Cole Beasley Is an Underrated Key to the Cowboys' Offensive Success
There’s a lot to like about the Dallas Cowboys' offense this season. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, it’s one of the best in the league and they're the second-best offense in the NFL behind the Atlanta Falcons, according to Adjusted NEP per play.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant get much of the attention because they’re the new incarnation of the Dallas Triplettes from the 90’s -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. This trio should drive the offensive production for years to come, but an underrated fourth member has been just as big of a reason for Dallas’ success -- slot receiver Cole Beasley.
It may seem strange to give a lot of credit to a receiver who’s been on the field for just 56.31 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, but Beasley has been an important and highly productive piece of the offense when on the field.
Even though he’s played on just over half the team’s snaps on offense -- a rate below Bryant, who has missed three full games -- Beasley is still tied for the team lead in targets with Jason Witten (73) and has sole possession of the team lead for receptions (53) and receiving yards (647). Beasley not only has been the most productive receiver for the Cowboys, but he’s also been one of the best in the league.
Among 72 wide receivers with at least 50 targets on the season, Beasley is first in Reception NEP per target. He’s second among those receivers in catch rate and seventh among reception Success Rate -- the percentage of receptions that positively impact NEP. If we break down successful receptions per target, Beasley is again atop of the class at 75.3 percent. The next closest receiver is the Minnesota Vikings’ Stefon Diggs at 65.9 percent -- a difference of nearly 10 percentage points. Here's the top-10 in Reception Success per target.
|WR||Targets||RNEP/Target||Rec/Success||Rec. Succ. Rate||Succ. Rate/Target|
A young quarterback’s safety net on the field is typically a tight end. With Witten tied for the team lead in targets, that is certainly at least partially the case in Dallas. However, slot receivers are getting bigger roles in offenses and quarterbacks are using them more and more. That’s definitely the case with Beasley and Prescott in Dallas, which is evidenced by his usage this season.
Between Dallas’ offensive scheme and Beasley’s route running, a majority of the receiver’s routes end up with an open and easy throw for the quarterback. With those two things combined, it doesn’t get much easier to move the ball downfield for the offense.
Here’s a play from Week 2 against Washington. Dallas was in a 2x1 set with Bryant isolated on the left side of the formation and Washington had a single high safety shaded toward Bryant’s side of the field. From the slot, Beasley set up his defender with a false step to the outside, which cleared the entire middle of the field. Prescott delivered an easy pass to the open receiver and Beasley forced two missed tackles to bring the ball inside the 10-yard line for a gain of 28.
Dallas has also been using Beasley in some interesting formations. In this Week 8 play against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys lined up with Witten and Beasley stacked in the right slot. From the snap, Beasley beat his defender to the inside, which allowed an easy break to the outside for an open throw from a scrambling Prescott. It was a gain of 10 and a first down.
What makes the slot such a hard position to defend is the possibility of a two-way go from the receiver. Against the sideline, there’s really only one direction a receiver can break, but in the slot, there’s no boundary to restrict a route.
Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11, Beasley was lined up as the middle receiver on the trips side of a 3x1 set. At the snap, he faked a break inside with two steps before changing direction with a break to the outside. The fake was enough to create separation from the corner, which allowed an easy target and enough space for him to turn up the field for a bigger gain.
Red Zone Threat
When thinking of red zone threats, big tight ends and wide receivers are usually what comes to mind, but teams are figuring out how to use their shifty slot receivers for big plays underneath, and Beasley has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. He's tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with Bryant (five), but all of the slot receiver’s touchdowns have come from inside the 20. In fact, Beasley has been Dallas’ most efficient red zone receiver this season.
He’s just third in targets behind Witten and Bryant -- the two prototypical red zone threats -- but Beasley leads the team in touchdowns, Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target inside the 20. League-wide, his five touchdown receptions are tied for fifth-most in the red zone.
This success isn’t just Beasley finding his way into the end zone. Dallas is finding ways to get him open near the goal line.
Against the Green Bay Packers, Beasley and Brice Butler were the two outside receivers on the five-yard line. Dallas ran play-action to Elliott with a bootleg from Prescott towards Beasley’s side of the field. Beasley sold a run block just long enough to lull in Ladarius Gunter before he broke outside for an open touchdown.
In Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns, the Cowboys lined Beasley out wide to the left with Bryant in the slot, but then motioned Beasley to be stacked with Bryant. This caused a shift in Cleveland’s coverage and when Bryant ran a post, Beasley gained enough leverage for another wide-open touchdown after his break to the outside.
Beasley might not be the most important part of the Dallas offense, but his production has been an underrated part of the unit’s success this season. He doesn’t get the attention of the bigger names on the team, but if the Cowboys are going to continue to make a run to and through the postseason, Beasley is going have a significant role getting them there.