If you’re interested in this article, first please read my take on the offensive identities (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) of all the teams in 2017. That will explain some of the stats in this article, which I will not explain here.
The Jason Garrett – Scott Linehan duo have been together four full seasons in Dallas. While they each had their own separate identity prior to Linehan's arrival in 2014, we have enough data to analyze their combined identity, which is different from previous separate identities. For this year's article, I'm only going to look at their combined offense over the last four seasons to project what they'll do in 2018.
Linehan was the OC in Minnesota from 2002-2004; worked for Nick Saban in Miami in 2005; then had three years in St. Louis as the head coach. After he lost that job, he went to Detroit as OC for five seasons before moving to Dallas in 2014. Garrett has been in Dallas his entire time as an OC (2007-2010) or HC (2011 on).
I recommend reading the Franchise Focus on the Cowboys by Joe Dolan in addition to this article. These two pieces were written separately using different methods and may not reach the same conclusions, but will also often agree. He goes into greater detail on the roster turnover, but a quick summary follows.
The Cowboys had major turnover at WR, with Dez Bryant being the major departure and Brice Butler being a lesser loss. To replenish the WR corps, Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson were added as FAs, Tavon Austin arrived in a trade, and Michael Gallup (3rd round) and Cedrick Wilson (6th) were drafted.
The retirement of TE Jason Witten is another big change. Dallas seems to have no real replacement (if that's even possible). A 4th round pick was spent on Dalton Schultz but even high draft picks struggle as rookies. Dolan's article points out that basketball-to-football convert Rico Gathers enters his 3rd year on the roster, and could be the starter although he's never played an NFL game.
Backup RB Alfred Morris is gone. His role seems to have gone to holdover Rod Smith who was more versatile player anyhow. Jamize Olawale came from OAK in a trade but is more fullback than RB. A 7th round pick was spent on Bo Scarborough – every so often unheralded late-round/undrafted rookie RBs are major contributors but most fade into oblivion.
Last year's starter at LG, Jonathan Cooper, is gone and 2nd round pick Connor Williams seems to be the new starter there. The other starters return, although FA tackle Cameron Fleming could challenge for time and at least provides depth, which was a problem last year when Tyron Smith struggled at LT with injuries.
The charts will show all four years of the Garrett-Linehan offense in Dallas.
JG = Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's offense
NFL = league average
The Cowboys have been up and down over the last four years although last season was not as down as 2015. Both down years came when key players (Tony Romo in 2015, Ezekiel Elliott in 2017) missed time. The pattern says this should be an up year but already two key players (Bryant and Witten) have left without obvious replacements. For what it's worth, Dallas was 6-4 with Elliott and 3-3 without him so they could easily have had one more win if he'd played all 16.
Vegas has the Cowboys O/U at 8.5. Given the team's 19-7 record with Elliott in the lineup over the last two years, that initially seemed low to me. Then I wondered who the team will throw to and it seemed high. As will become clear, I think this offense will go thru Elliott at a level not seen by an RB since 2009 when Chris Johnson had 358 carries and 71 targets. My feeling is the team will ride its star RB to 9 to 10 wins.
Since that's in line with Dallas' four-year average, I think those seasons are a pretty good guide to what the offense will look like this year. However, if the team falls apart, especially if Prescott is hurt, 2015 might be the model identity – or it could be something else again.
The Offense Overall
Total plays – the sum of rushing and passing plays.
Garrett-Linehan have been consistently a hair under the league average in total plays. 2015 is an outlier, but I think we can safely project 1010 plays this year.
Rush % - the percentage of total plays devoted to running the ball.
The HC-OC combo likes to run the ball, at least when they're winning. And even in a losing season, Dallas ran a fraction more than the league average as a percentage of plays. Given the loss of the top two targeted players, I can't see a switch to a more pass-oriented offense this year. I think the Cowboys will run 49% of the time (the average of the high three years in the chart) and that estimate could even be a tad low.
Total Passes includes sacks as well as pass attempts.
Given an average number of plays and run-heavy play selection, it's no surprise the team has a lot more rushes and lot fewer passes than the league average. Based on my total play and % rushing estimates, Dallas will have just under 500 running plays and about 515 passing plays in 2018.
Prescott has run the ball exactly 57 times in each of his 1st two years. So the logical thing would be to project that again. But he ran a bit less often when Elliott played in 2017 and more when the RB was suspended to get his total to 57 carries again. So my feeling is we'll see a small dip in Prescott's rushing this year, to about 50 carries. Not a huge change, but that leaves almost 450 carries to the RBs –only Jacksonville topped that number last year.
The combination of Prescott and the o-line have kept the sack percentages well below average in DAL the last two years. That broke down one game last year when Prescott went down eight times. But otherwise, his sack rate has been just over 5%, which is excellent (Tom Brady's career number is 4.9% and it was 5.7% last year). I think Prescott will keep that rate this year and take just 25-30 sacks, leaving around 490 pass attempts. That would be a Bottom Five number.
JG F1 – Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's top fantasy scorer at this position
Prescott has been a marginal fantasy starter the last two years. And Romo was the same in his last healthy year, so this offense can produce decent fantasy numbers at the position despite the relatively low number of passes.
However, last year Prescott really had two separate seasons. He was QB4 overall through 9 weeks with Elliott. But then rest of the year Prescott was QB27 even with Zeke back the last two games. With a weaker receiving unit, limited pass attempts, and a little less rushing, it's hard to project Prescott as a QB12 again. A reasonable expectation is decent backup numbers, with some upside to low-end starter.
Rush % RB1 – RB1 is defined as the RB on the team who got the largest number of carries. The Rush % RB1 is the percentage of the team’s total RB rushes claimed by its RB1.
Last year's apparent drop in RB1 usage is just a artifact of Elliott's suspension. When he was in the lineup, he got an incredible 87% of all the carries by Dallas RBs. I think Garrett-Linehan were willing to over-use him because they knew he'd get a 6-week rest, so I don't expect quite that heavy a workload in 2018.
But what I do project is heavy enough: 79%, approximately the four-year average of the #1 ballcarrier in this offense. And that's below not just Elliott's usage last year but DeMarco Murray's in 2014. You might consider that conservative until you do the arithmetic: that share equates to 350 carries. Murray was the last RB in the league to break 350 (he had 392 so the coaches are willing to go very high with their RBs' attempts).
If Elliott gets hurt, probably no single back picks up his complete workload, but the offense did give Alfred Morris 69% of the carries while Elliott was out last year. So the replacement #1 back, probably Rod Smith, would still get an above average share – more like Murray's 2015.
Target % - the percentage of the total targets thrown to each position group.
This offense has seen a declining share of RB targets over the last four years, and combined with a below average # of pass attempts, a very low number of total RB targets. However, the loss of Bryant and Witten and the fact that Elliott seems to be head-and-shoulders above all the other skill players indicate to me that the team will feed him the ball in all situations. I look for the RB target share to return to the 20% level of 2014, and it could go higher. That should mean around 100 RB targets.
The Target % for RB1 is the share of the targets to his position group.
When Garrett-Linehan had Murray in the backfield they loved throwing to him. With Elliott, they seemed to have cut back on using the RB1 in the passing game to around 50% of the RB targets, still above average but not great. However, 2017's percentage is deceivingly low, because it's calculated as if Elliott played the full year. In fact, he had 79% of the RB targets when he was in the lineup.
In 2018, as I said before, I think this offense will look to get the ball in Elliott's hands as much as possible. I think Elliott gets 75% of the RB targets, not quite as much as last year (when he played) but even above Murray's level in 2014. That means 70-75 targets for Elliott due to the overall shift in targets to the RBs.
JG F1 – Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's top fantasy scorer at this position
Murray fell just short of the overall RB1 level in 2014 with 392 carries and 64 targets. Elliott was RB3 overall in 2016 with 322 carries and 39 targets. With a 350/70+ workload in 2018, it's hard to see him being less than RB3 and the #1 back overall seeming very likely. Certainly this system lends itself to that level of production, with three Top 6 RBs in four years.
As 2015 shows, nothing is guaranteed and if Elliott gets hurt, Rod Smith will get a lower but still heavy workload. Realistically, Smith (or whoever is the lead runner) is more of a fantasy RB2 than stud player.
As the Dallas RB share declined the last few years (and we'll see below, so did the TE share), naturally the WR target % went up. I think that trend will reverse in 2018. I'm not sure how much, so I'm projecting the WRs get 59% of the total targets. That is their four-year average. If Witten were still here, I'd pick a lower share so if you really love Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim, or Dalton Schultz, feel free to cut the WR share even more. For me, that 59% will turn into around 290 WR targets, a bottom quartile amount.
WR1 is defined as the team’s WR who got the most targets. The Target % for WR1 is the share of the targets to his position group.
Dez Bryant really wasn't getting a huge share of the targets here the last three years. Of course, injuries decreased his numbers in 2015-2016, but even last year his 42%/132 stats were just 11th and 12th among WR1s. Good, but not great. So what will the team do now?
In 2015 and 2016 when Bryant was out, Terrance Williams was the de facto WR1. The first year he got 43% of the WR targets in those games, in 2016 it was down to 35%. In 2016, the offense spread the ball almost equally to Williams, Cole Beasley (30%), and Brice Butler (33%) in Bryant's three-game absence. It's hard to make too much out of limited samples and Williams has some off-field issues this year that may diminish his role.
I think the team will identify a #1 receiver and give him about 39% of the WR targets, the league average as well as the average share Garrett-Linehan have given Williams in Bryant's absence. That's only 110 targets for Williams or Allen Hurns or whoever gets the job.
WR# based on number of targets: most targeted = WR1, 2nd-most, WR2, etc.
So assuming a drop in WR1 usage, that frees up some share for other WRs. Historically, Garrett-Linehan have been good at keeping down the share of targets to the WR4+ on the roster. But with the question marks in this WR group, I'm projecting they will keep the WR2 and WR3 shares at their historic averages of 28% and 19% respectively and up the WR4+ usage to 14%. Basically, I'm defaulting to something like the league averages.
Given my expectations of a run-heavy offense and overall decline in WR share, those percentages work out to 80 WR2 targets and 55 WR3 targets.
JG F1 – Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's top fantasy scorer at this position, PPR scoring
Bryant was not even a fantasy WR2 last year with 132 targets. With the new top wideout getting even fewer targets (110), that probably makes him a low-end WR3 for fantasy. The draft market thinks that Allen Hurns will have this job and at ADP of WR55, he is a good value IF he actually has the role.
JG F2 –Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's 2nd highest fantasy scorer at this position, PPR scoring
The WR is this offense rarely has value – they don't pass enough. With just 80 targets, that should be true again this year. 2016 was a bit of an anomaly as Beasley had 98 targets, which actually led the team even though Bryant was a lot more productive on fewer targets. The bottom line for 2018: only draft the #2 WR to start the season if you think there is a high probability that he'll be the #1 guy by the end of the year.
JG F3 –Jason Garrett-Scott Linehan's 3rd highest fantasy scorer at this position, PPR scoring
The #3 WR in Dallas has had no value the last four years and with only 55 targets projected in 2018, that isn't changing.
The tight ends' role in this offense peaked in 2015, in large part due to Bryant missing several games. It declined in the two years with Elliott and Prescott in the lineup. 2017 was the first time in Garrett's tenure in Dallas, including before Linehan, that TEs saw a below average target share.
Some of that decline is obviously due to Witten's aging. But with the loss of a true #1 WR and undistinguished remainder of the WR corps, I think the TE share will stabilize at a league-average 21%, up a tick from 2017 and resulting in around 100 TE targets. That's still a below average number. Obviously, the TE corps is equally undistinguished so I could be wrong.
Witten has just been a borderline fantasy starter the last four years anyhow. With 100 targets total, and just some fraction of that going to Gathers, it will be hard for him or another TE to emerge as more than a backup option. Gathers could have some upside, who knows? He hasn't played.
Overall, from Garrett-Linehan's historical identity, this is what I expect in 2018:
=> About 1010 total plays, a hair under the league average.
=> 49% rushing plays, near the league lead, with the Prescott taking about 50 carries.
=> 450 carries for the RBs, 1st or 2nd in the NFL.
=> 515 total pass plays, 25-30 sacks, about 490 passing attempts, a Bottom Five number.
=> A weak receiving unit, limited passing, and less rushing equals only backup numbers for Prescott, with some upside to low-end starter.
=> Elliott gets 79% of the RB carries for a huge 350 rushes.
=> RBs see around 20% target share, about 100 targets.
=> Elliott also dominates RB targets: he'll get three-quarters of them, 70-75 targets.
=> Elliott is a Top 3 RB with that workload, likely #1 overall.
=> If Elliott is hurt, Rod Smith will get a heavy enough workload to be a fantasy RB2.
=> Smith has no stand-alone value as a receiving back.
=> WR share is 59%, around 290 targets, a bottom quartile amount.
=> The WR1 (Williams or Hurns) gets 39% of the WR targets, 110 total, which is low-end WR3 for fantasy.
=> The #2 WR gets just 80 targets, only worth drafting if you think he'll eventually take over the #1 role.
=> The #3 WR has no fantasy value.
=> TEs will get a 21% target share, around 100 total targets.
=> Given some share of those targets, Gathers is a backup option with some upside.
Lots of questions here. Who is the #1 WR? Who is the #2? Will the team acquire another wideout before the season? Who is the starting/pass-catching TE? Will he be any good? My guesses are Hurns with Williams the #2 and Gathers at TE, who'll be adequate but not a new Antonio Gates. I should stress the word "guesses." Gallup has some upside at WR since he could supplant Hurns – heck, Williams could end up the #1 too. Gathers could be better than I think or rookie Schultz could sneak in there.
But because I'm less than sure of those answers, my projection of targets 20%/59%/21% between RB/WR/TE is shaky. If the TEs or WRs aren't very good, they'll merit a smaller share. And I think the RBs will absorb a bigger amount. One possibility is that Smith gets a larger role and has value – say RB4, as a 3rd-down pass-catcher. Or Elliott could have even more targets for an all-time fantasy season like LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime. A lesser possibility in my mind is that the TE share flows to the WRs or vice versa. Some player would really have to step up for that to happen.
Finally, what about Tavon Austin? I haven't mentioned him since the intro because I really don't think he has much value. Everyone keeps giving him chances because he was a former #1 pick and, well, look at Tyreek Hill. The thing is, they're the same height but Hill was 10 pounds heavier. That matters because he has more body mass and Hill's athleticism is significantly greater because it's produced at a heavier weight. Hill was faster: 4.29 seconds in the 40 to Austin's 4.34. Yes, Austin is fast but not as fast despite being lighter. And Hill's vertical jump was 40.5 inches to Austin's 32 inches. That's a huge difference. Hill also had a 9-inch advantage in the broad jump: 10'9" to 10"0'. Austin came out of a major college program with presumably better weight facilities and coaching than Hill had finishing his schooling at Div II West Alabama (he was at Oklahoma State before his domestic assault charge). So Hill may have had more room to improve. Finally, don't forget that Austin has had 4 different OCs in 5 years. Maybe inconsistent coaching hurt his development, but I'd think that if he had value as more than a bit player/return specialist, one of those coaches would have found it by now. Austin has caught less than 60% of his targets for a career 8.7 yards per catch vs. Hill's 70+% and 13.1. Hill averages 8.0 yards per carry, Austin 6.7. Hill's return numbers are 12.4 per punt and 27.4 per kick to Austin's 8.4 and 18.0. Austin has 3 punt returns for TDs, the same as Hill, it's just taken Austin 158 returns to do it vs. 64 for Hill. Austin will be 28 this year, if he was going to turn into a good player, it would have happened. I could be wrong, Garrett-Linehan could unlock Austin's potential. But that's not the way to bet. Austin is no Tyreek Hill.