Part three of SportTalkLine’s interview with ESPN analyst KC Joyner looks at the expectations fan can have for the 2018 receiving unit and what Dak Prescott can do to maximize their performance.
Sports Talk Line: The Cowboys completely overhauled their receiving unit this year. Changed the position coach. Let Dez Bryant go. Cole Beasley is the only holdover who projects to major reps in 2018. The team was clearly not happy with the production. This unit split the fandom. As the games slipped away and the frustration mounted, a lot of fans were dumping on the quarterback, a lot on the coordinator. That said, I saw a lot of sloppy route running, a lot of dropped passes and a lot of plays where guys just didn’t seem open.
What in your opinion is the receivers’ share of the 2017 Cowboys misfortunes?
KC Joyner: Looking at it metrically, I see Dak Prescott averaging 9.8 yards on vertical attempts. That’s not a good number. He’s capable of better. He ranked 25th. Those only accounted for 27.5% of his passes, which is also a low number. It ranks in the bottom quarter of the league.
To put it a different way, Alex Smith ranked first in vertical yards per attempt last year but the Chiefs still limited his number of downfield throws, as they always have. He had just over 26%. Prescott had a lower percentage than Kirk Cousins. He was lower than Blake Bortles.
STL: Should we be bullish on the new guys? What can we expect from Allen Hurns? What can we look for from Michael Gallup? He’s a rookie and the learning curve for NFL rookies is notoriously steep. It’s hard to hit it big as a rookie. That said, is there a reason for optimism?
KC: Terrance Williams averaged 11.3 yards per attempt on vertical passes. Now he only had 26 attempts. That’s not a lot but he averaged 35th out of 86 qualifying receivers. That’s still in the top half of the league. I think he can do that again.
With Gallup, it’s very difficult to expect significant production out of a rookie but if Michael Gallup can’t average more than 6.3 yards per vertical attempt, what Dez Bryant averaged last year? The Cowboys should cut him right now.
Cole Beasley averaged 9.0 yards per vertical attempt last year. 9.0 versus Bryant’s 6.3. Even if Michael Gallup only matched Beasley’s 2017 number at 9.0 per vertical attempt and did it on Bryant’s 62 vertical pass attempts.
Sixty-two attempts! That’s about four vertical passes per game. That ranked 4th in the league in that category. Even if you said Gallup is only going to be as productive as Cole Beasley. Add that extra 3 yards per attempt that an extra 200 yards to the Cowboys bottom line.
I happen to think Gallup can be a double-digit guy and you’re not going to throw to him deep 62 times. Maybe you only give him 30 and you send some of those other 30 to Terrance Williams. You send some to other receivers. If they only average 10 yards per attempt which is a so-so number you’re adding, on the same attempts that Dez Bryant got last year, about 300 extra yards.
That may not sound like much, but that’s an extra 25-30 per game? 300 extra yards will give you another win, let’s put it that way.
STL: And they were one win short of the playoffs last year.
KC: If you look at metrics and you add or subtract 300 yards, one way or another. You find that 300 yards often adds up to an added win or a subtracted win. That’s not guaranteed but that’s a fair rule of thumb.
STL: What can we say about the tight ends? Is there reason to discuss much after Jason Witten?
KC: Not to go too deep but Witten’s numbers were about average for the league. Not great and a bit of a drop-off, but he did have 81 attempts. As you carve up the target pie in 2018 you have to wonder where those tight end attempts go? I can’t see the Cowboys throwing the same number of passes to Blake Jarwin in 2018. Maybe some more go to the receivers but the targets to the tight ends should drop.
CN: I’ve discussed with others that the Cowboys may throw a lot more to the backs this year by design. They like throwing screens to Elliott but he could see his reception total take a real jump.
KC: Look, Ezekiel Elliott averaged 7.1 yards per attempt on vertical throws last year. Even HE was better as a downfield target than Dez Bryant. He was even better than Jason Witten, so there may be something to that thinking.
And Zeke only had screen passes. He averaged over 13 yards on those passes. I think that number was spiked by one really long reception but only eight targets is a small number. They’re capable of throwing him more screens. I wonder if they don’t want to overload him to keep him fresh in the passing game.
Upping that screen total could also help the pass protection numbers too.
STL: Let’s move to the quarterback. You mentioned earlier that he was running a lot. If you say “Atlanta” Cowboys fans know what you’re talking about. There was a lot of grumbling before that he had some troubles. Can you point to things he did well last year and areas of his game that need work?
KC: Bad decision rate is one area where he did really well. That measures how often a quarterback makes a mental error that leads to a turnover or turnover opportunity for the defense. He cut his BDR in half last year. It was 1.0% in 2016 which is actually a good number. If you’re 1.0 or lower, you’re doing well in that metric.
And that’s as a rookie. That’s a very good number as a rookie. Take Deshaun Watson as a comparison. His PBR was 3.1% his rookie season. He only had part of a season, so he might have lowered it had he kept playing but he wasn’t going to get down to one percent. He was taking too many chances.
Prescott was protecting the ball really well as a rookie then he cut that number by more than half, to 0.4% last year so he did an excellent job protecting the ball.
In stretch vertical passes, those more than 20 yards downfield, he actually had solid numbers there at 13.6 yards per attempt, that’s slightly above average. He had a 46.2% success rate in stretch vertical attempts, meaning a completion or a pass that resulted in a defensive penalty. Those are both good numbers, but as I mentioned they didn’t call it that often. 52 stretch vertical attempts is middle of the road in that metric.
As we’ve said, EE only 10% of his passes were stretch verticals. That ranks in the bottom quarter. I think the team reached a point where it concluded that Dez Bryant isn’t getting open often enough and the team is not doing a good job at protecting Prescott.
Given that, I’m surprised Prescott only threw 29 screen passes last year. That’s one of the lowest totals in the league. You need pass blocking help. You’ve got a back in Elliott who is very good at running screens and you only threw him eight all year. I don’t know why they didn’t throw him more screens and find ways to incorporate more backs into that part of the passing game because screens are the same as running plays that if you get good blocking on a screen you usually can get ten yards on a play.
Now you may factor some drops or bad blocks in but you’re going to get 10.0. That’s low hanging fruit in my opinion. If you add just two more attempts per game you can let a defense know if you keep blitzing my passer we’re going to burn you. I think they need to use screens at least twice as much as last year.
STL: Let’s look at accuracy, because that was a claim from his detractors last year, that he wasn’t as accurate as he had been his rookie year. Where was he able to maintain? Did he improve in some areas and did he regress in some areas?
KC: It’s tough to say because as I said he did really well in stretch vertical throwing. In 2016 he had a 44.2% success rate as a rookie. Now, earlier I said Dez’s drops hurt him. In 2016 he had a 58.6% success rate on vertical passes (more than 10 yards downfield). That earned him a green rating, meaning he was in the top ten in the league in that category. He goes from there to 48.2% in 2017 which is square in the middle of the league.
I think that Dez Bryant’s collapse was a bigger impact on this offense last year than any other factor. If he’s even a mediocre receiver just a mid-tier receiver I think Prescott’s numbers are vastly improved, I think this offense would have performed at a higher level and the season might have been different.
I think Prescott could bounce back this year because between Gallup and Williams you could see an increase at receiver production but when you lose what Bryant used to be before 2017 and you lose Witten, I wonder, where are you going to spread out 500 passes?
If Gallup can hold up to 120 or 100 passes and put up solid numbers the Cowboys offense should be okay. But if he can’t hold up, and a lot of rookies don’t hold up when you give them that kind of volume. They tend to drop off, and Terrance Williams can’t step up, I scratch my head and wonder where you get good options for 500 passes.