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.
Cowboys en Español: ¿Es Tavon Austin Más Importante de lo que Creemos?
Cada vez más cerca de la verdadera acción en la NFL, tuvimos una oportunidad de ver a los Dallas Cowboys en el campo contra los San Francisco 49ers hace una semana. Francamente, a pesar de perder la ventaja en los últimos segundos del partido, la actuación del equipo dio una muy buena señal a los aficionados de la Estrella Solitaria.
Todavía quedan tres partidos por jugar, empezando por el enfrentamiento contra los Cincinnati Bengals este sábado. Hay muchas cosas que ver de parte de los Dallas Cowboys y quizá algunas de ellas las veamos este mismo fin de semana.
Una de las cosas más interesantes esta semana fue la conversación de los wide receivers (receptores abiertos). Lance Lenoir se ha mostrado como un candidato real al roster de 53 jugadores, pero esa es sólo una pequeña fracción de la conversación de receptores.
Hay muchos receptores de que hablar, y el día de hoy, eso haremos en Cowboys en Español.
¿Cole Beasley es realmente el receptor #1?
A lo largo de todo el offseason, se ha manejado la narrativa de que "los Cowboys no tienen un buen WR." A pesar de que Dez Bryant es un nombre difícil de olvidar, esta aseveración sobre los receptores en Dallas me parece errónea.
Si bien es cierto que Bryant es uno de los mejores WRs en la historia de los Cowboys, también es cierto que Jason Garrett y compañía tienen un mejor grupo de lo que la afición considera. Si somos sinceros, un trío titular de Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley y Michael Gallup no suena mal.
La pregunta será: ¿quién es el #1? Comentarios de Dak Prescott han hecho referencia a Cole Beasley como el dueño de dicho rol. ¿Realmente puede fungir como el receptor líder del equipo siendo un jugador de 1.73 metros?
Se ha hablado mucho de Beasley jugando fuera de los números e intentando vencer a los defensivos por fuera. Es intrigante, pero sin duda un poco difícil de creer.
Tavon Austin: ¿Es un arma más importante de lo que creemos?
Los Cowboys dejaron ir a Ryan Switzer y obtuvieron a su aparente remplazo con el ex-WR de los Rams por una selección de sexta ronda. Tavon Austin ha tenido un viaje extraño con el equipo. Fue listado en el roster como un corredor pero utilizado como un receptor.
Lleva poco tiempo en Dallas pero ha sorprendido en training camp y ha sido utilizado como más de lo que esperábamos. Desde que llegó al equipo, empezamos a compararlo con Lucky Whitehead y Ryan Switzer. Ambos talentosos, pero destinados a ser un jugador "gadget" que fueron utilizados casi exclusivamente en jugadas "en movimiento" o los famosos "jet sweeps."
Pero Austin puede ser más que eso y lo ha demostrado en training camp. No parece que Tavon vaya a tener el mismo destino que Switzer, sino que tendrá un rol mucho más involucrado en la ofensiva constantemente. Bien puede ser un factor sorpresa para la ofensiva en Dallas.
¿Puede Terrance Williams perder su trabajo?
A pesar de que el coraje puede llevar a los aficionados a criticar a Terrance Williams un poco más de lo que merece, la verdad es que Williams está en riesgo de ser cortado por los Cowboys antes de que inicie la temporada en septiembre.
Es uno de los WRs con más experiencia, sí. Pero durante su estadía en Dallas, cada vez que Dez Bryant ha caído lesionado, Williams ha tenido la oportunidad de surgir como un receptor #1 capaz y preparado. Y nunca lo ha logrado.
Con un roster lleno de talentos jóvenes como el de Lance Lenoir y Noah Brown, es probable que la administración y los coaches opten por el potencial joven en vez de Williams, quien ha tenido problemas para demostrar que puede ser un jugador constante.
Los Dallas Cowboys tienen que conseguir que su ofensiva sobreviva las pérdidas de Jason Witten y Dez Bryant y tendrán que comenzar en la posición de WR. A pesar de que Williams esté en el equipo, Cole Beasley será el único en repetir titularidad del año pasado en Dallas esta temporada.
Dak Prescott tendrá un rol enorme cuando la ofensiva trate de emprender su marcha y definitivamente será responsable del éxito de esta. Es ahora o nunca para Dak.
#DALvsCIN: Bengals DL Gives Cowboys OL Formidable Test
During their preseason opener, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line faced its first test of the season. The young, athletic, and downright talented defensive line of the 49ers gave the Cowboys starting five a chance to gauge their offseason progress thus far.
I'd say the starting group passed the test, while the backups and depth players looked a bit more shaky. The good thing about football, though, is that they get a shot to do it all again this Saturday.
This week's opponent, the Cincinatti Bengals, feature some serious talent upfront. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is one of the best interior defenders in all of football, terrorizing centers and guards since he entered the league.
On the edge is one of my 2017 draft favorites, Carl Lawson. Lawson was a draft target of mine for the Cowboys, but it appears the entire league missed on the stud edge rusher during that draft. During his rookie season a year ago, Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks and looked like the best rookie rusher in all of football. It's rare that a rookie defensive end tallies the sack total that Lawson did in 2017, but then again, Lawson is a rare type of player.
Opposite of Carl Lawson is veteran pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Together, Atkins and Dunlap have been one of the more dangerous pass rush duos for quite some time, but the additions of Lawson and Jordan Willis make them an incredibly impressive group.
During the Bengals' preseason opener against the Chicago Bears, their defensive line looked to be in midseason form.
Though Geno Atkins had the team's only sack, the trio of Atkins, Lawson, and Dunlap looked as prolific as ever.
This deep and talented defensive line is a more-than worthy test for the Cowboys this Saturday. Rookie Connor Williams will likely have to block Geno Atkins at some point, and though he looked promising against the 49ers, this week presents a whole different challenge.
Many now expect veteran center Travis Frederick to miss Saturday's game as well, due to his shoulder troubles during training camp. If Frederick were to miss the start, Joe Looney would be thrown into the first against this first team defensive front of the Bengals.
A rookie at left guard and Looney at center might not be the best ingredients against Geno Atkins and company, but it'll be what they have to roll with.
Still, Saturday will give us another chance to see what the 2018 Dallas Cowboys offensive line is all about.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Has Breakout Day in Camp
The return of Defensive End Randy Gregory is already one of the best stories of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 training camp. If nothing else, his efforts to get to a better place in life and earn reinstatement from the NFL are a huge success. But if yesterday's practice was any indication, Gregory may be about to achieve even more.
According to the staff writers at DallasCowboys.com, Gregory was the standout performer during Wednesday's activities in Oxnard. Here is just a sampling of the praise heaped on the 25-year-old pass rusher:
"He was a beast. Didn’t matter if he was going up against Pro Bowl tackle Tyron Smith or his backups. Nor did it matter which side he was rushing from." (Mickey Spagnola)
"It doesn’t happen often, but tip of the cap to Randy Gregory getting around Tyron Smith twice in a span of three plays during team period. Smith’s pass set wasn’t poor it was just Gregory’s first step that gave him problems." (Bryan Broaddus)
"He’s so explosive off the line of scrimmage. It’s really something to see. But the thing that keeps impressing me is how he’s developed his upper body and added weight while away from the team." (Rob Phillips)
"In the blink of an eye, Randy Gregory had turned the corner and “downed” Dak Prescott for a sack. It happened so fast that Prescott didn’t even bother to throw the ball. To be perfectly frank, I did a double-take and assumed Gregory had beaten Cam Fleming on the rep. Nope — it was Tyron Smith." (David Helman)
That Randy was beating Tyron Smith out there is noteworthy. Aside from just Tyron's usual reputation and yearly trips to the Pro Bowl, he was recently praised by teammate Travis Frederick for having his best camp in several years.
We've waited three years to see Gregory finally realize his potential. The Cowboys spent a second-round pick on Gregory in 2015, despite huge red flags about his drug issues, because of that upside. On talent alone, Randy likely would've been a first-round pick that year.
It's still August, of course, and Gregory will have to keep it up in the regular season to truly arrive on the NFL scene. But reports like these out of camp are so encouraging, and particularly when you know the story of this kid and what he's had to do to even make it this far.
With DeMarcus Lawrence now a franchise star on one end of the defensive line, Randy Gregory's ascension could give the Cowboys the best pass-rushing duo they've had since at least DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, or perhaps even the 1990s.
As good as the flashes now against Tyron Smith and others in practice are, perhaps the best news from those reports were Rob Phillips' comments about Gregory's physical development.
With so much time away from football, Randy's conditioning and body composition were an initial concern when he came back. Clearly, Gregory was putting in the work even while away from the team to be physically ready to resume his career. It will also help him to keep performing through the year, and not wearing down as he has in the past.
Hopefully we'll see Randy Gregory make his preseason debut this Saturday evening when the Cowboys host the Cincinnati Bengals. Again, that will be a wonderful achievement for him on its own merit.
But if he can put on a show for long-waiting Cowboys fans, even in the preseason, then it could be a very special night.
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