By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
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What a fall from grace. After going 13-3 in 2016, the Cowboys regressed to 9-7 in 2017. Part of the issue? Starting QB Dak Prescott hit something of a sophomore slump. His starting LT Tyron Smith missed two games (not counting Week 17’s meaningless game against Philadelphia) and stud RB Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for 6 games. As a whole, the offense sputtered and the defense was exposed as a unit that benefited from a running game that controlled the clock in 2016. They ranked 3rd in the NFL in time of possession in 2016. They dropped to 12th in 2017. Prescott’s numbers across the board decreased so that begs the question: Do the Cowboys go as Prescott goes or do the Cowboys go as Elliott goes? Elliott’s suspension certainly didn’t help the Cowboys’ running game any, but their rushing offense still ranked 2nd best in football. The fact of the matter is, the Cowboys need both Prescott and Zeke working in unison, as do fantasy owners.
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|QB3||(R) Mike White||N/A||N/A|
|RB3||Tavon Austin (w/ LAR)||35.90||WR120|
|RB4||(R) Bo Scarbrough||N/A||N/A|
|WR1||Allen Hurns (w/ JAX)||92.60||WR68|
|WR4||(R) Michael Gallup||N/A||N/A|
|WR5||Deonte Thompson (w/ BUF)||100.70||WR64|
|TE2||(R) Dalton Schultz||N/A||N/A|
2016 showed us what Dak Prescott is capable of when life is made easy for him. Zeke led the league in rushing with over 1,600 yards rushing and his receivers had the 2nd fewest drops. Zeke’s presence also helped in the play action passing game as he led the league in completion percentage on such passes. His QB6 ranking surprised a lot of people as well. But 2017 was different. His QB11 finish was a drastic fall but it was mainly a tale of two seasons. With Zeke in the lineup, Prescott was QB5 in fantasy, scoring 25.78 points per game. From Weeks 10 through 15 without Zeke, Prescott was QB22, including a Week 11 performance of -1.2 fantasy points. Prescott’s interception total grew from 4 in 2016 to 13 in 2017. Needless to say, Zeke’s presence and production directly impacts Prescott’s. Zeke should be suspension-free in 2018 and LT Tyron Smith, by all accounts, should be healthy entering his 8th season at age 27. That said, I look for Prescott to return to top 10 status at QB. Let’s not forget he’s averaged 6 rushing TDs a season over his first two years and has 639 rushing yards over the same timeframe. He’s not going to throw for 4,000 yards, but 3,600 passing yards, 24 TDs and 7 INTs with 300 yards rushing and 6 more TDs will be enough to make him a starter in 10-team leagues.
If Prescott gets hurt, you should worry. Cooper Rush is inexperienced — just a 2-yard completion on his resume — and Mike White is a rookie. So really, not a lot to write about here. Just know, an injured Prescott is bad for your fantasy team and bad if you’re a Cowboys fan.
It starts and ends with Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott finished his rookie season with 1,994 yards from scrimmage, 2nd in the NFL. He wasn’t a huge factor in the passing game but still managed 32 receptions. All that led to an RB2 finish. We all know about the suspension that derailed his 2017 season. But in 10 games, Zeke finished with 1,252 total yards. The biggest downside to that total? It came on 268 touches. That’s an average of 4.67 yards per touch. His 2016 average? 5.63. We’ve talked about the health of Tyron Smith being a factor in Prescott’s diminished numbers and it’s no different for Zeke. The Cowboys line as a whole suffered some turnover from 2016 to 2017, losing G Ronald Leary to the Broncos and RT Doug Free to retirement. Their overall line play went from 2nd best in 2016 to 4th best in 2017. Okay, not a huge fall from grace, but the loss of Ronald Leary was a big factor in the decrease in Zeke’s yards per carry. With rookie guard Connor Williams in tow, Zeke should be back to his old tricks. I don’t think it’s that bold of me to predict, but I have Ezekiel Elliott as my number 1 RB entering the 2018 season. He’ll top 1,500 rushing yards and he’ll be more involved in the passing game, catching 55 balls. He’ll blow past 2,000 total yards and approach 15 TDs. And you know I’m serious because as an Eagles fan, I’m not rooting for this. But call a spade a spade. Zeke is a beast and the boy is going to eat.
Backing up Zeke is Rod Smith. The Cowboys saw enough in Smith last year to work him into splitting carries with Alfred Morris after Zeke’s suspension. His best game of 2017 came in Week 14 where he put up 35 fantasy points (160 total yards, 5 catches and 2 TDs). With Zeke being a workhorse, the Cowboys will push him to the brink of 350 touches. But their offense is built around the ground game and short passes. Smith can surely help with that. Smith is a handcuff option to Zeke and someone who will be in the FLEX conversation if Zeke succumbs to an injury.
Behind Smith is newly acquired Tavon Austin, making the move from WR to RB in an attempt to revitalize a stagnant career. After a brilliant career at West Virginia, he was selected 8th overall by the Rams and did nothing remarkable in St. Louis/Los Angeles. He’s versatile as a jack-of-all-trades sort of playmaker, but the skills just haven’t translated at the NFL level. Maybe an offense like Dallas’ that utilizes dink and dunks to keep Prescott’s decisions to a minimum will play more to his strengths. If anything, he’ll be the “3rd down” back in Dallas and used on jet sweeps and out of the slot. Draft Austin at your own risk. You know what he is and isn’t at this stage of his career.
The Cowboys also spent a late round pick on Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough. Checking with our resident college analyst — and huge Alabama fan — Chris Tyler, even he’s not a fan. So yeah, big pass there.
After releasing Dez Bryant this offseason, the Cowboys are left with some serious question marks. Left behind are Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Dallas added free agents Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson and drafted Colorado State’s Michael Gallup. If after reading these names you utter to yourself, “Wow, that’s a crappy receiving corps,” no one would blame you.
That said, it’s unclear who specifically will be the Cowboys’ go-to receiver in place of Dez. But really, Dez hasn’t resembled a go-to receiver in quite some time, either. Free agent signee Hurns has the size to look the part, but his last good season was in 2015. The last two years, he’s been hurt (11 games missed) and unproductive (74 catches for 961 yards and 6 TDs total). Is he really any better than what the Cowboys had with Dez? Bryant hasn’t had 1,000 yards or double digit TDs since 2014 and he’s missed 10 games over the last three seasons. But here’s what I know about Hurns: a healthy Hurns can produce what Dez produced the last couple of years at less of a cap hit. The Cowboys will take that all day. I look at Hurns as a top 35 option if he’s healthy, which of course he hasn’t been in a few years. Hardly someone you want to target, but in the right round, Hurns could present value.
I look at Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams in the same light. Both have productive games but are otherwise wildly inconsistent. Beasley developed a good rapport with Prescott in 2016, but that chemistry was hardly evident in 2017, with his production dipping to lows he hasn’t witnessed since his rookie season. The good thing about Williams is that he’s healthy, having never missed a game over his five seasons. He’s also never had more than 53 catches in a season and his best seasons were in 2014 (8 TDs) and 2015 (840 receiving yards). Basically, you have two receivers that have reached their ceilings and shouldn’t be counted on for anything more than one or two solid games throughout the season.
Then there is Michael Gallup. The rookie from Colorado State was rated as the number one wide receiver prospect by Pro Football Focus. It’s not hard to see why. In two years at CSU, Gallup had over 2,600 yards and 21 TDs. I’ve always said the best way to gauge the outlook of a small school product is to look at production. Well, Gallup has it. He’s 6’1” 198 and has 4.51 speed. He runs with purpose after the catch and can take over games. Gallup is first round material in Dynasty drafts. With uncertainty among the Cowboys pecking order, Gallup could even find himself as a top 40 receiver when the season is over. He’s that good.
When Jason Witten retired, the Cowboys were left with a canyon-sized hole in their offense. An all-time great at the tight end position, the Cowboys likely won’t be able to fill that hole any time soon. Practice squad TE Rico Gathers will get first crack. He’s big (6’6” 285) and athletic (4.75 40 time) but he hasn’t played much football since he was 13. He was in fact a basketball player at Baylor when he was drafted to play football. The Cowboys are hoping they have similar luck in converting a basketball player to a TE like the Chargers (Antonio Gates) and the Saints (Jimmy Graham) did. Gathers is a wild card who shouldn’t be drafted to start but could in fact be a player as the season progresses. As the saying goes, draft and stash.
Elsewhere on the depth chart is the rookie TE from Stanford, Dalton Schultz. Schultz comes from a line of recent TEs drafted out of Palo Alto. Our own Chris Tyler had Schultz as his number 5 TE going into the draft but he and many other experts agree that Schultz is more of a blocking option with the ability to help in the passing game than a dominant pass catching option a la Witten. Schultz is a Dynasty pick at best but if Gathers proves inadequate, Schultz will get an opportunity to work between the 10s and be a reliable target for Prescott like Witten was before him.
Rookie to Watch
Michael Gallup could be the breakout wide receiver of the year. Take a look at his production at Colorado State: in two years he had 2,690 receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Gallup has the moves to stretch the field and be a threat in the red zone. The Cowboys parted ways with Dez Bryant and traded slot man Ryan Switzer. With plenty of targets on the table, he has the best opportunity to stand out this year. – Chris Tyler
Coming off his most games started in a season, most receptions, and most receiving yards, former Buffalo Bills WR Deonte Thompson showed flashes of being effective last season. He ranked in the top 70 among receivers last season and now goes into a system in Dallas where there is no true #1 receiver. He will team up with the likes of Cowboy veterans Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, along with new Cowboys Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and rookie Michael Gallup from Colorado State. Thompson has a legit chance at becoming one of the most targeted receivers on that team, after Cole Beasley, and could be part of your fantasy team in a bench role to start the season with upside at becoming a viable flex option week-to-week. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
The tandem of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are both top 10 options at their respective positions. Outside of those two, fantasy owners have slim pickens with the Cowboys. Sure, there’s intrigue around rookie Michael Gallup and Rico Gathers, and potentially Allen Hurns to see if he recaptures the magic from his one good season. One thing to love is their playoff schedule. Week 14 against Philadelphia isn’t ideal, but Weeks 15 and 16 against the Colts and Bucs should have fantasy owners ready to trade for Dak and/or Zeke if they have a chance. Here are some other fun tidbits I found while researching the Cowboys.
- Ezekiel Elliott had 22 runs over 15 yards in 2016. He had only 8 in 2017. His replacement, Alfred Morris, had 6 runs over 15 yards on 127 less carries.
- The top 3 WRs on the Cowboys — Bryant, Beasley, and Williams — all had a WR rating of better than 100 in 2016. Neither of them topped a rating of 90 in 2017.
- Dak Prescott’s WRs had the 2nd fewest drops in 2016, totalling 13. They had 28 in 2017, 11th most.
- Jason Witten had the 2nd lowest drop rate among TEs in 2017. Did I mention his replacement, Rico Gathers, last played organized football at the age of 13?
- On 22 catches last year, rookie TE Dalton Schultz had zero drops.
|8||** BYE WEEK **|
|9||11/5 (Mon)||vs TEN|
|12||11/22 (Thurs)||vs WAS|
|13||11/29 (Thurs)||vs NO|