Cowboys Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 23rd (528)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 18th (408)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 29th (969)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 14th (5.5)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
Tony Romo has missed 14 games over the last four years. As shown in the RotoViz Game Splits App via this graphic tweeted by Jonathan Bales, the Cowboys have averaged 26.6 points per game with Romo in the lineup during that four-season span, and just 16.4 points without him. Dallas' game-to-game point differential plummets from +2.3 to -8.1 with Romo on the shelf. Romo's value is indisputable regardless of how you believe he'll fare as a 2016 fantasy passer. With Romo back healthy and the Cowboys expected to resume a run-first, ball-control attack following the No. 4 overall selection of Ezekiel Elliott, the blueprint for Dallas' offense figures to resemble 2014 form. That year, the Cowboys finished 31st in pass attempts and third in rushes. Romo led the NFL in completion rate (69.9%), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2), and touchdown rate (7.8%), yet still finished as a fringe fantasy starter (QB11). Romo will be 36 1/2 when the season starts, and his body has seemingly become increasingly brittle. In 12-team leagues, I don't see Romo as worthy of draft consideration before the 11th or 12th round.
Dez Bryant's 2015 campaign was effectively lost when he suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in Week 1. Bryant rushed his rehab and returned in Week 8, only to lack effectiveness and suffer additional knee, foot, and ankle injuries that likely resulted from overcompensation. He appeared in nine games, topping 50 yards in just two of them. Dez underwent ankle surgery and another foot operation shortly after the season. Although he was cleared for football activities by early June, Bryant was babied along during OTAs/minicamp. Still squarely in his prime, Bryant will turn 28 in November and finished as a top-six WR1 in each of his previous three seasons. His scoring prowess is essentially unrivaled among NFL wide receivers, having hit pay dirt 38 times across his last 41 games played with Romo. I think Dez is best approached as a risky if high-upside mid to late first-round fantasy bet.
Terrance Williams enters his contract year coming off a season that was ruined partly by Romo's 12 missed games, and partly by Williams' own deficiencies. A body catcher with slightly above average size (6'2/208) and just enough speed (4.52), Williams could generously be categorized as a passable starter, but is more realistically a low-end No. 2 NFL wideout. A complementary role player in Dallas' run-first offense, Williams does have some field-stretching ability with a career 16.5 yards-per-reception average. He also flashed red-zone chops by scoring eight TDs in 2014, five of which occurred inside the opposing 20-yard line. While Williams' re-draft outlook seems bleak, that could change if Romo stays healthy and Bryant encounters any setbacks. I like Williams at his cost in best-ball drafts. He usually lasts until the 14th and 15th rounds.
I have the Cowboys' starting lineup listed above in a three-receiver set. They will use two tight ends on upwards of 40% of their plays, however, which means slot man Cole Beasley will be competing for snaps with No. 2 tight end James Hanna. A fifth-year UDFA, Beasley stands 5-foot-8, 175 and is purely a chain-moving possession receiver. Beasley did lead Dallas wideouts in catch rate (69.3%) last season and is an inviting target on high-percentage routes. He still played only 54.5% of the offensive snaps. With a situational role on a run-first team, Beasley would need multiple injuries ahead of him on the depth chart to have any chance at fantasy relevance. Even then, the Cowboys might turn to Brice Butler over Beasley to start out wide.
I'm not sure Jason Witten is commonly viewed as a certain future Hall of Famer. His resume screams first-ballot inductee. He is a ten-time Pro Bowler. He hasn't missed a game in 12 years at one of football's most violent and demanding positions, also finishing as a top-12 fantasy tight end in each of those seasons. Witten's 1,020 catches rank tenth all time across all positions and second among tight ends behind Tony Gonzalez (1,325). In his prime, Witten was regarded as the NFL's premier combination tight end and an elite blocker. With Kellen Moore, Brandon Weeden, and Matt Cassel at quarterback for most of last season, Witten was charged with zero drops on 100 targets by PFF. At age 34, I think we can agree Witten is a low-ceiling fantasy commodity. His red-zone role isn't what it once was, and even with Romo under center in 2014, Witten managed a modest 64-703-5 stat line. Witten has topped 70 receiving yards just twice over the last two seasons. Because Witten stays healthy, he will probably turn in another top-12 tight end finish. In fantasy leagues, Witten is best viewed as a re-draft streamer option and part of a three-pronged tight end committee in best ball. Witten has had an incredible career. He is now a replacement-level fantasy tight end.
Running Game Outlook
Despite desperate needs on defense, the Cowboys pulled the trigger on Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4 overall, presumably with the mindset that Romo's "window" is shrinking and he played his best football on a run-dominant 2014 team. Elliott wrapped his Ohio State career with 3,961 yards and 43 TDs on 592 carries (6.69 YPC), adding 58 receptions and chin checking college front sevens as the nation's premier pass-blocking back. A fiery, competitive runner who possesses 4.47 speed with elite balance and consistently low pad level, Elliott is a ready-made three-down NFL workhorse. With Darren McFadden as their lead runner and no real passing-game threat, last year's Cowboys ranked No. 5 in rushing efficiency (4.63 YPC) and No. 9 in Football Outsiders' run-game DVOA. Dallas' offensive line is the best in the league by a considerable margin. The Cowboys' (overly?) aggressive selection of Elliott indicates they won't concern themselves with "easing him in." Perhaps most importantly, game flow will greatly benefit Elliott versus the NFL's softest schedule based on opponents' Vegas Win Totals. It isn't a stretch to say Elliott has the talent, opportunity, and situation to lead all running backs in fantasy points as a rookie.
Another reason to be bullish on Elliott's first-year outlook is Darren McFadden's broken elbow, which will shelve McFadden until at least the middle of August. Elliott opened OTAs working with the Cowboys' second-team offense, but he will now dominate first-team reps in training camp. As a far more versatile back than Alfred Morris, McFadden remains the favorite to operate as Elliott's primary handcuff. McFadden's year in the system gives him another leg up. Signed to a cheap, two-year, $3.5 million deal in free agency, Alf is third-string insurance.
2016 Vegas Win Total
Despite last year's injury-induced 4-12 finish, the Cowboys' Win Total is nine games, tied with Kansas City and Minnesota for ninth highest in the league. As alluded to above, Dallas' defensive personnel is a major concern. At the same time, we've seen them compensate for talent voids on defense by playing ball-control offense with the goal of slowing down game pace and chewing clock. In their banner 2014 season, the Cowboys led the NFL in time of possession and their defense played the NFL's eighth fewest snaps. If you believe Dallas can recreate its 2014 success against a cakewalk schedule with Romo and Dez returning, take the over on nine wins. Assuming Romo gets improved injury luck, I am of the belief they can.