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.
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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