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What Went Wrong with Cowboys’ WRs in 2017?

Brian Martin

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Could The Cowboys Keep 6 Wide Receivers?
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Something went horrifically wrong for the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers in 2017. Before the season got underway it was thought to be a position of strength, but now looks more like a position of need heading into the off-season.

Dallas thought they put together one of the most talented units they've had in quite quite some time at the WR position. They not only brought back everyone who made the passing game so dangerous in 2016, but added Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown through the draft to improve depth. Unfortunately, things didn't quite pan out the way they thought they would.

It was painfully obvious nearly every Cowboys WR was having a down year. But, upon further examination, things were much worse than they seemed.

It can be argued the Cowboys top three wide receivers (Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams) ended up having the worst season of their entire careers, and I'll tell you why.

  • Dez Bryant didn't record a single 100 yard game
  • Cole Beasley didn't have more than 4 receptions in a single game
  • Terrance Williams didn't score a single touchdown

I don't know about you, but I find this completely unacceptable.

This was a unit that was pretty dominant just a season ago, but somehow completely fell apart in 2017. It makes no sense at all.

It was really strange how everything just went downhill.

The normally sure-handed Dez Bryant played a lot of the season as if he had oven mitts on his hands. He was still one of the most targeted WRs in the league, but was also near the top in dropped passes. It was extremely frustrating to say the least.

So much so, Cowboys fans are questioning Bryant's future with the organization.

Cole Beasley was one of the most productive WRs for not only the Dallas Cowboys last season, but in the entire NFL. He was a reception machine and quickly became Dak Prescott's best friend in the passing game.

But, Beasley's production dipped dramatically in 2017.

Surprisingly enough, Terrance Williams' last touchdown was the one Tony Romo threw him in the 2016 season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. This, quite frankly, hurts for two reasons: 1) The lack of production from one of the Cowboys top three WRs, and 2) Williams not living up to his long-term contract he signed in the off-season.

The sad truth is, not one of the Cowboys WRs stepped up in 2017.

This is a group that has been productive and relatively consistent in the past, but for some reason or another, performed below expectations.

What Went Wrong with the Cowboys WRs in 2017?

Undoubtably, a lot of the blame for the lack of production can be placed squarely on the receivers shoulders. It's up to them to make plays when the ball is thrown their way.

But, I don't believe they're solely responsible, despite what some may say.

There are several reasons why things went wrong for the WRs in 2017:

  • Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension hurt the production in the running game, which in turn allowed opposing defenses to sit back in coverage more instead of stacking the box.
  • Tyron Smith missed several games due to injuries, which ended up causing breakdowns in protection. With lack of trust in his protection, Prescott struggled in the passing game.
  • Scott Linehan's play calling became predictable, which caused frustration and discord between Dak Prescott and his WRs.
  • Prescott seem to regress in his second year as the Cowboys QB because of all the above reasons, which ended up hurting not only the WRs production, but the entire offense.

As you can see, there is no way of really pinpointing the exact reason why the production from the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers dipped in 2017. It's a matter of several contributing factors that led to their horrific season.

The truth of the matter is, the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff simply weren't as prepared as they should have been. They failed to change the offensive game plan once Elliott was suspended, and they didn't have a good backup plan in place at left tackle for Tyron Smith.

Hopefully, everyone is much more prepared for next season. Fortunately, they have an entire off-season to work out all of the things that went wrong in 2017. But, will they be able to do it?

What do you think went wrong with the Cowboys WRs in 2017?



Level C2/C3 quadriplegic. College graduate with a bachelors degree in sports and health sciences-concentration sports management. Sports enthusiast. Dallas Cowboys fanatic. Lover of life with a glass half-full point of view.

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4 Comments
  • Guadalupe Chavarria Jr.

    We need younger, playmaking wide recievers. Draft WR – Tre’Quan Smith 6-1 210 UCF and move WR Noah Brown into Dez Bryant’s position. WR Noah Brown 6-2 225 Ohio State. Great pass catcher without the attitude!

    2018 Dallas Cowboys Mock Draft: Updated 01/03/2018

    Final Mock!

    1)DT – Da’Ron Payne 6-2 320 Alabama

    2)LB – Jerome Baker 6-1 232 Ohio State

    3)OG – Isaiah Wynn 6-2 310 Georgia

    3)WR- Tre’Quan Smith 6-1 210 UCF 4.45

    4)CB – Adonis Alexander 6-3 196 Virginia Tech

    5)SS – Damon Webb 5-11 195 Ohio State

    6)DE – Cavon Walker 6-2 285 Maryland 4.78

    7)LB – Joel Lanning 6-2 235 Iowa State

    ** CFA – TE Jordan Thomas 6-5 280 Mississippi State

    *Sign Free Agent OT – Joe Staley 6-5 315 San Francisco 34 years

    • EverybodyTalks

      I just did the Fanspeak mock draft using Matt’s Big Board. (I like that they included the compensatory draft picks) Here is my mock:

      #19) Orlando Brown OT – Oklahoma. This was a tough decision because this 1st rd pick will not have “immediate impact” – which is what you want in the 1st round.
      #136) Nick Chubb RB – Georgia. I watched him a few times and believe he will be a good replacement for Alfred Morris.

      #139) Auden Tate WR – Florida St. He is a beast. Good hands and had a great Bowl game. There were other WRs available. Marcell Ateman and Allen Lazard. Those would all be good additions to the Dallas WR squad. I just think Tate has some of those intangibles.

      #174) Jack Cichy LB – Wisconsin….and now we have 6 LBs.

      #176) Durham Smythe TE – Notre Dame. Seems like everyone thinks we need a TE. I don’t see it. We have Hanna, Swain and Witten, with Rico on IR. That is 4, but just in case, here you go.

      #197) Jaylen Samuels FB/TE/RB – North Carolina St. Interesting jack-of-all-trades for a late 6th round pick. Keith Smith FB is a restricted free agent..hmm?

      #237) Trey Marshall S – Florida St. We have 4 Safeties already. I do wish they would try Byron Jones at CB. He isn’t big enough for Safety. Byron is 6’1″, 201lbs. 4.40 time on 40, plus it is what he did in college. I think he could shine there, if given the opportunity.

  • EverybodyTalks

    There are a lot of good WRs in this draft and the 8 million we could get if we let Dez walks. That money, added to the cap, would go a long way in resigning some of our other players, who did perform this season and are now FAs.

  • ChiSoxMike

    WHy do poorly written “columns” keep showing up in this feed? Is content so hard to find?

    Why’ve did receivers struggle? SAme reason Dak did. TIME. Online wasn’t as consistent as last year. That simple.

Player News

Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion

Sean Martin

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Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion 1

The Dallas Cowboys know what they're doing when it comes to the NFL Draft. Not to be outdone by Philadelphia, the Cowboys brought the 2018 Draft to AT&T Stadium, marking the first time the event's been held in an NFL stadium. This made Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch the first player to be drafted on the field he now calls home. Returning home this week after two straight interceptions against the Eagles and Falcons, Vander Esch is far from the controversial pick that drew jeers inside AT&T Stadium on draft night and every bit the star the Cowboys projected him to be.

The ascension of Leighton "Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch as one of the best young linebackers in the game has happened rapidly. LVE played eight man football in high school, tasked to do everything on both sides of the ball before settling into defense as a walk onto the blue turf.

For the first time in what seems like forever, the Cowboys have more than just a plan to play defense without Sean Lee. Thanks to their 19th overall pick they're thriving as one of the best units in the league, making Lee an afterthought.

Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion

Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch

Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have changed the entire makeup of the Cowboys defense, two young and athletic linebackers that should be roaming the middle of the field for a long time in Dallas.

This is exactly what LVE was able to do on his interceptions of both Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. Vander Esch defending well against the pass is probably the least surprising part of his development, as his coverage skills always overshadowed his strength against the run in college.

It just so happens that Vander Esch tallied 63 tackles in eight games before recording his first career interception, establishing himself as an all-around linebacker with no true weakness. Vander Esch has played with the power and block shedding ability that matches his sideline to sideline range and instincts, as opposing offenses have done little to slow the Cowboys new leader on defense.

LVE2

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This is Vander Esch's first interception, which set up a Cowboys field goal against the Eagles. Watch as Leighton reads the eyes of Wentz through the play, first angling towards his check down throw and then gaining depth to intercept the pass.

The subtle yet effective movements from Vander Esch to undercut Wentz's throw is a fine example of how quickly LVE has picked up on Kris Richard's defense, as well as the next level game speed.

LVE1

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

Sunday's interception from Vander Esch was the type of game breaking play the Cowboys needed to separate from the Falcons in hostile territory. Although the Falcons would rally to tie the game after this point, the Cowboys defense became the first to hold Atlanta under 20 points at home this season, thanks in large part to LVE as always.

The smoothness from Vander Esch on this play is exceptional, stepping up into coverage against the running back before sprinting back in position for the turnover. Calvin Ridley, drafted seven picks after Vander Esch, helps Leighton by letting Ryan's pass go through his hands.

Give Vander Esch credit for being in the right place at the right time and finishing the play. Every week, the rookie finds a way to do something memorable, and in helping the Cowboys earn their first two road wins of 2018 he finally flashed in pass coverage.

The next challenge for the Cowboys defense comes on a short week, against the division leading Washington Redskins. Though they lost starting Quarterback Alex Smith for the season on Sunday, expected to start Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving, it was Running Back Adrian Peterson that gashed the Cowboys for 4.13 yards a carry and 99 total yards in the Redskins week six win over Dallas.

Given what not only Leighton Vander Esch but the rest of the Cowboys defense has shown against the run in recent weeks, all without David Irving and most recently without either Antwaun Woods or Daniel Ross, the Cowboys should certainly be prepared to play for first place in the NFC East on Thursday.

Tell us what you think about "Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Sean Lee: Time for the General to Surrender

John Williams

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REPORT: Cowboys LB Sean Lee to Miss Games with Hamstring Injury

“Football is a meritocracy,” said Tony Romo about this time two years ago. He’d just been told that Dak Prescott would remain the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, though Romo was deemed healthy enough to return to action. Well, the Cowboys face a similar situation with another rookie playing excellent football with a veteran on the sideline. The rookie is Leighton Vander Esch and the veteran is Sean Lee.

When Romo stepped aside he issued the words that have become synonymous with who Tony Romo is, “Football is a meritocracy.” As sad as it is when it comes to the end of a player’s career, the time has come for General Lee to wave that white flag as a full-time player in the NFL.

Lee has been one of the best linebackers in the game during his tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, but has always been limited by his body’s inability to stay healthy. In most seasons, the Cowboys haven’t had an adequate replacement for Lee on the depth chart and that led to disastrous outcomes like the Green Bay and Los Angeles games in 2017.  Most years, we’d sit around for weeks telling ourselves, “if the Cowboys can hang in there until Sean Lee gets back, then they’ll be alright.” 

That all seems to be over now. The Dallas Cowboys finally have a player on the depth chart who can adequately, and perhaps more than adequately, replace Sean Lee’s production at the weak side linebacker position in Vander Esch. You don’t have to be a film grinder to see that the 19th overall pick has become a difference maker for the Cowboys and someone you can’t take off the field. He’s the future, but he’s also proving to be the now at WILL for the Dallas Cowboys and the coaching staff as well as Sean Lee need to recognize that. 

Vander Esch has two interceptions in the last two games, won defensive player of the week for his play against the Philadelphia Eagles. Per Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch is second in the NFL among linebackers in tackles and fourth in the NFL in stops. 

He’s been one of the best players on the team this season and shouldn’t come off the field, even for an All-Pro like Sean Lee.  

So the coaches have a difficult decision to make, but with the Dak Prescott-Tony Romo decision as a template, it’s not really a difficult decision. 

It’s time for Sean Lee to take a step back. He’s a leader on the defense whether he’s on the field or on the sideline. He’s a huge asset to the linebacker room in-game preparation, and he can still make plays for you when asked to do so. Lee, however, doesn’t need to see a full-time compliment of snaps when he returns unless we see a drop off in play for Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch’s play and Lee’s body are telling us that the time is now to make the transition to life on defense beyond Sean Lee.

Lee is still an important player to have around and he’ll get some snaps, but the WILL linebacker spot needs to be Leighton Vander Esch’s moving forward. 

Because, after all, “football is a meritocracy.” 



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Game Notes

Ezekiel Elliott’s Excellence Elevates Cowboys in Road Win

John Williams

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Cowboys en Español: El Reto VS Texans, Porque Bryant No Volverá

For the first time this season the Dallas Cowboys have won back to back games moving to 5-5 on the year with a 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons in a game that they had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The defense was the story for most of the game, forcing the Atlanta Falcons to kick four field goals before allowing the game-tying touchdown with less than two minutes to play. The offense had trouble getting going until they leaned heavily on their star running back, Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott, who went over the 200 total yard mark for the second time this season and the fourth time in his career was dominant in the second half, getting hard-fought yards en route to his fifth 100 yard game of the season.

Elliott averaged 5.3 yards per carry, on 23 carries, but was also the leading receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott on the day caught seven passes on eight targets for 79 yards as well.

The Cowboys first touchdown drive was reminiscent of who the Dallas Cowboys were in 2016. That season, and seemingly rarely since, the Cowboys would go on these long 10-15 play drives in the second half of games and take control of the game.

On Sunday in Atlanta, they did it again.

Trailing 6-3 in the second half with the defense playing an excellent game, the Cowboys went on a 14 play drive for 75 yards that took nearly eight minutes off the clock. It was a huge drive to give the Cowboys a lead and to give their defense a much deserved rest.

On that drive, Ezekiel Elliott saw the ball seven times and set the tone picking up several first downs that helped set up Dak Prescott's four yard touchdown run that took the lead. After Leighton Vander Esch's interception on the ensuing drive, Elliott once again made a huge impact taking the ball twice for 31 yards including the 28 yard touchdown run that put the Cowboys up 19-9 with a little more than 12 minutes to play in the game. And on the final drive of the game, Ezekiel Elliott caught a pass and picked up a first down just inside Falcons territory.

Over the last two weeks, you can see a big difference in the effectiveness of the run game. Elliott spoke about Amari Cooper being one reason they've had more success in the run game.

Jon Machota on Twitter

Ezekiel Elliott on Amari Cooper: "It's just one more guy they have to worry about. It seems like he kind of was the missing piece, just because when he got here this offense started rolling. It's great having him. He's a phenomenal player. He's going to have a great future here.

Amari Cooper's presence is a big reason for the offense and you can tell they've been a more complete offense the last two weeks. The addition of Cooper puts more stress on a defense in the passing game. Like Elliott said, he's a player that has to be accounted for, making his and the offensive line's jobs easier.

The play of the offensive line has also been really good the last two weeks since Marc Colombo took over as offensive line coach and coincidentally Xavier Su'a-Filo was inserted into the starting lineup for an injured Connor Williams.

Whatever the reason, Ezekiel Elliott seems to be on an upward trajectory.

Ezekiel Elliott is now averaging 129.4 total yards per game, which sits right at his career average heading into the 2018 season. He's on pace for 1,524 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns, 545 receiving yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns. The touchdown totals are down from his career pace, but he's still on pace for 2,000 total yards this season. If the last two weeks are any indications, that pace could see a huge bump in the second half of the season.

NFL Research on Twitter

Since entering the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott has: * 17 games with 100+ rush yards * 24 games with 100+ scrimmage yards * 4 games with 200+ scrimmage yards * 3,567 rush yards The one similarity between these numbers? Elliott leads the NFL in each since 2016 #Cowboys

If you needed a singular note to tell you how great Elliott's been for the Dallas Cowboys, that's the one. It's amazing that Elliott leads the league in all of those categories including rushing yards considering he sat out six games last season and had a game where he rushed for only eight yards against the Denver Broncos in week two of 2017.

And then there’s this one.

NFL345 on Twitter

@dallascowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott had 201 scrimmage yards and a TD in the team's Week 11 victory. Elliott (4,540 scrimmage yards & 32 TDs) became the third player in @NFL history with 4,500+ scrimmage yards & 30+ TDs in their first 35 career games.

The two other players to accomplish that feat were Eric Dickerson and Edgerin James. That’s some legendary company.

Ezekiel Elliott is a big-time player for the Dallas Cowboys and someone who they can lean on the rest of the season. If the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs it will be because the run game continued to play at a high level, which opened everything else up for the offense. While many people will tell you that running backs don't matter, Ezekiel Elliott certainly proved on Sunday that he matters.

And if you watch opposing defenses on Sunday's, they act like Elliott matters. Like Sunday, Ezekiel Elliott will continue to be a threat each week and big things are coming for him and the Dallas Cowboys.



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