The Dallas Cowboys have three intriguing rookie wide receivers on the roster and a second-year player in Terrance Williams who showed a lot of promise last year, but they’re a Dez Bryant injury away from being crippled on offense. Bryant is such an integral part of the Cowboys offense and arguably the team’s most irreplaceable player outside of quarterback Tony Romo.
Unlike teams like the Chicago Bears or Arizona Cardinals, the Cowboys don’t have a potential No. 1 wide receiver if Bryant’s back doesn’t hold up this year. Williams would fill that role, but he’s not really suited to play as the offense’s top option in the passing game.
Before diving into what the Cowboys would do if Bryant were to get injured, let’s examine his value to the offense.
Last year, Cowboys quarterbacks compiled a 102.4 passer rating when throwing to Bryant, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was good for 12th highest among all receivers, but it was actually the lowest mark of Bryant’s career; it was 123.2 in 2012, 110.8 in 2011, and 104.3 in Bryant’s rookie year.
Bryant also saw a drop in yards per route last year.
Although he’s still well above tight end Jason Witten’s mark, Bryant’s per-route efficiency declined in 2013. That’s not all that surprising, though, when you consider how much defensive attention he received. After his breakout in 2012, opposing defenses knew they had to stop Bryant at all costs.
Thus, much of Bryant’s value is in helping his teammates. Witten’s efficiency declined because he’s not the player he once was, but consider the breakout seasons of DeMarco Murray and even Terrance Williams as a rookie. Those don’t happen without Bryant drawing attention. When that disappears, so does a lot of production that doesn’t show up in Bryant’s stat line.
The biggest area where the Cowboys could potentially miss Bryant, however, is in the red zone. Simply put, Bryant is the best red-zone wide receiver in the NFL. Take a look at how his career red-zone touchdown rate stacks up with other top receivers (and Witten).
For the record, I didn’t handpick those players; I more or less randomly chose four dominant receivers. The reason their red-zone touchdown rates are all so similar (between 25.4 percent for Green and 30.2 percent for Johnson) is because red-zone touchdown rate is a consistent stat; the same receivers continually lead the league in the category, with the same big-bodied receivers always near the top of the list.
It’s ridiculous that Bryant has been able to record a red-zone touchdown rate that, at 41.4 percent, is 11 percent better than Megatron’s. Bryant is right on par with the game’s elite tight ends (think Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski) as the game’s premiere red-zone threats.
Thus, the main area where the Cowboys could miss Bryant if he were to miss any time would be near the goal line. They simply don’t have the wide receivers necessary to even come close to replacing his ability.
The Potential Loss of Bryant
Before proposing a solution, let’s look a little more at how Bryant’s absence would affect the wide receiver position. As mentioned, Williams would become the No. 1 wide receiver. As much as Williams impressed with his 44/736/5 line as a rookie, he doesn’t have a true No. 1 body type; at 6’2”, 200 pounds, Williams is best suited as a player who can stretch the field and take advantage of double coverage on Bryant—a more talented Laurent Robinson, if you will.
Another problem is what would happen at the No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver positions. It’s currently unclear who would take over as the No. 2, but it could realistically be any of the rookie wide receivers—Devin Street, L’Damian Washington, or Chris Boyd—or Dwayne Harris.
The rookies, two of whom weren’t even drafted, are a problem for obvious reasons. Wide receivers take a notoriously long time to develop, with even highly drafted rookies rarely producing at a high level. Expecting contributions from a fifth-rounder or an undrafted free agent wouldn’t be smart.
Harris might play outside, and he has good bulk at 5’10”, 207 pounds, but this is still a player with 26 catches and three touchdowns in two seasons. I actually think he’d be the favorite to work as the No. 2 in the event of a Bryant injury, but that’s far from an ideal situation.
Cole Beasley would work as the Cowboys’ No. 3 receiver in the slot—something he could do anyway—but he’s a player who has averaged only 6.3 yards per target in his career. What Beasley does—catch short passes, sometimes for first downs—is highly replaceable. He certainly isn’t going to contribute much as a scorer.
You can start to see the problem the Cowboys have on their hands. Their entire offensive system is extremely fragile, reliant on the health of a single player. If Bryant doesn’t play 16 games, the Cowboys are in serious trouble.
There might not be much the Cowboys can do at the wide receiver position if Bryant goes down, but they can minimize the blow by taking wide receivers off of the field. Specifically, the Cowboys should utilize heavy personnel way more often if Bryant gets injured, getting Gavin Escobar and James Hanna on the field a lot more.
The Cowboys should get Escobar on the field more either way, but the team’s mismanagement of Hanna has been atrocious. Since being drafted two years ago, Hanna has only 26 career targets. He’s arguably one of the most athletic tight ends ever.
The obvious defense (and the one the Cowboys would likely use) is that Hanna doesn’t block. My answer: Who cares? Let’s step back and view Hanna not as a tight end who needs to block, but instead as a really big wide receiver. What if there were a 6’4”, 250-pound receiver with 4.49 speed coming out of the draft? That would be unbelievable—a slightly heavier Vincent Jackson. Well, the Cowboys have that player in Hanna, and they don’t know it.
The Cowboys aren’t going to be in a great position if Bryant gets injured—he’s one of the best wide receivers in the NFL—but they can at least increase their efficiency by moving away from the young/small wide receivers and finally employing the two- and three-tight end sets they’ve talked about for years.