The Dallas Cowboys' receiving group has gotten a lot of ink over the offseason, with the prevailing perception being that there's still a need at the top of the depth chart for an "alpha" type of receiver. That may or may not be the case, and thankfully with training camp in full swing and preseason games right around the corner, we're about to receive the answer to the wide receiver question.
They are who they are at this point and the hope is that a group of good players with varying skill sets can help the offense be more efficient in 2018 than it was in 2017. Pro Football Focus Senior Analyst Michael Renner released his NFL Receiving Corp Rankings for 2018 on Tuesday and he had the Dallas Cowboys ranked 29th in the NFL.
Here's what Renner had to say about the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver group:
"The fact that the Cowboys brought in Tavon Austin this offseason should tell you about how bleak their receiving corps looks at this point. There’s some mild hope that either Michael Gallup or Cedrick Wilson can contribute right away as rookies, but it’s rare for third- and sixth-round picks, respectively, to be immediate impact players. Terrance Williams has been a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup the past five seasons despite averaging under 1.50 yards per route over that span."
Michael Renner - Pro Football Focus
He uses some objective data to justify his ranking, but also there's a bit of opinion thrown in there as well. Yards per route run (YRR) is a statistic tracked by Pro Football Focus that is just that, the amount of yards the player accounted for divided by the amount of routes they ran that season.
For reference, here are the top five players in YRR from 2017 with at least 50 targets:
- Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons - 3.0
- Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers - 2.8
- Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers - 2.5
- Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints - 2.4
- Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs - 2.3
Obviously a higher number is better. As you can tell, that's an elite group of playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Dez Bryant in 2016 had a 1.9 YRR, which was better than his 1.6 YRR in 2017.
The biggest difference between 2016 and 2017 was the major drop off in yards per route run from Cole Beasley. He went from two yards per route run in 2016 to 0.8 in 2017. A reason that Cole Beasley saw a drop off was that he saw more double teams in 2017. Teams realized that he, and not Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, was Prescott's go-to receiver.
As a team, Pro Football Reference had the Dallas Cowboys ranked as the fifth best group of pass catchers in 2016. In 2017, they dropped all the way down to 25th in the NFL. Now, I get that some of PFF's grading can be a bit subjective, but there is an objective difference in the Cowboys' passing game performance from 2016 to 2017. And it wasn't all on the quarterback.
In yards per routes run, the Dallas Cowboys' WRs ranked 24th in the NFL in 2017 with 1.22 yards per route run. By comparison, the WR unit had a 1.39 yards per route run in 2016. Their 1.39 YRR in 2016 would have been near the top-10 in 2017. The exact same group of receivers saw a decrease in receiving productivity.
There has been some overhaul to the wide receiver position but it remains to be seen if that is a negative or a positive for 2018 and the future.
While losing Bryant on the surface looks to be a loss, Allen Hurns' 1.5 yards per route run in 2017 is pretty much the same as Bryant's 1.6. If we regard Dak Prescott as a better quarterback than Blake Bortles (and I think we do), then we should expect Hurns' YRR to go up as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
There are several reasons why the YRR numbers dropped for the Cowboys from 2016 to 2017. One of the biggest reasons is that the offensive line protection declined from 2016 to 2017. Dak didn't have near as much time to allow plays to develop in 2017 as he did in 2016.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak's average time to throw went from 2.71 seconds in 2016 to 2.66 seconds in 2017. Just 0.05 seconds may not seem like much of a difference, but when the play speed is as fast as it is in the NFL, it makes a difference. Now that could be a sign he was getting rid of the ball quicker, but as some of the stats will bear out, he also didn't have as much time to throw in 2017, relative to 2016.
In 2016, Dak Prescott was pressured on 184 of his 513 drop backs, which was 18th in the NFL. In 2017, he was pressured on 203 of 554 drop backs, which was the ninth most in the NFL that season. That's only a 1% difference in percent of drop backs pressured, but that doesn't matter as much as the amount of plays under pressure.
The more you are under pressure as a quarterback, the more you feel the need to do something before the play has developed.
Dak also didn't have as much time in the pocket in 2017 as he did in 2016. From year to year, Prescott saw a 0.07-decrease in the amount of time he had in the pocket. That may seem insignificant, but every bit of time counts when you're an NFL quarterback.
Pro Football Focus also tracks the amount of time it takes to sack a player as "average time to sack." In 2016, Prescott's average time to sack was 3.83, fourth best in the NFL among players with 400 or more passing attempts. In 2017 that number dropped to 3.14, which was 25th in the NFL among players with 400 attempts. So, not only did he get sacked more in 2017, he was getting sacked faster.
That 0.69 seconds is a HUGE difference in the time of a play. Because players weren't getting open as quickly or as often, Dak Prescott was being forced to hold onto the ball longer in 2017.
When Prescott was able to get rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds in 2017, he had a quarterback rating of 100.7, good for 12th in the NFL. When he held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, Dak had a passer rating of 73.3; 21st in the NFL.
His TD:INT ratio was 15:5 when he released the ball in under 2.5 seconds and 7:7 after. What that means to me is that the Cowboys' wide receivers weren't getting open with as much regularity in 2017 as they were in 2016. But even if we didn't look at the numbers, the games revealed that.
The talent along the offensive line was vastly different in 2017 than it was in 2016. Jonathan Cooper was good enough to win games, but he wasn't nearly as good as the combination of Ronald Leary and La'el Collins at left guard in 2016. Dallas could have brought Cooper back in 2018, but they allowed him to sign for $5 million with the San Francisco 49ers and opted to draft Connor Williams to replace him. That's an upgrade to the offensive line.
What the stats above point to is what we've been saying all along: Dak Prescott didn't have as much time to throw the ball in 2017.
The wide receiver group didn't get open as much, which created a less efficient offense. That's especially true in the second half of the season when Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott missed time. As we've discussed at length previously, the drop off from Tyron Smith to Chaz Green/Byron Bell made a huge difference in Prescott's protection and comfort level.
Prescott didn't have near as much help in 2017 from his pass catchers when he got the ball on target.
In 2016, Pro Football Focus recorded only 13 on-target passes dropped by Cowboys receivers. That was the second fewest in the NFL among quarterbacks with 400 attempts or more. In 2017, that number skyrocketed to 27, which was the 11th most in the NFL.
Yes, on paper, there isn't an obvious Julio Jones, Antonio Brown or even prime-Dez Bryant, but it's not like they are any worse off in 2018 than they were in 2017.
When Tyron Smith was healthy, they won eight games and averaged 25 points per game. When Tyron wasn't around, they went 1-2 -- that win being against the Philadelphia Eagles backups in week 17 -- and averaged a little more than seven points per game.
While Dak wasn't perfect throughout the 2017 season and certainly has some stuff to improve upon, he could have used more help from his offensive line and wide receiver group throughout the season. So perhaps with improvement in the offensive line play and depth, 16 games from Ezekiel Elliott, and some adjustments to the playbook and route combinations, the Dallas Cowboys can get back to the efficient and dominant offense that saw Prescott as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL in 2016.
While it certainly helps to have an elite wide receiver on your team, you can absolutely win with good ones. The Dallas Cowboys may not have an elite WR, but with Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin, they've got some good ones.
Snap Judgments: Cowboys’ Linebacker Depth Stands Out in Win
The Dallas Cowboys evened their record at 1-1 with their 20-13 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night. The Cowboys linebackers had a huge impact on the outcome of the game and it wasn't just the guys at the top of the depth chart either. America's Team got contributions from guys at the bottom of the depth chart.
What a difference a year makes.
The Dallas Cowboys worked hard this offseason to fix the linebacker depth that failed them in the 2017 season. When Sean Lee or Anthony Hitchens -- or both -- were sidelined with injuries, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and the rest of the linebacker group struggled to keep up with opposing offenses. Specifically, in games against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers the major depth inadequacy was revealed.
One year later, the Dallas Cowboys have a linebacker corp that allows them to go five deep with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, and Damien Wilson all making considerable contributions for the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday nights victory.
Here are the final snap counts for the five linebackers that played a defensive snap against the Giants.
- Jaylon Smith - 57 (84%)
- Sean Lee - 41 (60)
- Leighton Vander Esch - 28 (48%)
- Damien Wilson - 17 (25%)
- Joe Thomas - 14 (21%)
Jaylon Smith led the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night with 10 tackles (seven solo) and played really well roaming sideline to sideline and making plays. He was tasked with the difficult assignment of containing New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley and allowed four catches for 41 yards in his coverage area. Smith was credited with three stops or plays that result in a "loss" for the offense (per Pro Football Focus). Smith led the team in snaps for the second straight week.
Sean Lee had a better game on Sunday night than he did in week one. PFF credited him with four stops, four tackles and an assist. Lee allowed two catches for 24 yards on two targets to Wayne Gallman and Evan Engram. Lee pulled his hamstring at the end of the game and was held out the rest of the way for precautionary reasons. He'll be an interesting name to watch on this week's injury report. Age catches up with everyone, but hopefully Sean Lee can stave it off for at least another season.
Rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch saw a big bump in his snap count from week one (17) to week two (28). The rookie played well too. As many players seemed to struggle with tackling Saquon Barkley, Vander Esch was able to bring down the number two overall pick on several occasions. Vander Esch had seven solo tackles in his second career game.
Damien Wilson was the surprise player of the night. He had three tackles on the night, including one on special teams, a sack, and a forced fumble. Though his time on the field might have been short, his impact was certainly felt. His forced fumble led to a field goal that gave the Dallas Cowboys a 13-0 nothing lead. Wilson was also credited with two stops on the night.
Joe Thomas has been a good player for the team off the bench as well. Though he only had one tackle, it was good enough to be credited with a stop. He's a player that can play both the WILL and MIKE linebacker spots. As the fourth or fifth linebacker on the depth chart, Thomas is a great role player.
Other Snap Count Notes
- Taco Charlton may not have started, but he played 84% of the team's defensive snaps. That number is up from 73% in week one. Charlton had a sack, a hit, and a hurry as well as three stops on the night.
- Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns led the wide receiver group in snap percentage from week one to week two. The big difference at wide receiver was seeing Michael Gallup take the third most snaps on offense instead of Deonte Thompson. Thompson still had the bigger impact with four catches for 33 yards on five targets including two for first downs.
- Geoff Swaim was the far and away leader at tight end in snaps with a 94% snap count. Only the offensive line and Dak Prescott had more snaps on the night than Swaim. He's the TE1 for the team, though he didn't have an impact in the passing game.
- Rico Gathers only played five snaps, but there was concerted effort to get him the ball as he had two targets in his five snaps. He may not have come away with a catch, but it's a start.
- Jourdan Lewis continues to be the odd man out on defense. He only played one snap.
- Dorance Armstrong saw a snap jump from week one to week two going from 28% of the defensive snaps to 40% of the snaps. He had two hurries and an assisted tackle.
Why Cowboys Need Tavon Austin More Involved Offensively
Two games into the 2018 season and I'm still not quite sure what to make of the Dallas Cowboys offense. To me, there is a void of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. With the exception of Ezekiel Elliott and maybe Cole Beasley, there is a lack of consistency that is really hurting this offensive unit. Changes need to be made or someone needs to step up in a hurry.
Enter Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin.
Just looking at Tavon Austin you would probably put him in the category with Cole Beasley, a small/diminutive WR who should strictly be playing out of the slot. That's typically where the smaller WRs get placed in the NFL because teams would like you to believe that due to their diminutive stature, they can't succeed on the outside.
Well, guess what? The passing game is changing around the league and we're starting to see more of these smaller/quicker WRs earn more prominent roles. The reasoning is these types of receivers are generally known to be better route runners, who are more capable of creating separation on their own.
The Dallas Cowboys must be buying into this philosophy because during the offseason they pretty much revamped the entire wide receiver position with that thought at least in the back of their minds. They didn't bring in a lot of "undersized" WRs, but they did focus on adding pass catchers who can run better routes and create separation on their own.
Wide Receiver Tavon Austin is one of those pass catchers Dallas brought in to improve their passing game. Austin really hasn't been utilized as much as I thought he would in the first two games, but he is starting to look like a dynamic weapon the Cowboys can't ignore much longer.
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Last Sunday night against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys finally decided to utilize Tavon Austin's speed in the passing game. The result, a 64 yard touchdown pass from Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Austin's speed to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally is something the Dallas Cowboys need to incorporate more of into their offensive game plan. Forcing opposing defenses to have to cover more of the field should create more opportunities for big plays in both the running and passing game.
Stretching the field vertically with Austin's speed will open up things up underneath in the passing game. It takes at least one, possibly two defenders out of the play, leaving nine to defend against 10 Cowboys offensive players. That benefits Ezekiel Elliott in the running game and the other WRs running those underneath routes.
Stretching the field horizontally mostly helps the running game, which is great news when you have a dynamic running back like Zeke. Utilizing Austin's speed on jet sweeps or reverses forces the edge defenders from crashing down on inside runs. It also forces the linebackers to hesitate more because they have to respect the threat of both an inside or outside run.
Against the Giants, Tavon Austin turned three touches into 94 total yards, two receptions for 79 receiving yards and one rushing attempt for 15 yards. Imagine if the Cowboys were to give him about 10 touches a game. It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it could have a huge impact (for the better) for the entire offense.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys need to get Tavon Austin more involved?
Takeaway Tuesday: Prescott’s Legs Give Offense a Much Needed Spark
When the Dallas Cowboys took the field last Sunday against the New York Giants, they did so very differently than last week, starting with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to connect with WR Tavon Austin in the third play of the game. Although there are still many things this team must continue to work on, they looked like a very improved unit in week 2.
Here are my main takeaways from the Dallas Cowboys' first win of the year. Let me know what yours are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL and let's talk football!
Cowboys' Secondary Capable of Holding Top WR
If there was one player who could've changed the outcome for the New York Giants, it was WR Odell Beckham Jr. Widely recognized as one of the best wideouts in the nation, Beckham was the biggest challenge the cornerbacks, led by Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie, have had in the first two weeks.
None of them followed Beckham all over the field, each stayed on their side of the field and still managed to limit him to four receptions for 51 yards in nine targets. The Giant's offense is not known for being one of the best in the league, but it's the fact that this defense was able to limit exactly the player they needed to. They did their job.
Also, props to the defensive line for keeping the pressure on Eli Manning.
Taco Charlton Was Dominant VS Nate Solder
With Randy Gregory ruled out for the game, Taco Charlton had a golden opportunity to stay on the field for more snaps. He took advantage of this, as he finished the night with three tackles, one for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Charlton still has a long way to go in order to prove he was worthy of a first round pick, but we can't deny he hasn't stopped developing. It will be interesting to see how he does now that Gregory is expected to return for week 3.
Dak Prescott's Legs Give Offense a Needed Spark
One of the things I liked the most about the Cowboys' game versus the Giants was how Dak Prescott was utilized. Criticized after a poor performance in Carolina, Prescott came out with a chip on his shoulder.
We've been talking a lot about how Scott Linehan must play Prescott to his strengths and that's precisely what he did by letting Dak run for 45 yards in seven carries. It's completely understandable if the Cowboys don't want to run him as much as the Panthers do with Cam Newton, but the truth is, if #4 hurts defenses with his leg, Ezekiel Elliott won't receiver all of the defense's attention.
Also, shoutout to how they used Tavon Austin. With Elliott, Prescott and Austin being a threat on option plays, this offense could take a step on the right direction.
Rico Gathers Will Be Used
The Cowboys' Rico Gathers project is moving in the right direction. The 2016 sixth-round pick was active for the first time in his career last Sunday. The first question that popped into our heads was whether or not he'd be actually used in the game. He was.
He even managed to get open in the end zone in a play that could've been TD but Prescott didn't throw a good pass. However, the mere fact that he was able to get open and that the coaches actually put him on the field told us a lot about his future. Cowboys Nation should be excited to see him involved.
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