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Fantasy Opportunity Spotlight: Dallas Cowboys

A team-by-team analysis of coaches’ tendencies and using them to help create realistic fantasy football projections. @TubaDeus takes a look at the Dallas Cowboys.

Welcome to the new home of my yearly Fantasy Opportunity series! For those who didn’t see this series on Reddit last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill analyst. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously, individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day, players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.

As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.

Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.

Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.

Dallas Cowboys

Last Year’s Accuracy

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Projections1060430 (40.6%)630 (59.4%)25 (4.0%)370 (61.2%)95 (15.7%)125 (20.7%)
2020 Stats1113430 (38.6%)683 (61.4%)44 (6.4%)401 (62.8%)111 (17.4%)105 (16.4%)
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.

Coaching Changes

Well, that certainly was…something. Mike McCarthy’s first year as head coach of the Cowboys was highly disappointing all around. The offense that had just stormed the league in 2019 slipped back to league average in 2020, largely on the back of a litany of injuries to the offensive line and starting quarterback. At least offensive coordinator Kellen Moore gets to keep his job. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was not so lucky after taking a defense that had been a borderline top 10 unit for four straight years and tanking it into a bottom 10 unit. In his place, Dallas brings in former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as its new defensive coordinator.

5 Dallas Cowboys replacements for Kellen Moore at offensive coordinator
Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports

Coaching History

Despite McCarthy’s history of calling his own offense as a head coach, he handed the play-calling reins to Moore before the season and never took them back. All things considered, Moore was reasonably consistent between his first and second years of calling the shots, given what his offense dealt with in 2020. Dallas went from being the 2nd fastest offense in the NFL in 2019 to being the fastest in 2020, with top 5 play totals both years to match. The wide receiver and running back target shares both saw modest increases in 2020 on the back of Blake Jarwin’s torn ACL, but none of the positions moved too drastically versus what was expected.

The two particularly notable changes came in the Cowboys’ run-pass ratio and sack rate. The offensive line that had been a perennial top 5 group was ravaged by injuries, severely hampering their effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, this led to a nearly doubled sack total and sack rate between 2019 and 2020. When combined with losing star QB Dak Prescott to injury, the offense could no longer keep up with the points their defense kept allowing (only two games under 20 points allowed, eight games over 30 points allowed). Honestly, it’s surprising to see the run rate only fall 3.4% from 2019, given the hand, Moore was dealt in 2020.

Looking Ahead

The good news for the Cowboys is that they are expected to get Prescott back in time for training camp, and most of the offensive line is expected to return healthy as well. That being said, this isn’t the same Dallas line that we’ve come to expect over the years. They should be better in 2021 than in 2020 by virtue of being healthy again, but the elite Cowboys line of the mid-2010’s is now firmly in the rearview mirror. As a result, the sack rate should bounce back to somewhere between their 2019 and 2020 numbers.

Fortunes change quickly in NFL, as Dak Prescott and Mitch Trubisky have  shown. Cowboys now need their QB to bounce back
Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News

Speaking of being healthy again, there is one more key member of the Dallas offense returning from injury with potential to impact the team-level numbers; tight end Blake Jarwin. After the departure of Cowboys legend Jason Witten, Jarwin signed a sizable contract extension and was expected to be the primary receiving tight end. That expectation went up in smoke when he tore his ACL just 25 snaps into the 2020 season. It is true that backup Dalton Schultz was a surprisingly capable fill in, but the blocking tight end simply does not have the same receiving chops as Jarwin. With both tight ends ready for action this year, expect the tight end target share to rebound from last year’s low.

The biggest change in Dallas, however, is the defense. With the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the Cowboys decided to bring in basically an entirely new defense with him. Several Cowboys veterans were allowed to walk in free agency, replaced by veteran signings plucked from all over the league. Dallas also targeted defense in the draft, taking defensive players with their first six picks (all 4th round or higher). The revamped defense will likely take a while to gel – assuming they gel at all this season – which means we shouldn’t expect any great improvement right away. Another season of quick scores for both sides of the ball should lead to continued high total play volume.

2021 Projections

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Stats1113430 (38.6%)683 (61.4%)44 (6.4%)401 (62.8%)111 (17.4%)105 (16.4%)
2021 Projections (17 Games)1158474 (40.9%)684 (59.1%)33 (4.8%)400 (61.4%)103 (15.8%)125 (19.2%)

Previous Entry: Cleveland Browns

Next Entry: Denver Broncos

Find this article helpful? You can follow me on Twitter and Reddit as @TubaDeus, though I spend most of my time on Discord.

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