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.
Michael Gallup is Primed for Breakout Sophomore Season
Heading into the 2018 season the Dallas Cowboys had big questions at the wide receiver position with the departure of Dez Bryant. They elected not to go for the flashy names like Maryland's D.J. Moore or Alabama's Calvin Ridley, but instead took Colorado State Wide Receiver, Michael Gallup 81st overall.
Even without the hype of other bigger named receivers coming out of college, Gallup's resume was enough to impress Head Coach Jason Garrett. "There's a lot to like about him. He's big, he's athletic, he plays the game the right way. He's been a productive player for them, doing a lot of different kinds of things. We feel like he has real upside, too. A lot of qualities that you want in a young receiver, in a developmental receiver. But a lot of production, too. He had opportunities there and took advantage of them throughout his career," Garrett said.
Once the season started, however, it was apparent that it would take some time to build the chemistry and trust with Quarterback Dak Prescott. The lack of a true number one receiver wasn't doing the first talent any favors as he tried to figure out his role on the team. Gallup would be targeted just 15 times in the first 5 games, only registering 6 receptions. But fortunately for the newbie, help was on the way.
During the team's bye week in October, they acquired Amari Cooper from the Raiders in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, and it worked wonders for Gallup and his development. Weeks 11 through 14 saw him targetted 27 times. This was significant considering the Cowboys were in the midst of a 5-game winning streak after a 3-5 start. Prescott's trust and belief in Gallup were starting to come together as the team made a run at the NFC East crown and a playoff berth.
He would finish with 33 receptions for 507 yards and 2 touchdowns. Once the postseason rolled around Gallup had firmly established himself as the team's second option behind Amari Cooper.
Gallup would make his first playoff start in the divisional round against the Rams in Los Angeles. Although the Cowboys season wouldn't survive this contest, one of the positives was the play of the first year pass catcher. He finished with 6 receptions for 119 yards, and a tidal wave of momentum heading into 2019.
There's a major change coming to the Cowboys offensive philosophy this season, thanks to newly promoted Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore. The new puppet master of the offense has made it clear he's open to listening to suggestions from the players and staff on what they feel will take the offense into another orbit. "At the end of the day, work together with everyone. I think that includes the coaching staff, obviously coach Garrett and the rest of his staff. I think you also got to get some input from the players. It doesn't mean you have to go down those roads all the time, but I think it's important that when a player believes in something and they're pretty convinced on it, usually they find a way to make it work," Kellen Moore said.
With a season already under his belt with Prescott, and an open-minded first-year offensive coordinator willing to abandon the prehistoric ways of the Scott Linehan era, Gallup's development will only improve with each snap.
Unlike the beginning of his rookie season, Michael Gallup knows exactly what his role with the Cowboys is going forward. Amari Cooper is the main option, and with him drawing double teams regularly, the opportunities for Gallup to have a major impact in year two are endless. Not to mention, the added addition of Randall Cobb to the Cowboys passing game just made life even easier for him. Now teams not only have to roll coverage to Cooper, but the threat of Cobb in the slot creates a lot of one-on-ones on the outside for Gallup.
The size, speed, and athleticism are all there for this young man. Now, with a more innovative offensive scheme coming into play, and growing trust between himself and Dak Prescott, the 2019 season is shaping up to make Michael Gallup a household name.
Cowboys Late-Round Rookies Will Struggle to Make 2019 Roster
Being picked in the later rounds of the NFL Draft is no guarantee of a roster spot, but the Dallas Cowboys have had a good run lately of finding talent on Day 3. For this 2019 class, however, even talent may not be enough. The success of past drafts has loaded the roster and will make it hard for this year's late-round rookies to get through final cuts.
Starting with CB Michael Jackson and DE Joe Jackson in the fifth round, these newcomers may be hoping just to make the practice squad in 2019. The group includes S Donovan Wilson, RB Mike Weber, and DE Jalen Jelks.
Over the past few years, Dallas has found some significant contributors with their Day 3 draftees. Safety Xavier Woods and CB Anthony Brown, both 6th-round picks, should have major roles in the secondary this year. Geoff Swaim, a former 7th-rounder, was the starting TE last year before suffering an injury.
Another 6th-round Safety, Kavon Frazier, has been a solid reserve and special teamer for three seasons. RB Darius Jackson and TE Rico Gathers are also still here from that 2016 draft and competing for jobs. So is WR Noah Brown, a 2017 7th-round pick.
But also with these successes have come plenty of failed picks.
Going back to just 2017, only Brown and Woods remain from the five players drafted in those last two rounds. CB Marquez White and DTs Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell didn't last long, and only Ivie remains in the NFL (Kansas City) at this time.
This new crop of 2019 rookies has an even taller order than those past draft classes. They're up against the good picks from recent years, who still have youth and cheap contracts but also a few years of valuable experience. It's the best of both worlds for the Cowboys, but a daunting hurdle for this year's rookies to get over.
Of the players drafted in the 5th-7th rounds in 2019, RB Mike Weber has the best shot at making the 53-man roster. The Cowboys didn't keep Rod Smith or sign any other veterans to back up Ezekiel Elliott, creating open competition throughout the remainder of the depth chart.
One spot will go to 4th-round rookie Tony Pollard, who should at least be a gadget player and return specialist if not the primary backup. But Weber has a good chance of being the third man, competing with similarly inexperienced players like Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn.
The key for Weber may simply be staying healthy. Injuries were an issue for him in college and he already had his first professional scare with a knee injury during mini-camp, which thankfully came back benign. However, more missed time could have Dallas looking for a more reliable option.
One scenario which could hurt Weber's chances is the possibility that the Cowboys keep just Elliott and Pollard on the 53, then utilize fullback Jamize Olawale as an emergency third RB. With his proven offensive skills from the Raiders, Olawale could get them through a game in a pinch. Zeke's durability makes this an acceptable risk.
If that happens, Weber, Jackson, or Chunn will be hoping to stick around on the practice squad and be ready in case of an injury. It would still be a positive outcome for a 7th-round pick like Weber, but it's not the same as making the official roster.
The player with the next-best odds of making the team this year is Safety Donovan Wilson, who many considered a steal in the sixth round. With Kavon Frazier entering the final year of his rookie deal, Dallas might be willing to cut him loose and go with the younger player with a fresh, new four-year contract.
But even if the Cowboys like Wilson over Frazier, he's also got to worry about Darian Thompson. Taken in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft by the Giants, Thompson may have higher upside and has already been getting work in practice before Frazier, Wilson, or other safety prospects.
The situation is even worse for other rookies.
Michael Jackson has to hope that the Cowboys either keep more than four cornerbacks, which they didn't last year or that Jourdan Lewis gets traded. He also has to worry about Donovan Olumba, who nearly made the team last year and is back with a season of practice squad experience.
Joe Jackson is also feeling a number crunch at defensive end, as is 7th-round pick, Jalen Jelks. The Cowboys have loaded up at DE this year, adding veteran Robert Quinn and Kerry Hyder to the returning cast of DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, and Dorance Armstrong. There's also Randy Gregory still floating around out there, hoping for reinstatement before the season begins.
One idea I've seen floated is that Jelks could get converted to strong-side linebacker, in the mold of former Dallas roleplayer Kyle Wilber (credit to @KDDrummondNFL). This would make a lot of sense given Jelks' physical makeup and the opportunity at LB, where he'd be competing with Chris Covington for the sixth roster spot.
~ ~ ~
All of these players will have an opportunity. They weren't drafted for nothing; Dallas will inherently root for them after investing picks to acquire them. But a spot with this team, or even in the league, is far from guaranteed for any late-round rookies.
Will someone from this group emerge as the next Xavier Woods? Or will they join the many who spent only one or two offseasons with the team and then quickly faded from memory?
Every year's rookies face this question, but this 2019 group will have a harder time than most of avoiding the discard pile.
Is Amari Cooper the Most Important Contract for Cowboys to Finalize?
Most of the offseason contract chatter, once DeMarcus Lawrence's contract was signed, began to focus on the next group of stars due for big-time money, most notably Quarterback Dak Prescott. For good reason as the quarterback is generally regarded as the most important player on the team. While Prescott has been important to the team's success over the last three seasons, few players made as much of an impact on the 2018 Dallas Cowboys than Amari Cooper.
The Dallas Cowboys front office is working on deals for Prescott and Cooper. Both will get new contracts at some point before they're scheduled to hit free agency in March of 2020, but one could argue that getting Amari Cooper's deal done is more important than Dak Prescott's.
Prior to the arrival of Amari Cooper, the Dallas Cowboys offense struggled and was inconsistent. In the seven games prior to the trade that brought Cooper to Dallas, the Cowboys went 3-4 and scored more than 20 points only three times. In wins over the New York Giants, Detroit Lions, and Jacksonville Jaguars they averaged 28.67 points per game, highlighted by a 40 point outburst against the Jaguars in week six. In their four losses on the season they averaged 13.5 points per game. Over the first seven games, they averaged 20 points per game.
In the nine games, the Dallas Cowboys played with Amari Cooper, the Cowboys averaged 22 points per game. They scored more than 20 points in all but three games; losses to the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts and a win over the New Orleans Saints.
If you remove the 40 point game against the Jaguars from the scoring average over the first seven games and the shutout loss to the Colts from the scoring average over the final nine games, the scoring average changes dramatically. Without the Jaguars game, the Cowboys only averaged 16.67 points per game in the other six contests, decreasing their scoring average by more than three points per game. Conversely, if you remove the shutout loss to the Colts from the scoring average over the last nine games, the Cowboys averaged 24.87 points per game. That's nearly a three-point difference.
Even if you remove the best (week 17 against the Giants) and worst (week 15 against the Colts) games of the final nine games from the scoring average, the Cowboys averaged 23.3 points per game. removing the best (week six against the Jaguars) and worst (week one against the Panthers) games from the first half of the season, the Dallas Cowboys averaged only 18.4 points per game in the other five games.
So Amari Cooper was worth between two and 4.9 points per game. That may not seem like a lot, but that's a huge difference in a league where so many games come down to a single score.
The impact offense as a whole is noticeable, but what about on Dak Prescott.
Dak Prescott only averaged 202 passing yards per game and had a passer rating of 87.4 with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions in the first seven games prior to Amari Cooper's arrival. Prescott only completed 62.14% of his passes in the first seven games of the season.
Over the final nine games of the season, Dak averaged 274 passing yards a game, threw for 14 touchdowns and only threw four interceptions. Prescott had a passer rating of 103 and completed 71% of his passes.
In the first half of the season, Prescott only had a passer rating over 100 two times, while he had a passer rating under 90 three times. Over the final nine games with Amari, Prescott had a passer rating over 100 six times and had only two games with a passer rating under 90.
Not only did Amari Cooper make a significant impact on the passing game, but the running game led by Ezekiel Elliott saw a dramatic increase in his production once Amari Cooper arrived.
In the first seven games of the season, Ezekiel Elliott averaged only 19 carries a game and 88.4 yards rushing per game. He was averaging 4.69 yards per carry. Through the air, Elliott caught 3.6 passes per game for only 25 yards with seven yards per reception.
After Cooper's arrival, Elliott got more opportunities and found more room to run as well. he averaged 21.5 carries per game, rushed for 101.9 yards per game. He more than doubled his receptions per game with 6.5 and averaged 49 yards receiving per game, nearly doubling his first half of the season totals.
It's no coincidence that the run and pass games saw increased production after bringing in one of the better young receivers in the NFL. The overall impact of Amari Cooper led to the Dallas Cowboys going on a 7-2 run to finish the season to win the NFC East. Prior to the trade, the team looked dead in the water. After the trade Dak Prescott looked like a completely different quarterback. The team was hitting big plays, converting on third downs, and scoring tons of points on the way to winning lots of games.
Dak Prescott is going to get his contract finalized, of that, I have no doubt. While I feel good about his upward trajectory as a player, I feel a lot better about it knowing that Amari Cooper is about to get a contract too.
Amari Cooper is an excellent talent. His route running precision makes opposing defensive backs look foolish and the separation he creates makes a quarterback's job that much easier. Cooper is like having Cole Beasley in Dez Bryant's body with sub-4.4 speed.
Just turning 25 years old, Amari Cooper is one of the bright young stars at the wide receiver position and is about to enter his prime. Unlike players like Dez Bryant, who rely on physicality and athleticism, Cooper is going to age much more gracefully as route running is one of those things that doesn't drop off near as quickly as athleticism. Just look at Jason Witten.
The Dallas Cowboys need to not mess around with Amari Cooper. Because having him for his prime and for the same timeframe that you are extending your franchise quarterback will make the next six years of their respective careers much more productive. The best way to take care of your franchise quarterback is to give him an offensive line to protect him. The second best way is to give him a wide receiver that can get open for him.
Amari Cooper is a quarterback's best friend and will be worth every penny he gets in a contract extension. In the Cowboys 2018 run to the playoffs, there were few players as important to that success as Amari Cooper. In this offseason of contract extensions and signings, few still, are as important to the Cowboys success as Amari Cooper.
Get him signed, so he can go play football.
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