have better uses now than hanging on to Mike White. Maybe his play in the next few weeks will change that, but right now it's not promising.

Film Review: Tony Pollard Solid in Preseason Debut vs 49ers 4

Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard

Running Back (4)

Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Alfred Morris,
Jamize Olawale (FB)

Changes: None

Assuming his holdout ends before September 8th, Elliott will be the starting running back. Also just as certain now is that Pollard will be an exciting backup and role-player in the offense, and that Olawale is returning at fullback.

The only variable now is at that third and final RB spot; who emerges from the group of Alfred Morris, Darius Jackson, Jordan Chunn, and Mike Weber?

I went into more detail about this yesterday, but I will summarize that it's probably going to come down to special teams. If any of these guys can earn their way onto the coverage units, that will likely secure them a spot on the 53.

That said, I'm deferring to the veteran Morris for now. With none of his younger competition standing out, Alfred's experience and proven ability may be enough. The coaches have already praised what a great fit he is in the system.

Receiver (6)

Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb,
Noah Brown, Tavon Austin, Cedrick Wilson

Changes: None

I had a very hard time leaving Devin Smith off the roster. While he has shined lately, he's also 27 and doesn't offer the same future value as Wilson. I think it will take more for Devin to force his way in.

I know that Noah Brown hasn't played in a preseason game yet but his value as a blocker can't be underestimated. He allows the team to keep just three tight ends and has his own upside as a receiver. I don't think the Cowboys are going to dump him for a shiny new toy given what he's already proven in real games.

If the Cowboys want to hang on to more of these young guys then I still think Tavon Austin's job isn't secure. If some combination of Tony Pollard, Jourdan Lewis, and Cedrick Wilson can handle the kick/punt return duties then Austin is just another backup receiver. He has skill, but maybe not enough value to lose a younger prospect.

Jason Witten

Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten

Tight End (3)

Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz

Changes: None

It was fun to see Witten back on the field Saturday night. And he back to his usual business, catching a 3rd-down pass to move the chains and set up the team's touchdown on the opening drive.

There really isn't much to say about the TE position. This this trio is locked in and it doesn't seem that Marcus Lucas or Codey McElroy have much chance of making the team based on the numbers.

The best chance that they have is if Dallas does part with Noah Brown at WR, which could mean needing one more TE for blocking purposes.

Offensive Tackle (3)

Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming

Changes: None

Another easy position to project; the only question is if Tyron Smith's back issues prompt the team to keep an extra tackle. But with Guard Connor Williams also able to play tackle, Dallas may go ahead and lean on that versatility.

Guard/Center (5)

Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Joe Looney, Connor McGovern

Changes: None

Again, versatility is the key. It allows Dallas to only keep just eight offensive linemen and free up needed spots at WR and on defense.

Xavier Su'a-Filo is the toughest guy to lose, and perhaps he sticks around if there any health issues that creep up between now and final cuts. We also haven't seen much of Connor McGovern's work yet to know if he can really contribute this year or needs this rookie season for development.


Jackson, Jelks are Sleepers to Keep an eye on

Dallas Cowboys DE Joe Jackson

Defensive End (7)

DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton,
Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks

Changes: Added Jelks

This going to be an awful year to cut defensive linemen; the talent is deep and there just aren't enough spots to go around.

As I've said all offseason, it's so hard to know what the team will do with Crawford. He's got the worst contract but the team can suffer his cap hit this year, then release him in 2020 for great savings and less dead money. But he's still got starting talent and the ability to play all over the line; tough guy to lose.

I have the Cowboys going long here with seven DEs because, while technically listed here, Crawford, Taco, and Hyder all have the size to play inside as well. I also think Dallas will use the two weeks of Robert Quinn's suspension to evaluate these guys further and decide who to cut when he returns.

While just a 7th-round pick, Jalen Jelks has the physical traits you'd love to develop. I think Dallas may also consider using him as a strong-side linebacker, which we'll get to in a minute. However, he is probably the guy who gets cut once Quinn comes back in Week 3.

Defensive Tackle (4)

Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill,
Christian Covington

Changes: None

As good as prospects like Daniel Ross, Daniel Wise, and Ricky Walker have looked at times, it's just a  bad year for talented bubble guys on the Dallas defensive line. At least one of them will be on the practice squad.

As was already mentioned, Dallas can afford to keep just these four pure tackles because they have the versatility of players like Crawford and Hyder at DE.

Linebacker (6)

Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee
Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Justin Phillips

Changes: Added Phillips, Removed Chris Covington

Justin Phillips has played his way onto the roster with two great preseason games. He's on the small size but has a big presence; any NFL team can work with that.

Sean Lee may be an injury risk at SAM and not have much depth behind him for that job, but Dallas could easily use Jaylon Smith on that side if needed and then bring in Joe Thomas as the MIKE or WILL. This is also where I think Jalen Jelks could find some additional value if he can convert to a strong-side LB.

Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones' Hot Streak

Dallas Cowboys CB Byron Jones

Cornerback (6)

Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown,
Jourdan Lewis, C.J. Goodwin, Michael Jackson (R)

Changes: Added Goodwin

With talk that Byron Jones may not be ready for the regular season opener, I think Dallas definitely goes long here to cover their bases for Week One.

As much as I like Donovan Olumba as a cornerback, veteran C.J. Goodwin is a special teams ace and should make the team on that basis. The tough decision will come down to keeping 5th-round rookie Michael Jackson over Olumba; trusting your scouting process over the immediate production.

For now I'm still going with the rookie, thinking that Dallas will want to give him at least one year to work on his body and make the difficult transition to the NFL. But we've seen 5th-round picks get cut around here before; Jackson still has to earn his spot.

Safety (4)

Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath, Darian Thompson,
Donovan Wilson

Changes: Removed George Iloka

I will probably keep changing the safety picks around through the end of preseason. All we can really say for sure right now is that Xavier Woods is really good; the rest is up in the air.

Jeff Heath is still the other starter until someone shows they can take it from him, and so far nobody has. In fact, George Iloka has done so little that now I don't think he makes the roster.

Dallas could re-sign Iloka after Week One to avoid his having a guaranteed salary as a veteran, but either way I don't think he's here after final cuts.

Special Teams (3)

Brett Maher, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur

Changes: None

The great kicker conundrum continues. Maher remains shaky and there's no sign yet that Dallas is going to consider another option. We just have to keep putting his name here until we have a reason not to.

Kasey Redfern has been pushing Chris Jones at punter, but Dallas may not want to push the $1 million in dead money to the 2020 cap by cutting their veteran. Unless Redfern is significantly superior, I think the Cowboys may just stick with Jones for one more season.


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Game Notes

The Brady Report: Tony Pollard, Devin Smith Steal The Show On Offense

Kevin Brady

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The Brady Report: Tony Pollard, Devin Smith Steal The Show On Offense

The Dallas Cowboys earned their first win of the 2019 preseason on Saturday night, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 14-10 in Hawaii.

Despite the low scoring affair, there were certainly standout performances from both offensive and defensive players for Dallas. Some who are looking to earn a roster spot, and others who are rather solidified in their place with the team.


Let's get into some of my game notes from the Cowboys preseason victory.

  • Tony Pollard. I mean, I've said enough right? The rookie running back was awesome in his one drive of action Saturday night, rushing 5 times for 42 yards and a touchdown on the team's opening possession. Pollard was decisive, patient, and comfortable in the zone blocking scheme, and seemed to know exactly where and how to run on each rep. Pollard is looking like a complete back, rather than just a receiving threat for the Cowboys offense going forward.
  • While undrafted free agents Jon'Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton have garnered much of the attention, it was Devin Smith who impressed the most out of all the Cowboys' down-roster receivers this week. He caught 3 balls for just 24 yards, but had a fantastic touchdown grab from Cooper Rush in the third quarter.
  • Speaking of Cooper Rush, he's your backup quarterback for the 2019 season. The coaching staff gave Mike White a chance to work with the 2's this week, allowing him equal ground for competition with Rush. But even with this opportunity, Mike White did not play well whatsoever. He's indecisive in the pocket, abandons clean protection, runs into pressure, and just looks kind of lost out there. Hopefully White can improve, but Rush is certainly deserving of the QB2 spot going forward.
  • While Rush solidified his position as the QB2, QB1 Dak Prescott led another impressive drive on Saturday night. Prescott has command in the pocket and of the entire offense, and he orchestrated an excellent touchdown drive in his own possession this week. Prescott went 5/5 for 64 yards, but the highlight of the game for Prescott was his third and seven completion for 31 of those yards to Michael Gallup. He and Gallup seem to be connecting this preseason, and if that's going to happen regularly, look out.
  • Now to the defense. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins continues to show signs that 2019 could be a career season for him. He was disruptive in limited playing time this week, and showcased a scary spin move on the inside. He can be an electric interior pass rusher for the Cowboys, and he looks to be "putting it all together" this year.
  • Jourdan Lewis is too good to rot away on the bench, guys. Though he did get beat for decent completion in the first half, Lewis was also sound as a tackler and sticky in coverage once again this week. Lewis looks to be playing at the highest level we've seen from him yet, but once Byron Jones comes back he may not be getting the playing time he'd easily earn elsewhere. Dallas has a bit of an embarrassment of riches at cornerback right now, and Lewis just needs to keep competing every week.
  • Lewis' Michigan teammate Taco Charlton had a decent night himself. While Dorance Armstrong has been the talk of the town at defensive end, Charlton deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage and was credited with 2 quarterback hits against the Rams. He wasn't creating the level of pressure you'd hope to see out of a former first round pick playing that deep into a preseason game, but you can tell he's looking a bit better as of late. Still, there's a whole heap of defensive ends on this roster who are flat out better than him right now.
  • The Cowboys linebackers showed up to play on Saturday night. Of course, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch are who they are, but Justin March-Lillard led the team in tackles with 6, and Justin Phillips came away with an exceptional interception in the third quarter. He made a play on the ball that you don't expect to see from any linebacker, let alone someone of his roster status. This is a really deep linebacker room, and there's a strong chance the Cowboys will have to let go of a good player.


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Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott Looks Primed for Greatness in 2019

John Williams

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Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott Looks Primed for Greatness in 2019 1

All offseason, there's been a lot of talk about whether Dak Prescott deserves to be paid like a franchise quarterback. It's been debated in every walk of life in which Dallas Cowboys football comes up in conversation; On the radio, in the newspaper, on the internet, at the doctor's office, in the drive-thru at Whataburger, and every place in between. Regardless of where you stand on the big-money contract extension that Dak Prescott will eventually sign, the more encouraging thing is how he's looked in the offseason and in the preseason. Saturday night was yet another indication that Dak Prescott is going to take another step forward in 2019.

On Saturday night vs the Los Angeles Rams, Prescott was 5 of 5 for 64 yards, including a big 31-yard completion to Michael Gallup. Where the two struggled with having a consistent connection in 2018, doesn't seem to be a problem in 2019 thus far. Dak Prescott has been looking for Michael Gallup a lot in practice and the two have connected three times for 50 yards this preseason. Dak Prescott is definitely looking his way anytime he gets single coverage.

Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott Looks Primed for Greatness in 2019

On this play, the Dallas Cowboys motioned Jon'Vea Johnson from right to left across the formation and the Los Angeles Rams showed that they were in man coverage with a single high safety. On the snap, it's confirmed as one of the safeties drops into coverage and the other steps up to help to take Witten on the 10-yard in. Without looking, Dak Prescott knows that Michael Gallup has man-coverage on the right side of the field.

After the snap, he keeps his gaze on the middle and to the left part of the field just before looking right and throwing the ball to Gallup. Connor Livesay, from Blogging the Boys, rightly pointed out on Twitter yesterday, that at the time of the release of the football, Gallup was still engaged with the cornerback before breaking away after Prescott's release. Gallup does an excellent job coming back for the football, going over the top of the defender to make the catch.

Dak Prescott doesn't have anything open on the play, but instead of holding onto the football and potentially taking a sack, he takes advantage of the single coverage deep down the field and gives his wide receiver a chance to make a play on the football. Prescott's ability to hold the safety in the middle of the field with his eyes is what gives this play a chance. If, as soon as he realizes there's nothing open in the middle of the field, he immediately turns to Gallup, the deep middle safety begins breaking that direction and has a chance to disrupt Gallup's attempt to catch the football.

Another encouraging aspect of this throw was the situation in which he took the shot downfield. Prescott, in seasons past, seemed to shy away from high risk throws on money downs and instead looked for just enough yardage to get the first down. Though it's only the preseason, Prescott looks to have the trust of the coaching staff to take some chances, even on third down.

It looks as if Dak Prescott is ready to shine under a couple of coaches who won't force him into being a risk-averse passer, which seemed to be the case under the previous offensive coordinator. Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore has talked a lot about wanting to be a vertical team. Quarterbacks Coach Jon Kitna's greatest football influence is former St. Louis Rams Head Coach Mike Martz who also wanted to throw a lot of vertical passes from his days with the "Greatest Show on Turf." The combination of Moore and Kitna look to be excellent additions for Dak Prescott.


Through two games in the preseason, Dak Prescott's been perfect. He's gone 9 of 9 for 86 yards, a 106.9 passer rating, and 9.7 yards per attempt. One area where he's improved dramatically is in his time to attempt numbers. Per Pro Football Focus, in 2018, Dak Prescott averaged 2.65 seconds to attempt. In the 2019 preseason, Prescott's time to attempt is 2.42 seconds. Yes, there are attempts where he's holding the ball longer, like the completion to Gallup on Saturday night. But generally, I see a player who is making quicker reads and quicker releases than the one we saw in 2018.

In 2018, when Prescott released the ball in less than 2.5 seconds, he completed 72.5% of his passes and had a 7:1 touchdown to interception ratio. When he released the ball after 2.5 seconds, he completed just 63.1% of his passes with a 15:7 touchdown to interception ratio.

He's not holding onto the ball as long as he did last year, which is an issue that needed to be corrected. If applied in the regular season, it's going to pay huge dividends for the Dallas Cowboys offense.

Yes, it's only the preseason and the Dallas Cowboys are playing against backups, but they also haven't had their full complement of players either. The Dallas Cowboys' starters have played with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Jason Witten (vs SF), and most notably Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys first team, despite missing five Pro Bowl players on offense, have been able to move the ball really well.

It's an encouraging sign for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations and high expectations for a quarterback that they are about to pay more than $32 million a year to. The way the offseason and now the preseason has gone for Dak Prescott, he could be looking at his first 4,000-yard season as a passer.

Dak Prescott is only going into his fourth season in the NFL. He's played 51 games thus far giving him a ton of experience to work from. That experience combined with improved chemistry with Michael Gallup, better game planning and play calling from Kellen Moore, better mechanics, and a better understanding and ability to manipulate defenses, 2019 is shaping up to be Dak Prescott's best season yet.


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