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.