Football Outsiders produces a metric known as Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), similar to baseball’s WAR stat in that it attempts to measure how valuable a player is compared to any generic stand-in who might take his place in the lineup.
Headed into Week 7, Dak Prescott ranked second among all NFL quarterbacks, behind only MVP candidate Matt Ryan. Rookie of the Year front-runner Ezekiel Elliott landed fourth among running backs (but first in YAR, which does not take into account the opponents faced). Neither those high marks, nor the Cowboys’ O-line being the league’s top run blockers so far, should come as any surprise given how the offense has operated thus far.
Try this one on for size, though. Nestled among the likes of A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas, is the NFL’s fifth-highest-graded receiver: Cole Beasley, who could be called Dallas’s secret weapon if it was not so obvious how important he has become to the offense.
Beasley was central once again on Sunday in Green Bay, where he caught all six passes thrown to him for 58 yards and two touchdowns. As usual, his production came in a variety of ways, too.
Three of his receptions came on quick screens, in which Beasley essentially served as an extra running back on pitch-and-catch “hand-offs”—he turned the first such play into a 16-yard gain with the help of a Brice Butler block. The first of his two touchdowns happened when he motioned across a heavy formation at the goal line and slipped into the flat for an easy one-yarder.
Simple. Efficient. Exactly the type of passes that have worked with Dak Prescott in the lineup.
But Beasley is not merely a gimmick receiver. He also had this 22-yard reception out the slot, as he left cornerback Micah Hyde flailing at air:
Later, his second touchdown, which resulted from a one-on-one matchup outside against Green Bay cornerback Ladarius Gunter:
Sure, the 5' 8" Beasley won’t win you many battles in the air downfield, and the Packers trotted out a depleted secondary Sunday, but those routes are as sharp and as sudden as you can run them. Beasley has been able to get open against all of Dallas’s opponents this season, hence his team-leading 33 receptions, 390 yards and three touchdowns.
Those numbers, by the way, put him on pace to shatter his previous career highs: 52 catches, 536 yards and five touchdowns, all set last year. There are myriad reasons to explain the spikes this season (including that Beasley, 27, continues to improve as a receiver), but the most obvious is this: In a passing game that currently relies on short, relatively safe passes, Beasley is by far the Cowboys’ most reliable option.
“[This season] doesn’t feel any different,” Beasley said recently, according to the Dallas News. “Maybe I just prepared better for this season than I have in the past. Maybe. But other than that, no. I’m just playing football and focusing on my job and what I have to do. Just playing fast.”
Dude also catches everything. O.K., almost everything: His 33 receptions this year have come on 39 targets for a catch rate of 84.6%—that’s tops among all NFL receivers, per TeamRankings.com. A year ago, Washington’s Jamison Crowder led the position in that stat at 75.6%.
“He’s a guy the quarterbacks like to throw to,” coach Jason Garrett said last month. “One of the reasons is he gets open, and he finishes the play.”
Much has been made of Prescott’s limited depth of target this season—his 42-yard completion to Terrance Williams Sunday came on the rare throw that traveled more than 20 yards. Within the constructs of this offense, though, he hasn’t needed to stretch the field. The Cowboys want him to take what’s there, dink and dunk, make sure not to turn it over. He has been exceptional as a game manager, throwing an NFL-record 176 passes to start his career before firing an interception Sunday.
Beasley’s not the only one playing well within the scheme, either. Both Williams (20 catches for 311 yards) and veteran tight end Jason Witten (28 for 274) are posting numbers on par with 2015 when Tony Romo missed significant time and ahead of their 2014 clips, which came with Romo at the helm.
The player whose stats figure to suffer most should Prescott maintain his starting job is Dez Bryant. The superstar receiver caught 11 passes for 150 yards in three games with Prescott at QB before suffering a hairline fracture in his knee; his long reception was for just 21 yards.
The Cowboys haven’t shown many ill effects of Bryant being out. That’s due in large part to their dominant run game and overachieving defense, but Beasley has been the one picking up the slack through the air.
To excel with a quick-hit passing game requires receivers who can get open in a hurry and provide significant yards after the catch. Beasley has done both on a consistent basis for the Cowboys during their 5–1 start.
Prescott, Elliott and the offensive line are at the heart of the Cowboys’s NFC East-leading charge. Beasley, no longer a secret but a weapon nonetheless, is doing more than his fair share to help.