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Offseason Lowdown

Cowboys Fantasy Preview

by Evan Silva
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Cowboys Offensive Profile Under Scott Linehan

2014-2016 Pass Attempts Rank: 31st, 23rd, 30th
2014-2016 Rush Attempts Rank: 3rd, 18th, 1st
2014-2016 Play Volume Rank: 18th, 29th, 20th
2014-2016 Yards Per Play Rank: 3rd, 14th, 4th
Unaccounted for Targets from 2016 (Rank): 31 (30th)
Unaccounted for Carries from 2016 (Rank): 13 (29th)

Projected Starting Lineup

QB: Dak Prescott
RB: Ezekiel Elliott
WR: Dez Bryant
WR: Terrance Williams
WR: Cole Beasley
TE: Jason Witten
LT: Tyron Smith
LG: Jonathan Cooper
C: Travis Frederick
RG: Zack Martin
RT: La’El Collins

Passing Game Outlook

When Dak Prescott looked like a bigger Russell Wilson in preseason games, it was clear the 2016 fourth-round pick the Cowboys didn’t want nearly as much as they wanted to draft Paxton Lynch in the first round was going to play a lot sooner than anyone knew. That opportunity came when Tony Romo broke his back on August 25. Prescott proved way too good for the Cowboys to pull off the field when Romo got healthy, engineering a 13-3 record and asserting himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous dual threats. Prescott was a model of consistency fueled by elite rushing production and extreme high-efficiency passing en route to an overall QB6 finish. Only Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, and Kirk Cousins averaged more yards per pass attempt (8.0). Only Ryan and Brady posted higher passer ratings (104.9). No quarterbacks scored more touchdowns on the ground (6), although seven ran for more yards. All in all, Prescott lived up to Ron Jaworski’s pre-draft Donovan McNabb billing and then some. While Dak’s run-pass efficiency will be tough to repeat, more passing volume is likely with a far tougher schedule and sub-par defense the Cowboys will continue to have to compensate for. Prescott indeed flashed big-time vertical passing ability by posting the NFL’s sixth-best QB rating (117.0) on 20-plus-yard throws, although Dak finished just 22nd in completions over 20-plus yards (17) because the run-first Cowboys only needed him to attempt the 27th most (43). With ample room for improved bulk passing production, Prescott’s floor-ceiling combination makes him a bargain at his QB12 (FF Calc) and QB13 (MFL10s) ADPs.

Dez Bryant and Prescott were slightly slow to find “the same page” early last season, and their progress was derailed when Dez suffered a hairline fracture in his right knee in Week 3, shelving him for a month. The duo finished white hot as Bryant posted a combined 48/778/16.2/9 receiving line over their final ten full games together, good for an 18.0 PPR points-per-game average, which would have made Bryant last year’s WR7 in per-game scoring. Prescott and Bryant enter 2017 having hooked up for ten touchdowns over their last 11 full games, while Dez is finally coming off a surgery- and holdout-free offseason at age 28. Foot, ankle, back, and knee injuries have cost Bryant ten games over the past two seasons. While Dez’s sheer target volume will never reach Antonio Brown/Odell Beckham territory due to Dallas’ run-first nature, a healthy Dez remains the best bet to lead all NFL wide receivers in touchdowns. Bryant is someone I’ve warmed up to over the course of my offseason evaluation. Per both MFL10s and Fantasy Football Calculator ADP, Bryant is consistently lasting until the middle- to late-second round of drafts. In-season buy-low opportunists should note Bryant leads off with Janoris Jenkins, Denver, and Patrick Peterson in Weeks 1-3.

Cole Beasley’s skill set perfectly suits the ball-control Cowboys as a high-percentage chain mover who runs 85% of his routes inside. Beasley led all NFL receivers in catch rate (76.5%) and averaged over five yards after the catch per reception (PFF) in 2016. Beasley essentially overtook Terrance Williams as the Cowboys’ No. 2 receiver, out-targeting Williams 104 to 67 including the playoffs. Next Gen Stats charted Beasley with one of the NFL’s premier yards-of-separation averages (3.41), while PFF’s Scott Barrett identified Dallas as having the league’s fifth-softest schedule for slot receivers this year. Beasley has topped 75 yards in 2-of-72 career games, however, and 5-7 relatively low-ceiling targets per game is all fantasy owners can expect week to week. Beasley averaged 5.9 targets per game after Dez returned from his hairline knee fracture. Beasley has value in deep PPR leagues and as an end-game best-ball roster filler, but ultimately the Cowboys’ slot maven is a better reality than fantasy player.

The Cowboys kept Terrance Williams off the market by re-signing him to a four-year, $17 million deal in March. Pre-free agency reports had Dallas expecting Williams to command more money elsewhere. He did not, unsurprisingly considering Williams’ strength is blocking -- not receiving -- and he plays wide receiver. Williams has started all 16 games in each of the past three years yet has never finished inside the top-40 fantasy wideouts, and he averaged a lowly 3.9 targets per game after Bryant returned from his knee injury in Week 8 last year. Even in the deepest leagues, Williams lacks fantasy football appeal.

Jason Witten was largely unfazed by Dallas’ 2016 quarterback switch, notching his usual high catch rate (73%), low yards-per-reception average (9.8), and low touchdown total (3) as a short-area checkdown option for Prescott. Witten finished as the TE11 in PPR leagues and the TE14 in non-PPR. Witten led the Cowboys in red-zone targets (16) and catches (10) yet drew just three targets inside the ten-yard line, which ranked fourth on the team. Witten did have seven targets inside the ten the year before, so last year’s total could have been mere negative variance. Either way, Witten’s old-tired dad running will continue to render him extremely volume dependent. The good news is Dallas’ passing volume is likely to rise this season, and Witten isn’t in danger of losing any playing time. Still a net-positive run blocker, Witten finished second among all NFL tight ends in 2016 snaps played. Albeit with no attainable upside beyond simply scoring more touchdowns, Witten is an entirely non-sexy, old-man-value pick at his TE18 ADP.

Running Game Outlook

Ezekiel Elliott reported to 2016 training camp overweight, then missed over two weeks with a hamstring strain. He returned to rip apart Seattle’s starting defense in Dallas’ third preseason game and was immediately thrust into bellcow duty with 18-plus touches in 14 straight games to open the year. No one out-rushed Elliott – he won the NFL rushing title by 318 yards despite resting in Week 17 – while only LeGarrette Blount and David Johnson notched more rushing scores than Zeke's 15. This year, concerns include a far-harder, first-place schedule after last year's Cowboys faced the NFL’s softest slate, in addition to the losses of LG Ronald Leary and RT Doug Free. New RT La’El Collins has never played right tackle before in his life, and left guard is wide open. One big PPR plus is Zeke's near-certain rise in passing-game usage following passing-down specialist Lance Dunbar’s exit to the Rams and increased negative-script scenarios inviting more checkdown chances. Still, Elliott has enough on- and off-field factors working against him that he's been a fade for me in the top-five fantasy picks. I have favored Antonio BrownJulio Jones, Odell Beckham, and A.J. Green behind David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell.

Darren McFadden fractured his elbow in a freak accident last June, underwent surgery, and was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list until December. Activated for Week 15, McFadden reassumed No. 2 back duties ahead of Alfred Morris and remained Elliott’s lightly-used backup through the playoffs. The Cowboys re-signed McFadden to a minimum-salary deal and put Morris on the trade block. Regardless of what Morris’ future holds, McFadden is locked in as Elliott’s handcuff and therefore warrants a double-digit-round pick in most 2017 fantasy drafts. The last time we saw a significant sample size of McFadden – in 2015 on the 4-12 Cowboys – he totaled over 1,400 yards and averaged 4.56 yards per carry in a Kellen Moore/Matt Cassel offense. DMC would be an every-week RB1 if Zeke missed time.

2017 Vegas Win Total

Taking the under on Dallas repeating its 2016 win total would be easy. The Cowboys’ Vegas Win Total is 9.5 games, however, a strong reminder this team almost certainly won’t experience nearly as many fortunate in-game scripts as last year’s squad. The odds (-150) still strongly favor the over on Dallas’ win total, but the schedule is littered with strong defensive opponents facing a Cowboys team that’s become so heavily offense driven. They play the AFC West, NFC West, Falcons (away), and Packers (home). Rotoworld SOS analyst Warren Sharp identified the Cowboys as having the NFL's eighth-hardest schedule, while ESPN's Mike Clay rated Dallas' schedule strength toughest in the league. On defense, Dallas’ secondary personnel looks appreciably worse than last year’s. The front seven isn’t much better, and took a huge blow when stud interior pass rusher David Irving was hit with a four-game PEDs suspension. I’m going with a contrarian under bet on the Cowboys winning 9.5 games.

Evan Silva
Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .