2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Dallas Cowboys
September 2, 2015 | Chet
After three consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Cowboys finished 12-4 last season, making their first postseason appearance since 2009. Dallas fielded one of the most effective offenses in the league last season and with most of their offense returning minus one big piece, what can we expect from this offense in 2015?
2015 Cowboys Schedule
As usual, walk softly over the schedule this far in advance. Dallas has a rather promising passing schedule and light outlook on the ground until the back third of their slate. They open with four teams that failed to make the postseason as season ago and they faced three of those teams a season ago, scoring 30 or more points in four of the five games against those teams. The fantasy playoff matchups against the Jets and Bills aren’t very inviting on paper today, but a lot can happen from now until December.
Many, including myself expected the Dallas offense to have a very different look than the one it had with the hire of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Altering his previous pass happy approach to a ball controlling machine of efficiency, the 2014 Cowboys are a reminder to many who stock short term trends and traits as having a future impact on an offense that there are actual coaches who alter their approach for personnel strengths and talent. The Cowboys maintained a low pace, finishing 24th in the league in plays per game which was an improvement since they ranked dead last in 2013, but they were among the league’s best in nearly all major offensive rate statistics.
Dallas scored 30 or more points in 10 games last season, which led the NFL. On a per game basis Dallas was effective because they were consistently efficient. On a per drive level, the Cowboys were well above par for the season and led the league in time of possession per drive.
|2014||Pts/Drive||Yd/Drive||Scoring %||TD %||Punt %||TOP/Drive|
Big D Losing one of their Big D’s on O
In a move that has created a subsequent chain of polarizing takes this summer; Dallas let DeMarco Murray leave via free agency this summer. Including the postseason, Murray accounted for 54.1 percent of Dallas’ offensive touches (497 total), 35.2 percent of their offensive yardage (2,486 yards), and 25.4 percent of their offensive touchdowns (15). That’s a lot of dependency and usage up for grabs on a good offense in a weaker division that we should be excited about. Instead Dallas did little to address the loss of Murray, bringing in just Darren McFadden and undrafted free agent Gus Johnson to compete with returning backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar.
With Randle expected to carry the bulk of the work heading into the season, what should have been a role we were more than happy to pursue has turned into one of the most dividing fantasy topics of the summer and there’s been no shortage of coverage on the situation. Is Randle a value trap or is he a screaming bargain whose risk is at a safe cost? Did he stack production in favorable game conditions or is that argument a ruse as he really highly effective versus heavy defensive fronts?
For what it’s worth, I was among the crowd that wasn’t a fan of Randle entering the league and the NFL confirmed my thoughts with his fifth round selection and sparse usage to begin his career. He’s only had double digit carries in four career games and in those games he’s been held under 40 rushing yards three times. It’s fair to hold a piece of that initial talent evaluation when looking at him for this season, but when do you start factoring in the positives over those initial negatives that may or may not exist today?
Let’s look at the contextual positive evidence for Randle this season. There’s a wealth of touches available behind one of the best and deepest offensive lines in football. Dallas inherently wants to run when they can because they want to preserve their starting quarterback who barely practiced during any week of the season. Literally every piece of shrapnel coming from the organization is in support of Randle and can be backed by the team not investing into hardly any competition at the position. His competition is a player in McFadden who has been as ineffective as a runner over the past two seasons as anyone in the league and one who has already been injured during the summer and another back in Lance Dunbar who has shown to be a complete role player in a change of pace setting.
What we have in play in here are two sides square dancing on a floor of anecdotal data and rhetoric surrounding a player that has one 54 carry season and another 51 carry sample. Both samples have positive and negative things depending how your glass is filled on Randle, but by in large, really none of know how this is going to play out by any measure of evidence because so little exists to carry either side. How I’m handling Randle is that if he has to be my RB2 in the third round, that’s too much risk I’m willing to take on outside of a best ball league. If he’s my second or third back in the fourth, I feel fine about playing on a potential ceiling because I almost assuredly have an alpha back with a strong receiver or two or in turn, two backs already.
As for the backups, one of the potential outcomes is one we though may occur last season, where we see everyone involved and getting touches. Both Randle and McFadden have had preseason games in which they each have looked better with the second unit than the first. I had mentioned McFadden has been below subpar as a runner. The rushing environment in Oakland hasn’t exactly been ideal recently, but McFadden’s success rates are a wasteland compared to league averages.
|Player||Year||Att||Yds||Y/A||2 Yd or Less||%||5 + Yd||%||10+ Yd||%|
With his durability concerns, I have a hard time seeing McFadden ever getting the keys even with a Randle flame out or injury, but there’s potential he can thwart Randle’s ceiling by stealing scores. McFadden has been an effective short yardage runner near the goal line, converting 50 percent (16 of 32) of his career inside the 5-yard line. In most cases I’m passing on McFadden entirely and letting someone else chase that rainbow still, but if he’s hanging low enough and I’m really thin at running back, I may take a shot on two on a speck of talent still being alive inside of him somewhere.
I may be the biggest Lance Dunbar supporter, but we’ve been here before. The camp buzz about how electric he looks and how he’ll be utilized in this offense is a seasonal event now. In the end, he’s still a 5’8, 190 pound bit player with 80 career carries and 31 receptions in 37 games played. I do believe we’ll see a lot more of the split in this backfield that many of anticipated happening a season ago, but Dunbar is very likely locked into a low volume rushing role and possible pass catching role. That even may be compromised because Randle was also an elite pass catcher college, catching 108 passes in his three seasons at Oklahoma State. For as much as I want to see Dunbar shine, he’s a best ball only option with little redraft appeal at this portion of the summer.
Dallas could still bring someone into the fold that is a free agent or a camp casualty, but that only makes things more ambiguous and I’m doubtful would make that player a must have. Running back is a transitive position but I can’t recall many or any instances where a back signs this late and is then in turn fantasy relevant. There’s still something to knowing the offense and assignments and that player would be behind in that department, likely making them a limited option for opportunity and just ruining this situation altogether.
The Real Big D in Dallas
Dez Bryant punched the clock on another top five scoring season in 2014. It was his third straight season with at least 85 catches, 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. The list of players to do that is a short, but incredible one as only Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens have ever done it other than Bryant. Bryant also has a shot to become the first receiver ever to score 12 or more times in four consecutive seasons. Despite his incredible consistency, Bryant’s 2014 could’ve been something even more magical since he turned in the most efficient season of his career on the lowest volume he’s seen since 2011.
He was still targeted more frequently per route than ever before, but Dallas wasn’t running their offense through Bryant, something we may see them forced to do this season. From week nine on, Bryant was just 33rd in targets (60), 30th in receptions (40), 11th in receiving yards (700), but still led the NFL in touchdown catches with 11. Finding the end zone bolstered his production and that scoring prowess has been reliable as only Rob Gronkowski has been a better target in the red zone than Bryant since target data has been tracked.
|Antwaan Randle El||54||10||18.52%|
|Steve Smith (NYG)||60||10||16.67%|
It’s hard to see Dallas maintaining their offensive approach of 2014 to the degree they did for this upcoming season. With that, Bryant’s target level should natural rise. A lot like Julio Jones, I still believe we have an elite WR1 overall season coming at some point from Bryant and C.D. Carter shows that apex is still in his range of outcomes. Bryant has been a bankable touchdown asset and has been matchup proof against stiff competition, which more than justifies his cost.
Dallas still doesn’t have a lot surrounding Bryant in the passing game at wide receiver. They have two one note options in Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, and it’s hard to get real excited about either. Williams is a completely one dimensional vertical asset who has been targeted on just 14 percent of his routes over his first two seasons. He’s been targeted more than seven times in a game just once so far through two seasons and had eight fantasy weeks outside of the top-48 scoring players at his position. Per Pro Football Focus, his 16.8 yard aDOT (average depth of target) was the fourth highest of all receivers with 50 or more targets, but he averaged just 4.6 targets per game.
Dallas also shifted into just using him as that one dimensional player down the stretch. Over the final eight games Dallas played including the postseason, here’s how both he and Beasley were used.
Williams’s current WR48 price tag is puzzling to me since he has some regression heading his way in the touchdown department. 32.7 percent of his scoring was from touchdown production alone. In the end, Williams is a low volume player getting low percentage targets. It’s hard to feel good about playing him at any point in a weekly league unless his usage drastically alters. For his cost, I’d much rather have the weekly volume of Brian Quick or Torrey Smith who have just as big weekly ceilings.
Beasley had a nice share of the targets over the back half of the season and posted three top-36 scoring weeks, but he still just managed to top 60 receiving yards in a game one time. He’s a fine late round addition to a best ball team as a roster smoother for dire weeks, but he’s the kind of player I want my opponents to have in their weekly lineup.
The other pass game option after Bryant to still latch onto by default is tight end Jason Witten. Witten has become a safe floor option with not much of a ceiling as he posted eight top-12 scoring weeks (tied for fourth most at tight end) but just three of those games were top six performances with none inside the top three. Despite still being a relevant option, Witten is coming off of his worst season since 2006.
Witten was targeted on just 18.9 percent of his routes in 2014, the lowest mark since that data has been tallied. The other worrisome thing with Witten is that he consistently has carried low touchdown upside as he’s scored more than five times in a season just twice over his past seven seasons. He had just nine red zone targets in 2014, his lowest total since 2009, so there may be an opportunity for that to bounce back and add a few scores onto this total, but it’s hard to genuinely expect him flirting with double digits in that department.
As a model of consistency, not only has Witten not missed a game, but he never even comes off of the field. Per Football Focus check out the usage the 33 year old tight end has had since they started tracking players.
That’s a positive in his corner for durability while also feeling like there’s an inevitability hanging in the air that he’s been fortunate to stay healthy at his position this long. C.D. Carter still has Witten with a top five scoring ceiling in his range of outcomes, but Witten’s comparables are also aided by the fact we just haven’t had a lot of tight end peers produce at his age. Still, his TE10 cost is more than favorable to pay for as a floor play and I often pair him with another late round tight end that has upside like an Austin Seferian-Jenkins to smooth me over if I brick that upside pick.
What does Regression Mean for Romo?
Quarterback Tony Romo is coming off of his best season in the NFL in terms of efficiency. Despite having the lowest volume of his career, Romo posted career marks in completion percentage, touchdown rate and passing points per attempt.
Although he was so good per attempt, Romo still turned in a below great fantasy campaign overall as he had just seven top-12 scoring weeks, the same amount as Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill and Philip Rivers. He also didn’t possess an elite ceiling as he had just one top three scoring week. Since he was so efficient, yet still only in the solid group of quarterback options, what can we expect if all of that efficiency regresses and his volume stays in a similar area?
Our Joe Siniscachi says not to worry about that as while Romo will surely come back some, not all outlier seasons mean the end for a player with the track record of performance like Romo has. I’m in agreement because Romo’s cost still hasn’t moved at QB9 from his season a year ago. He was an elite red zone passer, is still an arbitrage play on an elite receiver and has a favorable schedule. The other thing Romo has in his corner is that even though he played with offensive leverage often last season, he’s been one of the most agnostic to game script quarterbacks in the league over his career.
|Tony Romo||Tied or Ahead||66.4%||2.38||7.5|
|League Avg.||Tied or Ahead||62.2%||2.02||7.2|
|Tony Romo||2nd Half Trailing||67.3%||3.38||8.4|
|League Avg.||2nd Half Trailing||59.1%||1.22||7.0|
|Tony Romo||4Q Trailing||65.7%||3.25||7.7|
|League Avg.||4Q Trailing||58.4%||1.19||6.8|
Romo was aided by script last season in harnessing that efficiency ceiling, but by no means did it create it. C.D. Carter highlights Romo as having a ceiling to best his cost paired with a safe median outlook to justify the price. I do prefer Eli Manning to Romo at a cheaper cost, it all just depends on where that quarterback run is coming on the final tier of QB1’s, but those two quarterbacks are the two I want to start my quarterback stables with the most often if possible. If Romo is the guy that slides from that group, I’ll be securing him in a lot of places.