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Pro Football Focus Ranks Cowboys’ WR Group NFL’s 29th Best

John Williams

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Cowboys QB Dak Prescott Embraces Lack of No. 1 Wide Receiver

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:

  1. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons - 3.0
  2. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers - 2.8
  3. Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers - 2.5
  4. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints - 2.4
  5. 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.

Pressure matters.

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.



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

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Dallas Cowboys

2019 Dallas Cowboys the Best Roster of the Jason Garrett Era

John Williams

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Potential Playoff Preview: Kirk Cousins, Vikings Come to Town for Wild Card Round 1

It's still very early in the evaluative process for the Dallas Cowboys' coaches and scouts, but all things point to this being the best roster during Jason Garrett's tenure as head coach. The 2014 and 2016 teams had the best finishes of the Garrett era, but on paper, this 2019 roster looks like a team that can contend for a Super Bowl with few glaring weaknesses on offense or defense.

It may be a stretch to suggest that this team is better than the 2014 Cowboys that went 12-4 or 2016 team that went 13-3. Both of those teams were a couple of plays away from heading to the NFC Championship. However, those team had holes and weren't nearly as deep as this 2019 squad appears to be. Neither team fielded a defense as good as the players the Cowboys will put on the field in week one.

In 2014, the offense was one of the best in the NFL, scoring the fifth most points at 29.18 points per game. They were seventh in total yards. Tony Romo had the best season of his career while DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing. Dez Bryant was prime Dez Bryant catching 16 touchdowns and averaging 15 yards per reception. And Jason Witten was still a great player for the Cowboys averaging more than 10 yards per reception. In his most recent seasons of 2016 and 2017, Witten's seen that number dip below 10 yards per reception.

2014 was the first season we saw the combination of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin on the field together and it provided a glimpse of what an elite offensive line could look like. Doug Free at right tackle and Ronald Leary at left guard were no slouches either. Though they didn't get as much positive publicity as the rest of their offensive linemates, they were effective in their own right and were a big part of the reason why DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo were able to have the seasons they had.

At wide receiver, the Cowboys are better than they were in 2014 or 2016. In 2014, it was Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, and Devin Street. In 2016, the wide receiver group consisted of Bryant, Williams, Beasley, Lucky Whitehead, and Brice Butler. Heading into 2019, the Cowboys look to have one of the deeper wide receiver groups in the NFL featuring Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Three of the six wide receivers projected to make the roster have at least one 1,000 yard receiving season under their belt. Tavon Austin is as dynamic a player as you'll find if he can stay healthy and Michael Gallup and Noah Brown are young, but ascending players in the NFL.

In 2016, the NFL was taken over by the Dallas Cowboys rookies phenoms. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were the leaders on an offense that was led by Cole Beasley at wide receiver. Back in 2016, the Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led Dallas Cowboys finished fifth in the NFL in points and yardage. Though Dez Bryant was one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in 2014, he was a shell of himself in 2016. Bryant dealt with injuries during the season and was missing during the Cowboys biggest regular season win at the Green Bay Packers. Neither group had the depth that the 2019 team takes to Oxnard.

As good as that offense was, the 2019 group is going to be better. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are going into their fourth year in the NFL and are better players now than when they were rookies. Not only are they better, but they have better skill position players than the 2016 team did, which should help take pressure off of Ezekiel Elliott and the running game and make it easier for Dak Prescott to find success.

With a fresh perspective from Kellen Moore and some fine tuning of Prescott's footwork, this offense should be just as good as the 2014 and 2016 offenses.

The offenses in 2014 and 2016 stole the show for the Dallas Cowboys. The defenses, on the other hand, got by without much in the way of talent.

In Rod Marinelli's first season as the defensive coordinator, the Cowboys largely got by with their bend don't break defense. They were a defense that was good enough and was largely carried by their offense throughout the season. 2016 wasn't much different.

The 2014 or 2016 Dallas Cowboys didn't have elite pass rushers like DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn bookending the defensive line. If you recall, Jeremy Mincey led the team with six sacks that season before DeMarcus Lawrence came on strong in the playoffs against Detroit and Green Bay. Henry Melton was second on the team with five sacks. In 2016, Benson Mayowa led the Dallas Cowboys with six sacks and second on the team was Maliek Collins with five sacks. For perspective, in 2018, Lawrence had 10.5 sacks and Randy Gregory had six sacks.

The 2019 Dallas Cowboys boast six players who've had at least five sacks in a season in Lawrence, Quinn, Gregory, Kerry Hyder, Tyrone Crawford, and Maliek Collins. The Cowboys go two-deep along the defensive line with legit pressure players at every position.

Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens were the leaders at the linebacker position for the Cowboys. McClain was excellent in the 13 games he played for Dallas. In 2016, Sean Lee had an outstanding season, which culminated in a First Team All-Pro selection and Anthony Hitchens was good. However, as a unit, neither 2014 or 2016 had as much talent as the 2019 Dallas Cowboys do at linebacker with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas. There isn't a better 4-3 linebacker group in the NFL than what the Dallas Cowboys are rolling out there in 2019.

At defensive back, the Cowboys were rolling out Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, and Sterling Moore as their starting nickel group. I'd easily take Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Xavier Woods, and Jeff Heath. Throw in Jourdan Lewis and the Cowboys probably have the best four-deep cornerback group in the NFL. Even if you aren't a big fan of Jeff Heath at strong safety, he's still a better option than J.J. Wilcox was in that 2014 season. George Iloka and Donovan Wilson provide significantly better depth than the 2014 or 2016 groups at defensive back.

Think about the roster as a whole. They have a perceived weakness at starting strong safety with Jeff Heath, but they were able to make the playoffs with Jeff Heath and the defense was one of the best in the NFL in 2018. The defense in 2019 should finish in the top five in scoring and yards against. They're going to be a disruptive group that constantly puts pressure on the quarterback and if they're able to create turnovers, they'll be the best unit in the NFL.

As much as we fight against it, this Dallas Cowboys roster heading into 2019, is the best they've had since 2011. The defense is definitely better going into 2019 than they were in 2014 or 2016 and the offense has a chance to be just as good as those two successful seasons.

On paper, they're a team ready to contend for a Super Bowl. After not making an NFC Championship game since 1996, the time has come for the Dallas Cowboys to turn all the hype into results. No matter how hard I try to manage expectations for the 2019 season, I can't help but think that this iteration of the Dallas Cowboys is on the verge of greatness.



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Michael Gallup is Primed for Breakout Sophomore Season

Matthew Lenix

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Michael Gallup is Primed for Breakout Sophomore Season 1

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.



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Cowboys Late-Round Rookies Will Struggle to Make 2019 Roster

Jess Haynie

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Jalen Jelks

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.

Do Tony Pollard or Mike Weber Have Starting Potential?

Dallas Cowboys RB Mike Weber

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.

Donovan Wilson

Dallas Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson

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.



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