In the days leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made it clear that the team had entered a brave new world without long-time franchise cornerstone receiver Dez Bryant and had no interest in looking back.
Jones said the process started at the beginning of the free agency when the Cowboys unsuccessfully tried to sign receiver Sammy Watkins.
It continued with the signings of Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson in free agency to go along with holdovers Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown before the team officially parted ways with Bryant two weeks ago.
The revamping of the Cowboys' now Dak Prescott-friendly passing game and offense crystallized even further during the 2018 NFL Draft.
Although the Cowboys took Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with 19th overall pick in the first round, six of the nine total picks were on offense, including Texas guard Connor Williams in the second round, Colorado State receiver Michael Gallup in the third round, Stanford tight end Dalton Schultz in the fourth round and Boise State receiver Derrick Wilson in the sixth round.
They also traded a sixth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for receiver/running back/kick returner Tavon Austin, which made receiver Ryan Switzer, a 2016 fourth-round pick, expendable. The Cowboys subsequently traded him to the Oakland Raiders for defensive tackle Jihad Ward.
“When you lose a player like Dez and what he has brought to the team … we are remaking our receivers room,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “There was obviously some focus there. We said we wanted to create competitive situations. We also wanted to do some things that are Dak friendly. We think we did things to loosen up the defense and keep them honest against our running game.”
Receiver was an obvious focus since the beginning of the off-season and in the draft even though the Cowboys passed on a couple of top receivers in the first round in favor of Vander Esch.
And even though they took Williams in the second round before getting Gallup in the third, the Cowboys had a plan and clarity in what they wanted to do to improve the passing game and make it more Prescott friendly.
First and foremost, they understood there was no receiver in the draft who had No. 1 receiver traits of a Bryant, no matter when they drafted him.
But that was a direction they wanted to steer clear from in the first place, which was at the root of the decision to move away from Bryant, the team’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions.
Even the unexpected uncertainty surrounding the status of tight end Jason Witten, the team’s all-time leading receiver who is leaning toward retirement, left them undeterred.
“We said we weren’t going to have an elite 1 receiver,” Jones said. “We said we're going to have to do it by committee by numbers or by scheme. I think this draft represented that. We honored the fact that the top receiver wasn’t that. We drafted that way. Having a real clarity as to what we weren’t going to be helps you make those decisions. I think we are better because I think we had a great read on where we were. As we sort through Dez and the ‘what ifs’ on Witten and where we are in the offense line, I think we got more clarity."
The Cowboys wanted a stable of pass catchers who ran precise routes and were disciplined in their approach.
They found that Prescott is a quarterback who likes to go through his reads and throw to the open player rather than having to focus on getting the ball to one primary target.
As great as Bryant was, running precise routes and being where he was supposed to be on time were not his strong suits.
Hurns and Thompson do have those traits, and that’s what the Cowboys focused on when they evaluated the receivers in the draft. Gallup and Wilson check the boxes as well.
“These [players] showed they understand and are disciplined and are good at route running,” Jerry Jones said. “They are good at route running and they can be part of and understand what it's like to be a team of receivers and what your responsibility is. If you will do that, then it will open this up. That coordinated way you try to scheme the routes to get somebody open. These guys can do it. We evaluated that. We made a big point of that. Cedrick Wilson, he can run by them, as opposed to somebody who can jump ball. We want them to be linear and run by them."
And while Austin will be used more as a running back in Dallas than a receiver, he fits the Prescott-friendly mode because of his speed and his ability to make plays in space. The Cowboys will use him out of the backfield. They will get the ball to him in the slot. They will also throw deep to him in hopes that he will make defenses pay for trying to load up against Ezekiel Elliott and the running game.
The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Austin has been an enigma so far in the NFL after being selected eighth overall out of West Virginia in 2013.
He was supposed to be an X-factor in the Rams' offense but never found a consistent role.
He had just 13 catches for 47 yards and 59 rushes for 270 yards in 2017.
He has a total of 1,689 yards on 194 catches over five NFL seasons.
The Cowboys have a vision for him as a dynamic space player in this revamped Prescott-friendly attack.