Change is a constant in the NFL, but over the years it’s seemingly been less of a factor in Dallas. During the last two seasons, though, running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott replaced veterans DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo, respectively.
This season will bring the offensive changes full circle, as wide receiver Dez Bryant was released and tight end Jason Witten has retired and will be joining the Monday Night Football booth.
Last season, despite being long in the tooth as evidenced by their 23 years of combined experience, Bryant (69 receptions, six touchdowns) and Witten (53 receptions, five touchdowns) were still Prescott’s top two targets and most productive receivers. Without them the landscape in Dallas, from a receiving point-of-view, is perhaps as barren as anywhere in the NFL.
Terrance Williams (53 receptions, 568 receiving yards) is Dallas’ leading returning wideout. Other top names at the position consist of Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns – hardly a cast likely to demand its own “30 for 30” feature someday. The Cowboys bolstered the position by using a third-round draft choice last month on Colorado State’s Michael Gallup and a sixth-rounder on Cedrick Wilson Jr. of Boise State.
The smoldering ruins remaining at tight end are even bleaker. The only Cowboys player on the active roster who has caught an NFL pass is Geoff Swaim and with only nine receptions in three years, his Canton bust is still safely on hold. Dallas acknowledged this positional shortcoming at the draft by pegging tight end Dalton Schultz of Stanford with the final pick of the fourth round.
Before you sell off your Cowboys season tickets, however, ponder the following. First we must repeat that although Bryant and Witten are gone, Dez has been declining – illustrated by a career-low 12.1 yards per reception last season. The newest member of the Monday Night Football crew, meanwhile, once again played in all 16 games last season, but his 560 receiving yards is his lowest season total since his rookie season of 2003. His 8.9 yards per catch was a career-low.
Interrupted by a sizeable suspension, Elliott didn’t live up to his glorious rookie season of 2016 and averaged one less yard per carry (5.1 to 4.1). Yet among running backs that carried the ball last season 50-plus times against at least eight men in the box, Elliott had the fifth-best yards per carry average (4.23 on 86 attempts) in the NFL. And among running backs that handled at least 20 carries last season against at least nine men in the box, Elliott led the league with 6.0 yards per carry (on 26 attempts).
Prescott will also have a role to play against stacked defenses aside from it offering more single-coverage matchups outside and down the field. In a similar number of attempts last season (490) compared to 2016 (459), he threw nine more interceptions. Prescott was better on the ground last season – perhaps out of desperation – averaging 6.3 yards per carry versus 4.9 during his rookie campaign (both on 57 attempts). Each season, Prescott has recorded six rushing touchdowns.
While there will no doubt be an adjustment period this season and some new faces that will have to step forward, owning a pair of young Pro-Bowl building blocks in Elliott and Prescott should give Cowboys fans a more optimistic outlook that has been advertised.
By Brett Kruschke
Follow Brett on Twitter: @bkru