Hypothetically, What Would the Cowboys' Passing Offense Have Looked Like Without Dez Bryant?
There was apparently a very real possibility the Dallas Cowboys wouldn't have Dez Bryant for a period of time during the regular season. How real of a possibility that was can be up for debate, but it did appear truer than probably anyone outside of the three other NFC East teams would want.
Even still, what would this Cowboys team look like without Dez Bryant?
In 2014, Dallas was the third-most run-heavy team in the league, at 1.00 drop backs per rushing attempt. The Cowboys, between Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden, attempted 476 passes, and 136 of those passes -- 28.6 percent -- were thrown in Bryant’s direction. Only Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas had a larger target share last season.
Dez Bryant was not only the biggest part of the Dallas pass game, he was the best part. By a pretty significant margin.
By our Net Expected Points metric, no receiver was more efficient than Bryant last year. NEP, for the uninitiated, factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels. You can -- and should -- read more about it in our glossary.
No 100-plus target receiver had a higher per-target NEP than Bryant last season (0.94). Three other receivers topped Bryant’s per target numbers for the season, but the most targets among that group was 83 from Kenny Stills, who led all receivers targeted on at least 30 passes with 1.05 Reception NEP per target.
So if Dallas was without its star receiver for any portion of the season, they’d have to look elsewhere to fill the production lost. Obviously, the Cowboys can’t just replace Dez Bryant, but let’s take a look at who might -- again, this is all hypothetical -- be able to take a bigger role in the offense.
The Case for Terrance Williams
One of the receivers who topped Bryant’s Reception NEP per target numbers was his teammate, Terrance Williams. On 66 targets, Williams’ 0.95 Reception NEP per target was tied with Martavis Bryant, behind only Kenny Stills. That’s good, and not too surprising considering Dallas had the the second-most efficient passing offense on a per play basis by Adjusted NEP last year. Not all of that production came from Bryant.
Williams was the third-most targeted Cowboys player last year, but 66 targets is a long way from being the team’s top option. What could be a positive indication for Williams from last season, even though he wasn’t targeted at a high rate, was that he was able to stay on the field. Including the playoffs, Williams was on the field for 76.6 percent of Dallas’ offensive snaps, second to Bryant’s 84.6 percent. It’s likely Williams would be the receiver on the field the most if Bryant weren't part of the team, given ample opportunity for more targets.
While a higher usage rate would likely decrease Williams’ per play efficiency, he’d have room to regress and still be a valuable receiver. Williams isn’t the dominating presence Bryant can be in one-on-one coverage, but his speed can continue to be used an asset to keep opposing defensive backs off balance.
The Case for Cole Beasley
When all else fails, throw to the slot guy. That’s been how much of the NFL has gone over the past few seasons, and the Cowboys obliged at times during the season.
Cole Beasley didn’t see a lot of time on the field relative to the top two receivers, but he did find production when his number was called. Throughout the season, Beasley overtook Gavin Escobar as the team’s number-four receiving option. The Cowboys spent 42 percent of their plays in 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back and one tight end) and, overall, Beasley was on the field for 41 percent of the offensive snaps.
Beasley was targeted 49 times, but was able to bring in a majority of those targets for receptions. With a catch rate of 75.5 percent, only four receivers with at least 30 targets -- Marlon Brown, Brandin Cooks, Wes Welker and Kenny Stills -- caught a higher percentage of targets than Beasley. Of that group, only Brown and Stills had a higher Success Rate, the number of plays positively impacting NEP.
It would certainly be easy to see Beasley take on a larger role in the offense. Those high percentage passes would allow Tony Romo to deliver the ball quickly to decrease pressure, something he thrived on in 2014.
The Case for the Tight Ends
Jason Witten has narratively been old and declining for the past few seasons. His actual actions on the field have proven that to be less true.
Last season, Witten was the second-most targeted player on the team with 90 passes thrown his way. Among tight ends with at least 30 targets, he finished sixth in Reception NEP per target. While some of that efficiency did come being slightly less involved -- a 21 target decline from 2013 could have helped his increases in Reception NEP per target, catch rate and Success Rate -- Dallas could easily increase his role again and keep him among the top tight ends in the league.
Backup tight end Gavin Escobar could be an interesting test case if this scenario occurred. As mentioned above, Escobar was bumped by Beasley as the number-four option, leaving the tight end seeing the field for under 25 percent of the offensive snaps. Much of what kept Escobar off the field, however, was an inability to block. Should the Cowboys need him to worry less about blocking and play him more like a receiver, he could see his time on the field increase. Escobar only saw 13 targets in 2014 and caught nine passes. Those nine catches, though, resulted in a 100 percent success rate and 1.35 Reception NEP per target.
What's most likely should this unlikely scenario occur is that there will be a group effort to replace any production lost from Bryant's absence. That would most likely each receiver seeing an increase in their 2014 roles -- including 2014 rookie Devin Street, who saw just seven targets. That's not a sexy prediction, but it's the most likely. Saying someone like Williams or Beasley could jump up to 100-plus targets would be silly. But then again, so is the whole situation that could have put the Cowboys in this scenario in the first place.
Fortunately, it looks like they're keeping their guy.