Editor's Note: This first appeared in Pro Football Weekly's first NFL Draft newsletter, going out Tuesday, Feb. 6. This is a free preview of what appeared in the newsletter.
If you like what you see, get our free draft newsletter here. Just for signing up, we'll send you a special offer for our draft guide.
Our newest addition to our draft coverage stable, Marcus Mosher, tries to fix what's wrong in Dallas...
Nothing good lasts forever. Unfortunately for the Dallas Cowboys, that was painfully apparent in regards to their wide receiver unit in 2017.
For the past five seasons, the Cowboys have had the same top-three receivers, but for the first time since 2013, that group wasn’t effective. Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley all saw their stats take a significant hit in 2017 in comparison to their 2016 season. What became obvious is that this unit needs help in a major way. However, doing so won’t be easy considering how much money the team has locked up in their wide receiver corps.
Let’s first start with No.1 receiver; Dez Bryant. He is scheduled to count $16.5 million against the cap and is coming off arguably the worst year in his career. Bryant played in all 16 games for the Cowboys, catching just 69 passes for 838 yards and six touchdowns. But the raw numbers don’t tell the full story. According to Pro Football Focus’ premium stats, Bryant led the league in drops (12) on 81 catchable passes (a drop rate of nearly 15 percent).
However, there are a number of reasons that could explain the drops. The most likely reason was a knee injury he was dealing with, which he finally admitted to at the end of the season. Bryant hurt his knee in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs game in Week 9 and never looked the same the rest of the season. In the team’s final nine games, Bryant caught just two touchdowns and secured less than 55 percent of his targets. Most of Bryant’s drops came in the middle of the field, usually on slants or digs, routes that usually require timing and accurate ball placement.
The drops are concerning, and there is a valid concern that Bryant may never be the same athlete, but the fact of the matter is that the Cowboys aren’t able to move on from Bryant just yet. They don’t have another capable outside receiver on the roster, and even if they do release Bryant, they wouldn’t have the cap space to address it in free agency. Moving on from Bryant this year would dramatically decrease their odds of contending in 2018 as their passing game would suffer major consequences. But make no mistake about it, Dallas needs Bryant to be better in 2018, if he does in fact, stay on the roster.
While Bryant’s contract is a problem that needs to be addressed, you could argue that Terrance Williams’ is worse for a number of reasons. Just last offseason, Williams signed a four-year, $17 million extension with the team. But his play last season didn’t come close to living up to that contract. Williams played 687 snaps in 2017 (most of any receiver), but failed to score on any of his 78 targets. Williams finished the year with a career-worst 568 yards on 10.7 yards per catch.
Williams will turn 29 before the team’s first game next season and is clearly overmatched as a No. 2 receiver. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are essentially locked into Williams for the next two seasons unless they eat a significant chunk of his contract this year. Of the three “starting” receivers, he is the most likely to be replaced next season.
And then there is Cole Beasley, who has somehow managed to escape criticism for his play in 2017. After a stellar year in 2016 in which Beasley set career-highs in receptions and yards, his play fell off of a cliff. Beasley saw his reception total drop from 75 all the way down to 36. He totaled just 314 yards and averaged less than nine yards per reception.
What happened to Beasley? The answer is actually quite simple. In 2016, Beasley had 32 targets on third downs, according to Pro Football Reference. He was able to turn those 32 targets into 25 first downs. He was the team’s go-to target on third down. But in 2017, teams adjusted and either doubled Beasley on third down or sat on all the underneath routes, daring he and Dak Prescott to beat them deep. That didn’t happen often enough. The play below is a perfect example of a defensive back squatting on the short routes as there was no fear that Beasley was going to beat them deep:
Assuming the Cowboys can get better play from their two outside receivers, Beasley’s underneath game should open up. However, Beasley might be at the stage of his career where he can’t beat defenders as consistently as he once did. Beasley turns 29 in April and he can probably see what the future holds for him as he has just one year left on his contract and Ryan Switzer is waiting in the wings to take his job.
What is crystal clear is that the Cowboys need to infuse some young blood into this group, specifically on the outside. But the question will be, how will they choose to do so?
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
If the Cowboys opt to address their wide receiver need in the first round of the draft, the most logical selection would be Christian Kirk of Texas A&M. Kirk is a sub-six foot receiver, but he is an explosive playmaker who has experience on special teams as well. Kirk was primarily a slot receiver for the Aggies, but he has the quickness and strength to win on the outside. Kirk is a special athlete with exceptional explosiveness after the catch and is nearly impossible to cover on the short to intermediate routes.
Kirk will likely never be a true No.1 receiver in the NFL, but his ability to create instant separation will endear him to quarterbacks at the next level. Don’t be surprised if and when Christian Kirk gets consideration to be the No.1 receiver in this draft class.
D.J. Moore, Maryland
The Cowboys may choose to spend a first-round pick, but they could wait until the second day of the NFL draft to find a complement or replacement for Dez Bryant. One of the more intriguing names that would fit Dallas’ offense after the first round is D.J. Moore from Maryland. Moore is another sub-six foot receiver but was one of the most productive weapons in college football last year despite playing with four different quarterbacks.
Just 20 years old, Moore is one of the youngest players in the entire draft. He doesn’t have great size or track speed, but he is tough to bring down after the catch.
Moore has the quickness to beat defenders in space with his route running but also the lower-body strength to break through arm-tackles. He also possesses the ability to play in the slot, as well an outside receiver. There are very few flaws in Moore’s game and he would be an ideal pick for the Cowboys with the 50th overall selection.
Michael Gallup, Colorado State
If the Cowboys decide that they need more of a route-running specialist in their wide receiver corps, Michael Gallup of Colorado State would be an ideal fit in the second round. Gallup was Pro Football Focus’ highest-grade receiver from the 2017 season, and it’s easy to see why. Gallup doesn’t possess great size (measured in at 6’1”, 198 pounds at the Senior Bowl), but his ability to win off of the line of scrimmage and with his route running makes him a special player.
At the Senior Bowl, Gallup showed off his ability to win as an outside receiver with his ball-tracking skills and body control. On the play below, he ate up the off-coverage by the defender as he located the ball in the air — an impressive win in the one-on-one drills.
Gallup isn’t as flashy as the other two players listed above, but he might be the best scheme fit for Dallas as he fits more of the prototypical size the Cowboys like from their outside receivers. It’s not likely that both Moore and Gallup are available when the Cowboys pick in the second round, but Dallas should be thrilled if it’s able to grab either after the first round.
Wide receiver is one of the Cowboys’ biggest needs entering the 2018 offseason. Luckily for them, they will have a variety of ways to fix that weakness. How they choose to do so is anyone’s guess, but don’t expect the Cowboys to have the same top-three receivers for the sixth consecutive season.
However, if the team decides to search for a capable receiver in the second or third wave of a free agency, here are a few names to keep an eye on.
Donte Moncrief - Indianapolis Colts
One logical player the Cowboys could decide to pursue would be Donte Moncrief from the Colts. In his four years in Indianapolis, Moncrief played second fiddle to T.Y. Hilton. But when he and Andrew Luck were both healthy, Moncrief shined as an athletic outside receiver who could win with his size and strength. At only 24 years of age, Moncrief would be an ideal buy-low candidate who could play snaps on the outside, replacing Williams.
Targeting Moncrief makes sense for the Cowboys considering that they recently hired Sanjay Lal to be their wide receiver coach. Lal spent last season with the Colts coaching the same position. Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys are a contender to add the former Ole Miss product in free agency.
John Brown - Arizona Cardinals
Donte Moncrief has the size the Cowboys usually covet for an outside receiver, but if the team wants to add more speed and quickness, one player that Dallas could target is John Brown of the Arizona Cardinals. Brown has battled injuries over the past two seasons, but he still has the ability to separate on all routes. When he was healthy last year, you could still see the flashes of talent:
Brown likely won’t fetch a big deal on the market, and that’s why he is an ideal target for the Cowboys in free agency. Brown can function as a slot receiver if he’s asked to, but his best play comes as an outside receiver. Keep an eye on Brown after the first few waves of free agency.
While free agency is certainly an option, the most realistic option is for the Cowboys to use some of their draft capital to address their need.