After his rookie season of 2016, it appeared that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had the world by the tail.
The fourth-rounder out of Mississippi State, thrown into the starting lineup after Tony Romo was injured in the preseason, completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Prescott won the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, made the Pro Bowl and helped the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.
The next season wasn't quite as spectacular—Prescott's completion percentage fell to 62.9, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio fell to 22-13 as injuries and suspensions took their toll on Dallas' offensive roster—but things were still looking pretty good.
Then, the 2018 offseason happened. Tight end Jason Witten retired after a 15-year career that could see him in the Hall of Fame someday. The team also released receiver Dez Bryant in April in a move that saved $8.5 million in 2018 salary cap space, per OverTheCap.com. And with that, Prescott's two top receivers were out the door.
These things happen in the NFL. What makes the difference in the seasons to come is how a team's front office responds to such defections. And it's tough to argue that the Cowboys' front office set Prescott up for optimal success going into his third season. They acquired former Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns with a two-year, $12 million contract in free agency. They also signed ex-Buffalo Bills receiver Deonte Thompson, who put up decent numbers in Buffalo's dysfunctional 2017 offense, to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. And they selected Colorado State receiver Michael Gallup in the third round of the draft.
Adding these players to a receiver corps that had slot man Cole Beasley and outside receiver Terrance Williams probably won't strike fear into the hearts of too many enemy defenses. One thing is for sure: As the group stands now, with what we know about it, it's clear that the Cowboys don't have what you'd call a No. 1 receiver in a traditional sense—that receiver who can go up against the NFL's best defenders and come out winning more often than not.
If Prescott is concerned about the talent drain, he's not letting on.
"I don't know if any team in the league necessarily needs a No. 1 receiver," Prescott recently told Pro Football Talk. "It's about getting the ball out, spreading the ball around, keeping the defense on its toes. ... Me and these young guys have been here before we even started OTAs, getting that timing down so we can get in OTAs and have good feel for each other and now with the defense in front of us, grow off of that and grow from what we've already accomplished. That's the best thing I can do."
That's all well and good to say in the preseason, but reality may bite when the Cowboys hit the field. Hurns is a good high-volume receiver both outside and in the slot, but he doesn't have the deep speed required to break coverages apart. He's not been able to match the 10-touchdown season he put together in 2015. Williams is a potentially gifted outside receiver who has seen his yards per catch drop in each of the last four seasons, even as his catch rate has risen. Beasley is a productive slot receiver, but at 5'8" and 180 pounds, that's all he is—you're not going to see him smoking Aqib Talib outside on a deep vertical route. And to replace Witten, the Cowboys have a committee of Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers and fourth-round rookie Dalton Schultz. Not exactly a Murderers' Row.
If there's one bright spot, it's the addition of Gallup, who amassed 176 receptions for 2,690 yards and 21 touchdowns in two seasons at Colorado State. His five-catch, 81-yard game against Alabama last season was especially instructive. In the first half, Gallup was stymied by the Crimson Tide's aggressive press coverage, but he used his physical style of play to create separation as the game went on. That showed his ability to adjust to NFL-level coverage concepts. Gallup isn't a speed receiver, but he does have many of the attributes you like in an NFL target—he's tough, smart, and he understands the nuances of the position in ways many young receivers don't.
Still, Gallup most likely projects as a WR2 from a talent perspective in his first season, and that goes back to the fundamental issue with Dallas' 2018 passing offense—can a bunch of WR2s and WR3s combine in the right schemes to eliminate the need for a top guy?
Prescott does have two things in his favor: running back Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in football. Both of those things were not at full strength in 2017—Elliott missed six games due to a league suspension, and left tackle Tyron Smith played through injuries. Prescott should have those advantages to a higher degree in 2018, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must make up for the dip in receiver talent with schemes that are friendly to his quarterback.
In February, Prescott talked about the run-pass option and how it benefits him. Play-action in general has been Prescott's best friend throughout his NFL career, and the addition of the RPO, along with certain route-and receiver-spacing concepts can set a defense on its heels and give the young quarterback an intrinsic advantage.
"I think it just means if you watch a little bit of maybe what the Panthers are doing or what the Chiefs did, just the RPOs, the run-pass options, just allowing me to use my feet if necessary more," Prescott said, via 24/7 Sports. "Allow me to go out there and be more comfortable in everything I'm doing."
This simple slant touchdown to Beasley in Week 9 against the Chiefs is a perfect example of how the Cowboys can have Prescott using play-action and the RPO idea, along with routes tailored to spread a defense out.
This was Elliott's last game before his suspension started, so he's in the backfield in an offset Pistol formation.
At the snap, Prescott fakes to Elliott, who runs to the line of scrimmage and then stops so he'll be ready to block if need be. As this happens, Chiefs middle linebacker Derrick Johnson (No. 56) charges to the line, leaving the middle of the field open.
At the same time, safety Ron Parker (No. 38) vacates the middle to double up on Bryant, who's running a quick straight-ahead route into the end zone. And left cornerback Marcus Peters can't help cornerback Steven Nelson cover Beasley's slant, because he's covering Brice Butler's out route.
So, all Beasley has to do is shake loose of Nelson's coverage in a one-on-one matchup for the touchdown.
This is a simple but successful and repeatable play, and it's clear that play-action is a key to Prescott's viability—and the viability of the Dallas passing offense. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, Prescott had a 122.0 passer rating on play-action passes—only Kirk Cousins had a higher rating on such passes at 124.4. Prescott's passer rating on non-play-action throws was 97.0, which represents a significant drop in performance. So, it's interesting that the Cowboys called play-action on just 197 of his throws.
When Prescott refers to an offense better suited to his talents, play-action is a significant part of the equation in that it gives Prescott easier and more wide-open reads and gives his receivers better matchups. Linehan can enhance those concepts with RPOs to every level of the field, and when the run option is chosen, the combination of Elliott and that offensive line makes Dallas' overall offense a very tough one to solve. If Prescott has anything in 2018 approaching Matt Ryan's 381 play-action attempts in 2017, it's fair to imagine that Dallas' offense might operate at a completely different level.
Not every team has—or needs—a No. 1 receiver. Prescott is right about that. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver last season, and there was no one target opponents had to focus on to the exclusion of others. It was up to Philly's coaching staff to create opportunities for their quarterbacks and receivers based on schematic intelligence and defensive constraint. Especially when Carson Wentz was lost for the remainder of the 2017 season with a Week 13 knee, backup Nick Foles benefited tremendously from the RPOs, varied receiver routes and multiple run concepts to the point that he was able to lead his team to a surprise Super Bowl win.
Not that Dak Prescott is ready to do the same with the talent around him just yet, but if he's going to return to his 2016 form, and if the Cowboys are to inch closer to their 13 wins in that season, Prescott's coaches will have to work harder and smarter than ever to make up for the talent deficit among his receivers.