The Cowboys are the ultimate Rorschach test when it comes to fantasy football in 2014. They have some high end talent that will be selected early in drafts, consistent veteran producers at solo fantasy spots and they’ve brought in an offensive coordinator who has provided the most volume to passing attacks over the past three seasons. They are also attached to what could arguably be the worst defense in the league this season. Is that a recipe for success or ultimately a set up for fantasy failure?
2014 Cowboys Schedule
|1||San Francisco 49ers|
|3||@||St. Louis Rams|
|4||New Orleans Saints|
|7||New York Giants|
|12||@||New York Giants|
By now, you know the drill when it comes to strength of schedule analysis this far in advance. Dallas could have a bumpy opening six weeks passing the ball for fantasy purposes as five of the six teams they open with surrendered five or fewer top 12 QB weeks a season ago. For a team expected to be pass heavy, you may strictly be relying on volume to boost this passing game, which shouldn’t be a problem for new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
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All of this volume is definitely appealing at first blush, because this offense was supremely efficient a season ago. Take a look at just how sharp the Dallas offense was a season ago on a number of efficiency metrics.
A season ago, Dallas was one of the most ruthlessly efficient teams on per play basis, they just didn’t get to run many of them because the defense was poor. The Cowboys ran the fewest offensive plays in the entire league a season ago, nearly losing one and half games worth of plays off of their pace from the previous season. The Cowboys defense was on the other end of the spectrum in regards to efficiency.
|Rush 1st Downs/Game||7.6||31|
Counterintuitive to popular belief, but pursuing points that stem from poor defense can be a dangerous game to play, even when you have an offense as good as what Dallas can be. Big time fantasy points regularly stem from teams that operate in positive game script, something Dallas may not see a ton of this season. Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus provides a positive outlook on why it’s unlikely that Dallas will rank that far down in the offensive snap count spectrum, but it’s not farfetched to think that the Dallas defense could potentially be worse than they were a season ago, something that has to stick in the back pocket of your mind.
Tony Romo: An Underappreciated Value Trap?
Romo has had one of the most polarizing careers and for no good reason considering what he’s accomplished outside of false narratives. He’s never posted a completion percentage under 60 percent his entire career and thrown for 25 or more scores in all six of his full seasons since his inaugural season a starter. Linehan has turned Matt Stafford into a strong fantasy quarterback almost entirely on volume and Romo has been far more efficient than Stafford over the past three seasons. One of the biggest areas I see linked to Romo’s 2014 promise is that expected volume increase, when Stafford’s inefficiency generated a portion of that volume to begin with.
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In 2013, he ranked ninth among all passers in fantasy points per aimed attempt (FPAT) on his way to scoring the tenth most fantasy points overall. That total output is misleading since he had only six weeks as a top 12 scoring quarterback and only one week scoring higher than QB9. He finished tied for 17th in percentage of good fantasy starts, again hampered by lack of overall volume. Earlier in the week I highlighted how top ten quarterback seasons from quarterbacks of Romo’s age (34) have only come from clubs that have won 11 games or more during that season and how his back injury could have played a part in his deep passing decline over the past three seasons. Romo could very well have a great season statistically overall, but Dallas may not be good enough to support the weekly top ten fantasy option that some are looking to squeeze of his ADP. I’m not going to speculate on his back surgery having any implications during the season, but James Todd brings up a great point that if Romo does miss any time, this offense could go down like a house of cards.
After Dez, what does Dallas Have?
If you want to know what a top wide receiver looks like, Bryant fits the bill. He topped 90 receptions and 1,200 yards with ten plus scores for the second straight year while notching nine top 14 PPR weeks. He was devastating in the red zone, converting 10 of 21 targets into touchdowns in that area of the field and converting nine of 16 targets inside the 10-yard line for scores. That touchdown output saved him from some potential game flow nightmares.
One of the reasons Linehan has had no issue being so pass heavy is that he’s had the fortune of having some really elite lead receivers. He has no issue feeding them the ball either.
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Once again calling in on Pat Thorman, he outlined the Linehan effect that could make Bryant the best fantasy receiving asset this season. One of the things that Linehan does well with his lead receivers is move them around to get them involved in mismatches, something the Cowboys have struggled to do with Bryant in his early career.
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*Slot Data Provided By Pro Football Focus
Bryant is a bully after the catch, but Dallas hasn’t consistently put in position to take advantage of that ability. If he comes close to doubling his output underneath, there’s no reason he can’t wipe any potential worry of him failing to deliver on his price tag.
Terrance Williams is a popular target of many this offseason to make the next step, and Davis Mattek sees him as a screaming bargain on 2014. Williams had a five game stretch as a rookie in which he scored in every game, then immediately lost playing time for the rest of the season. Linehan offenses typically have struggled when it comes to involving the secondary receivers, but he also hasn’t exactly worked with many good ones.
[table id=107 /]
Outside of Bruce, there’s not a lot of talent. Burleson wasn’t far off of where Williams was regarded as a prospect, so maybe he can come close to putting up similar numbers to what Burleson did in his sophomore season in 2004. Coming out of Baylor, when he led the country in receiving yardage, I had Williams pegged as a one trick pony, strictly being a deep threat. That’s still where I see him fitting in and making the most damage, especially in regards to how he scores touchdowns. He will hang a few crooked weeks up on the scoreboard, but I’m not expecting a massive breakout and anticipate his overall output to pretty lateral to his rookie season as Linehan funnels this offense through Bryant and Murray. If Williams or slot man, Cole Beasley were to go down at some point, rookie Devin Street should be on your radar and comps very favorably to Williams.
Last season, Jason Witten saw the fewest targets in his career since 2006 (111) and posted his lowest catch rate since his rookie season (65.8 percent). Despite those totals, he had the highest touchdown conversion rate of receptions in his career (11 percent). That spells out a ton of regression. Witten has never been an elite touchdown producer like Tony Gonzalez, so it’s hard to feel good about him taking his career into Tony Gonzalez like territory. After week five, he had only three top 12 tight end PPR scoring weeks. A lower starting tight end, Witten is a name that will likely be reached for on recognition that you can cover up with later upside at the position or taking a streaming approach. Gavin Escobar may be utilized in a similar fashion that Linehan used Tony Scheffler, but without an injury to Witten, he’ll stay on waivers.
The Other Big D in Dallas
DeMarco Murray has quietly been a very productive fantasy back over his first three seasons when he’s on the field. Despite missing eight games to start his career, Murray averages nearly five yards per carry (4.9) with over three receptions and 93.5 yards from scrimmage per game. In 2013, he posted 12 top 24 PPR weeks in 14 games played, remaining one of the better backs in terms of all around efficiency.
|Non TD Pts./Touch||0.73||9|
|Touches Per TD||27.0||12|
Murray was a top performer in terms of rushing production, overall scoring production with and without touchdowns and converting short yardage carries into touchdowns. The best part is that Murray has always been good in the passing game and lead running backs average 63.9 targets per season under Linehan. Where an injury to Romo would dampen Bryant a touch, Murray is still behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and has superb passing catching ability. If you’re picking near the turn this season, Murray is fantastic buy as your RB1 to be paired with a top flight receiver in PPR leagues.
The current Dallas roster is built very similarly to that of Linehan’s former club in Detroit. While he was in the Motor City, running backs accounted for 46.8 of all receptions and the second back averaged 51 targets per season. If you haven’t heeded my initial warning to grab Lance Dunbar, the second one, or the one from Shawn Seigele, then hopefully the latest one from Dan Schneier does the trick for before the hype train has reached critical mass. Here’s the usage of the RB2 in Detroit under Linehan and their PPR finishes.
[table id=108 /]
Dunbar is entering his third season at age 24 and is still flying a little low because he’s missed 11 games to begin his first two seasons. In his college career at North Texas, he caught 97 passes and amassed over 5,200 yards from scrimmage. On a very small sample a season ago, he showed off some of the magic he possesses with the ball in his hands, forcing 11 missed tackles on 37 touches. Again, very small sample, but see where his rating from Pro Football Focus ranks among Cowboys backs and you can see why they want to get him the football more.
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Dunbar is nice add to the tail end of your roster if you have reasonable expectations of him possibly being a flex play in PPR leagues with the ceiling to be more if Murray were to go down in season.
— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) June 25, 2014
The Cowboys are a team that could win fantasy leagues for owners if the cards fell the proper way, but also possess some real downside if their defense is once again one the worst in the league. How you feel about the situation depends on how you’re looking at the picture, making Dallas one of the most intriguing fantasy teams this season.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Williams – If he is actually a better talent underneath than I have him pegged as, he could turn in a season that approaches WR2 totals with Bryant being the focal point of opposing defenses.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Witten – If his touchdown output returns to what we’ve seen from him outside of 2013, he could very well be a wasted pick in the middle of your drafts.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Dunbar – Skill set and system are in place for him to flourish, needs to stay on the football field to make the most of his opportunity. If Murray misses time, would inherit a PPR goldmine.
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