Outside of an encounter between a light pole and a blue Lamborghini that may or may not have been driven by Terrance Williams, the 2017 offseason has been relatively quiet for the Dallas Cowboys so far (knock on lots and lots of wood). But if you have been following along here, you know that there will be controversy about America’s team, even if there isn’t. If that confuses you, it just means that we, the fans, will find something to argue about no matter what. One thing that has become a subject of a lot of discussion lately is the idea that the team really doesn’t need a number one wide receiver.
That has grown out of the release of Dez Bryant, which came after the Cowboys failed to sign Sammy Watkins but did land Allen Hurns. They also drafted Michael Gallup in the third round. But to most, that means the team is without that clear WR1 to threaten defenses.
However, the concept of just what a WR1 is seems a bit unclear at times. It seems to mean that one receiver that always draws double coverage. But last season, there were times that the opposing teams were more concerned with taking Cole Beasley out of the gameplan than they were with shutting down Bryant. Another criteria that is being bandied about is that your top receiver should get 1,000 yards. That has led to comments like this.That is not exactly correct, since Hurns did have 1,031 yards in 2015 (all stats per Pro Football Reference). But only one season barely above the cutoff among the group still bears the overall point out. How can the Cowboys have an effective offense without that one stud receiver?
Well, you don’t have to look far to find an answer. That was exactly what the Cowboys did in 2016. You know, the year they went 13-3 with rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way. Here are the top five receivers and their totals for that year:
Cole Beasley – 833 yards, five touchdowns
Dez Bryant – 796 yards, eight touchdowns
Jason Witten – 673 yards, three touchdowns
Terrance Williams – 594 yards, four touchdowns
Ezekiel Elliott – 363 yards, one touchdown
None of them reached 1,000, or even 900 yards. But four of them were over 500 yards.
That seems to be the blueprint this season. Have five (or more) receivers among all the skill positions who can get in that 400 to 800 yard range, and make up for the lack of one big volume target. And with Beasley, Hurns, Gallup, and Tavon Austin, there are at least four receiving targets on the team that look to be capable of that kind of production. And between Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, and Deonte Thompson, there’s a good chance they can find that fifth one – plus they can always get Elliott more involved as a receiver.
Things did not work out so well last season, of course, but that is really more because of what happened with the running game and the offensive line. Elliott was badly distracted by his prolonged legal fight over his suspension during the first half of the season, and then had to sit out six games. The offensive line saw a series of problems. The Chaz Green experiment at left guard failed, Jonathan Cooper was more adequate than good replacing him, All Pro left tackle Tyron Smith missed time due to injury, Green then failed again when inserted to fill in for Smith, and Byron Bell was not much better. The ground attack that beat up opponents in 2016 was just a shadow of itself. That put pressure on Prescott to pick up the slack, and he had problems with that other kind of pressure, especially in the Atlanta Falcons game and after when the patchwork line left him vulnerable.
Additionally, the presence of Bryant and Witten on the field seemed to drive the play calls. Prescott seemed too often to be forcing the ball to one of those two. It was something Tony Romo could pull off, but it is just not Prescott’s strength. He likes to spread it around, as he did in 2016. But last year, he only had one receiver who had more than 600 yards in Bryant.
Now, Elliott is not facing the turmoil he experienced a year ago, and the offensive line has been restocked with Connor Williams, Cameron Fleming, and Marcus Martin (and the contract situation with Zack Martin will hopefully be resolved soon). The added depth may be just as important as drafting Williams to be the starting left guard.
With a running game that should look a lot more like it did two years ago, it is hardly unreasonable to think the passing attack will rebound as well. And there certainly should be more balls to go around now. Bryant is not there to force the ball to, and neither is Witten.
Of course, tight end is an even bigger question mark than wide receiver this year. But it is expected that the Cowboys may act like most other teams in the league and line up at times without a TE in the set.
In a sense, Dallas is going to let the WR1 identify himself. Just because most of the receivers on the team don’t have a 1,000 yard season in the NFL, it doesn’t mean there will not be one this year. Someone will wind up leading the team in catches, yards, and touchdowns this season (and those three categories may see different names for each). It is hoped that not having that one main target out there may complicate things for the defenses facing them.
The real key is that the Cowboys have done it before without a 1,000 yard receiver, and they still have the same offensive coordinator in Scott Linehan. He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel here. He just has to make it work again. And the emphasis on route-running and discipline that has already been seen under new WR coach Sanjay Lal should help get things back on track.
This will undoubtedly strike some as an optimistic view of things. And it is. The point is that there is a formula to make this work, and the Cowboys already know it.
Now they just have to get all the pieces to work.