Fantasy Depth Chart Review - Dallas
Despite an underwhelming defense on paper, the Cowboys managed an unlikely division title and playoff appearance last season beating the Lions in the Wild Card Round and coming just one non-catch short of advancing to the Conference Championship.
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In nine seasons as a starter, Tony Romo has been one of the most unheralded fantasy quarterbacks. Over that span he’s finished as a QB1 every season except in 2010 when injuries limited him to just six games and in 2006 when he assumed the starting job in Week 7. Despite playing just 12 games that first season, Romo still managed to finish 17th in fantasy scoring.
While the Cowboys’ shift to a more run-heavy approach last season limited Romo’s passing yards to just 3,705 (he has topped 4,000 yards four times in his career), he actually posted his second highest touchdown total with 34. At the same time, Romo threw just nine picks. Of full-time starters, only Russell Wilson (7), Alex Smith (6), and Aaron Rodgers (5) threw fewer interceptions in 2014.
Romo led the league in completion percentage last season. He also ranked fourth in deep ball accuracy, connecting on 50.8 percent of his passes traveling more than 20 yards in the air, and no one had more than Romo’s 14 touchdowns on deep balls.
I wish this was one of those situations where Romo was being collectively overlooked by the fantasy drafting community, but alas that’s not the case. Romo’s current ADP of 7.09 has him as the ninth quarterback off the board. That seems about right. Still, he does offer potential value for those who prefer waiting at quarterback in the mid- to late-rounds of the draft. While his ceiling is capped by the Cowboy’s offensive approach, Romo still offers a solid back-end QB1 floor.
Of course, Romo will still be throwing to fantasy mainstay Dez Bryant along with Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley.
Bryant is coming off a massive season where he caught 88 balls for 1,320 yards and 16 scores. Over the last three seasons, he’s racked up a jaw dropping 41 touchdown receptions. No receiver in NFL history has posted back-to-back seasons with 16-or-more touchdowns, though Jerry Rice was close with 15 in 1986 and 22 in 1987 (in just 12 games!). Still, Bryant is playing at an elite level both on the field and for fantasy purposes, and remains a top five fantasy option.
While Williams flashed a high ceiling with eight touchdowns in the regular season, he managed to catch just 37 balls for 621 yards. His aDOT of 16.8 ranked eighth among qualifying receivers last season, and indicates that Williams is a big play threat and not much else. Yet he’s currently the 46th receiver in ADP, which is two spots ahead of Eric Decker and five spots ahead of popular sleeper John Brown. While it’s tough to call a player overvalued in the late-10th round, Williams is just that, especially when you consider that he was just 48th in fantasy scoring over the last five weeks of the regular season.
Including the playoffs, Beasley played just 41.8 percent of the Cowboy’s offensive snaps last season and saw an average of just 3.3 targets per game. To his credit, he did catch 74.6 percent of his targets, but with just 420 yards and four scores, Beasley ranked 75th in standard scoring. Of course, fantasy owners did flock to the waiver wire to add Beasley in Week 14 after he scored twice against the Bears. However, he did so on just three targets. Volume will remain an issue for Beasley this season, making him only a viable fantasy option in super deep leagues.
At tight end, the old man Jason Witten (who is actually nearly three years younger than I am) is coming off his lowest yardage total (703) since his rookie season back in 2003. Yet, he still managed to finish as fantasy’s No. 10 tight end in standard leagues. Since 2004, Witten has only finished outside the top 10 in fantasy scoring once when he ranked 11th back in 2006. Over that span he has five top five finishes and was twice the top-scoring fantasy tight end (2007 & 2010).
While it’s unlikely Witten replicates the numbers we saw out of him earlier in his career, he’s still a high-floor fantasy option who is going way too low as the 13th tight end off the board at pick 11.09. Fantasy drafters are currently selecting Josh Hill, Owen Daniels, and Dwayne Allen ahead of Witten. Give me the old man over that trio every time.
Sorry Gavin Escobar dynasty owners. As long as Witten is in Dallas, Escobar remains on the fringes of the fantasy radar. Including the playoffs last season, Escobar played just 25.2 of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. It’s tough to envision much of an uptick this season barring an injury to Witten, but I wouldn’t hold your breath there. Witten has started 131 consecutive regular season games. Only Phillip Rivers (144), D’Brickashaw Ferguson (144), and Eli Manning (167) currently have longer streaks.
Running back has been the most talked about position in Dallas this offseason. With DeMarco Murray now in Philly, Joseph Randle is the favorite for lead back duties. The Cowboys signed Darren McFadden in the offseason and also have Ryan Williams and rookie UDFA Synjyn Days in the mix. Lance Dunbar is likely to get third-down work.
Randle received a majority of the first team snaps in OTAs. McFadden is allegedly going to get an opportunity to prove he isn’t a bust, but he’s currently sidelined with a hamstring injury. All reports suggest Randle is in the driver’s seat.
While Randle’s 51 carries last season isn’t a huge sample size, we can get a sense of what to expect out of him as the starter. He averaged an insane 6.7 yards per carry with 72.5 percent of his carries coming against base defense. Even if we subtract his five garbage time carries, Randle still averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Obviously, it’s a huge stretch to suggest he approaches these numbers with a full-time workload. However, it’s not outlandish to position him as an RB2 candidate behind an impressive Cowboys offensive line that boasts all five players with positive run blocking grades last season. Travis Frederick graded out as last season’s best run-blocking center while Ronald Leary was fifth among guards and Tyron Smith finished as the No. 6 tackle.
As word has gotten out on Randle, his ADP has correspondingly skyrocketed. In mid-May he was coming off the board at pick 9.11. As of the writing of this piece, Randle is going at 4.06. That’s a five-and-a-half round jump in less than a month. It’s been a steady climb over that span, but we eventually have to reach a point where his ADP levels out. He’s currently the No. 20 running back, and I don’t anticipate him going much higher.
Flipping to the defensive side of the ball, there’s a lot of uncertainty along the Dallas defensive line. The Cowboys went out and signed Greg Hardy in the offseason. While Hardy is an elite talent, off-field issues have landed him in hot water and he’s currently facing a 10-game suspension. While some have speculated that the suspension gets reduced, no official decision has been made.
As things currently stand, it’s tough to justify a fantasy roster spot for Hardy. His suspension would take him to Week 12, which is nearly the entire fantasy regular season. However, a reduction of four-or-more games could give Hardy some appeal. He put up big numbers with the Panthers in 2012 and 2013 with a combined 120 total tackles and 26 sacks. In those two seasons, Hardy finished as fantasy’s No. 8 and No. 5 defensive lineman, and appeared to be on the verge of breaking into the elite tier of defensive linemen.
Hardy’s suspension does open the door for Demarcus Lawrence. The second-year man out of Boise State didn’t see the field until Week 9 last season as he sustained a broken foot in the preseason. While he didn’t do much in the regular season, Lawrence showed signs of things to come by notching a sack in each of the Cowboys’ two playoff games. Now healthy and getting an opportunity to start, Lawrence is an intriguing breakout candidate.
While Jeremy Mincy doesn’t offer the same appeal, rookie Randy Gregory is a name to know. Off-field issues and a failed drug test as the Combine caused Gregory to slide in the draft, but he was one of the best pure-pass rushers in this year’s class. He led all draft-eligible edge players with 50 QB pressures, and was the third most-productive pass rushing edge player last season. Reports out of Dallas suggest Gregory could open the season as a starter. Rookie defensive ends rarely make much of a fantasy impact, but Gregory has a good opportunity in the short-term and is one of the best dynasty options out of this year’s rookies.
Those in DT-required leagues should also know the name Tyrone Crawford. He didn’t put up big numbers last season with just three sacks and 33 total tackles, but his play on the field was impressive. Crawford managed a QB pressure on 11.3 percent of his pass rush snaps.
Shifting to linebacker, the Cowboys are projected to start Rolando McClain in the middle with Sean Lee moving to the weak side and Anthony Hitchens on the strong side. McClain and Lee are all but locked into three-down roles, which means Hitchens is off the redraft fantasy radar.
When he’s on the field, Lee has been fantastic thus far in his career. The problem is actually getting him on the field. Lee has never played a full season, and has missed a combined 31 games over the last three years. Now returning from a torn ACL he suffered in 2014 OTAs. News recently surfaced that Lee was essentially playing with a partially torn ACL for his first four years in the NFL, but all reports out of Dallas suggest Lee is back to 100 percent.
If Lee can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, he’ll no doubt be in the LB1 mix. One of the league’s most prolific tackles, Lee posted Kuechly-like tPOP numbers of 17.4 in 2013 and 20.9 in 2012. He also offers big-play upside with nine interceptions over his last three seasons.
Of course, Lee will have some competition for tackles with McClain. After a floundering start to his career and off-field issues that led to a short-lived retirement, McClain was a revelation last season. With just 81 total tackles in 13 games played, his fantasy value didn’t match up to what he did on the field. McClain graded out as our No. 7 inside linebacker and posted a position-high stop percentage of 15.2. While his tackle numbers were on the lower side, McClain managed a strong tPOP of 16.5, which suggests we could see triple-digits out of him this season if he plays a full slate of games. That said, Lee’s presence limit’s McClain for fantasy purposes and he shouldn’t be considered as anything more than an LB3.
Barry Church has been one of the better fantasy defensive back options over the last two seasons with finishes of 13th (2014) and 1st (2013). He has an impressive 242 total tackles over that span. While the numbers are encouraging, Church’s value is closely tied to Lee’s status. Without Lee on the field, Church has to play more cleanup duty in the secondary. But if Lee (yes if) remains healthy, Church will regress to more of a DB2 fantasy option.
Finally, those in IDP circles may want to keep tabs on rookie Byron Jones. You’ll likely remember Jones from the Combine when he set the world record in the standing broad jump. Needless to say, he’s a freak athlete who was drafted as a corner but has already seen time at safety in OTAs. That type of hybrid defensive back (a la Tyrann Mathieu) has proven to be quite valuable for fantasy purposes. I’m not sure I’d go as far as suggesting Jones with have value in Year 1, but he’s a player who is worth a spot on your list of DB streamers.
Jeff Ratcliffe is the Assistant Managing Editor and resident IDP maven and DFS junkie of PFF Fantasy.