That’s not a popular opinion, as wide receiver is considered a position of relative strength for Dallas, but the Cowboys could be in monumental trouble if Dez Bryant gets injured, or even if defenses commit more to taking him out of games.
Do the Cowboys have positions at which an upgrade would provide more immediate value? Yes. But outside of quarterback Tony Romo, there’s no loss the Cowboys could afford less than that of Bryant; with the current roster, his absence would result in the death of all offensive efficiency.
He’s that important.
Furthermore, wide receivers are undervalued as a whole. As quarterbacks release the ball more quickly in today’s NFL, the importance of the offensive line decreases. Meanwhile, the same wide receiver types dominate and help quarterbacks as much as an elite quarterback can help his pass-catchers. That “type” is big, physical and efficient in the red zone.
Without Bryant, the Cowboys would be in trouble as they approach the goal line. They need to convert yards into points, and players like him do that.
One reason the Cowboys should target a wide receiver in this year’s class is that there are a number of potential No. 1 wide receivers—meaning someone is probably going to drop too far.
Second, NFL teams are valuing the wrong traits in wide receivers, paying too much for speed and not enough for size, youth and college production. That creates marketplace inefficiencies.
I’ve done a lot of research on the importance of height and weight for wide receivers, and there’s a wealth of data that shows they're more vital than top-end speed.
Everyone agrees that younger is better for any prospect, but NFL teams don’t act like it. Younger players are superior not only because they can play in the league longer, but because they were forced to play older college competition. When a 19-year-old receiver dominates in the SEC, for example, that’s much more impressive than when a 23-year-old does it.
The Cowboys actually fell for this trap last year with their selection of Terrance Williams. The pick wasn’t necessarily a poor one because he still fell pretty far into the third round, but he played much of his rookie season at age 24. In comparison, left tackle Tyron Smith, who has been in the NFL for three seasons, won’t turn 24 until December.
Finally, college production is important for wide receivers. If a guy is going to excel in the pros, chances are that he did it in college. But instead of analyzing bulk receiving stats, it seems more valuable to look at market-share stats, which better predict NFL success. Popularized by rotoViz (subscription required) market share is the percentage of a team’s receiving yards/touchdowns for which a player accounts.
If a wide receiver has 10 touchdowns on an offense with 30 total receiving touchdowns, his market share of touchdowns (0.33) would be the same as if he had 15 touchdowns on a team with 45 total scores.
Market-share stats are useful for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that they account for team/quarterback strength. It’s more impressive when a wide receiver dominates on an otherwise poor offense with a lackluster quarterback than when one excels with an elite passer.
So without further ado, here are five wide receivers the Cowboys should consider in 2014. All have an elite combination of size, age and college production.
Size: 6’5”, 225 pounds
Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is going to be a first-round pick, and there’s a good chance that he’ll be off the board before Dallas selects. If he’s available, he should at least be worth consideration because he’s going to be a dominant No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL.
He averaged 20.2 yards per reception on 69 catches in 2013, scoring 12 touchdowns in the process. His market-share numbers are good—not Dez Bryant good, but good—and he has elite size. He’d immediately be a red-zone monster for Dallas.
Size: 6’5”, 235 pounds
Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is another likely first-rounder, but he’s a player the Cowboys could potentially target in a trade-down scenario. If Dallas can pull off a first-round trade similar to what it did last year, it might be able to grab a player like Benjamin and stockpile picks to minimize some of the blow of selecting a player at a “non-need” position.
Benjamin could turn into the most effective scorer in this draft class. He found the end zone 15 times on just 54 catches in 2013, and he amazingly scored on 22.6 percent of his catches in two years at Florida State, per Sports-Reference.com. His market share of yards is mediocre, but since he has the size of a tight end, his market share of touchdowns was top tier. He’ll dominate in the red zone in the NFL.
The major concern with him is his age. He played the 2013 season at age 22. Everyone else on this list is 21 years old or younger; at that age, Benjamin had only 495 yards and four touchdowns. For that reason, he’s a worse option than Evans.
Size: 6’3”, 210 pounds
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson might be my favorite player in the entire class. With all of the talk about some of the other players at his position, he is the big, young receiver whom no one is mentioning.
You’d like him to be slightly heavier, but he’s far from undersized at 210 pounds, and he has the frame to add some bulk. His final market-share yardage number was through the roof since he had 1,432 yards on 97 catches, but he scored just six times. That might be a concern if he hadn’t scored 11 times in his age-19 season in 2012.
My praise of Robinson is probably the largest you’ll see because I think he’s a less-hyped version of A.J. Green and an inevitable stud at the next level. Dallas would be lucky to land him in Round 2.
Size: 6’3”, 209 pounds
At 6’3”, 209 pounds, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews has a very similar build to Allen Robinson. He also had 112 catches during the 2013 season at age 21. His market-share numbers for both yards and touchdowns are through the roof.
Even though he is perhaps an even better option than Robinson, he has a much better chance to fall to Dallas in the second round. Because of how inefficiently NFL teams draft wide receivers, there’s even a chance that the Cowboys could trade back into the late second or early third and still grab Matthews.
Size: 6’2”, 216 pounds
There’s a decent chance that Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams will offer the best value of any player in this draft class. Rated by CBS Sports as a late-second-round prospect, he has everything you want in a receiver.
He has decent height and good bulk. He’s just 21 years old and won’t turn 22 until December. Best of all, he absolutely dominated at Fresno State with a 33 percent market share of yards and 50 percent market share of touchdowns.
Look at Adams’ combined stat line just from his two seasons at Fresno State: 233 receptions, 3,031 yards, 38 touchdowns. He’s a first-round talent who will probably be available for Dallas in the second round.