Early 2016 Projections: The Dallas Cowboys, or How Ezekiel Elliott Looks Like Mark Ingram

Now that the NFL draft is over and the high-impact free agents have found their homes, we can starting doing some early 2016 fantasy football projections. Today: the Dallas Cowboys.

First things first, using our staff projection machine I set some baseline team-wide assumptions:

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I set average scoring margin to the league-wide 75th percentile mark. The team has a 15-4 record in regular season games that Tony Romo has played in over the last two seasons, so I feel comfortable projecting them to be a relatively good team. For pass tendency (how often they pass relative to expectations) and pace tendency (how many total plays they execute relative to expectations) I went with the mean of their 2013 and 2014 numbers. I didn’t want to use the 2015 season, as it didn’t seem particularly representative given the health issues of Romo and Dez Bryant, perhaps their two most valuable players. You shouldn’t be surprised by their slow pace, but you may be surprised to see that the team has actually been relatively pass-heavy given their run-first reputation. They were in fact run-heavy in 2014, but they were even more pass-heavy in 2013 than they were run-heavy in 2014.

Some might object to the inclusion of 2013. After all, their run-heavy approach coincided with the arrival of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. But Linehan himself was an incredibly pass-heavy play-caller prior to arriving in Dallas. So I don’t believe the 2013 year was out of character for Linehan, even if Linehan himself was not in Dallas this year. More importantly, including the 2013 season serves the important goal of increasing the sample size.

Onto Romo specifically:

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I again used an average of 2013 and 2014 to set Romo’s interception rate, sack rate, yards per carry, and percentage of team rushing attempts. Romo’s projection is also heavily informed by the projections for his receivers, which we will explore in more detail below.

Ultimately this projection is a high efficiency, low volume projection, which should seem familiar to anyone who owned Romo in 2013 or 2014. In 2014, Romo finished as the QB11 on a per game basis. In 2013, Romo finished as the QB10 on a per game basis. So I would have low-end QB1 expectations for Romo yet again, but there is certainly potential for a better result if the team finds itself in situations where it has to pass a lot.

Onto the wide receivers:

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For Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, I again just averaged their 2013 and 2014 numbers for percentage of team targets, catch rate, yards per target, and touchdown rate. I also included 2015 for Terrance Williams, as his 2015 numbers really weren’t out of line with his 2013 and 2014 numbers.

Bryant is projected for almost 15 TDs, what’s new? His TD scoring prowess gives him both a high floor and a high ceiling. This projection works out to 19.2 PPR fantasy points per game, which would have made Bryant WR8 on a per game basis last season, just ahead of Allen Robinson. If you’re not concerned about his poor 2015 performance, and I’m not since I believe it was just a product of his foot injury and Romo also getting hurt, then you should have no concern taking Bryant in the first round of 2016 drafts.

Williams is projected for a stat line that’s bound to give you some usable weeks, but that isn’t good enough to actually trust when it comes time to make start-sit decisions. Per the Best Ball ADP App, he is currently being drafted as the WR69, which seems like a bargain in a format where you don’t have to make start-sit decisions.

Beasley would have to drastically outperform his projection to be fantasy relevant.

Onto the tight ends:

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For Witten, I again just went with the average of his 2013 and 2014 numbers. It works out to 11.8 PPG, which would have tied him with Travis Kelce for the TE8 on a per game basis. Fun fact: Witten has been a top 12 TE every season going all the way back to 2004. He is currently being drafted as the TE18 in best ball drafts. He may be one of the safest, biggest steals at any position.

For the TE2 position, I just went with the results for that position over the 2013 and 2014 seasons again. I don’t know if it will be James Hanna or Gavin Escobar, but I’m highly confident that they won’t be anything close to fantasy relevant. Even Martellus Bennett wasn’t productive when he was behind Witten. One could become relevant if Witten misses time, but he has only missed a single game in his entire career.

Finally, the stars of the show for Dallas, the running backs:

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In terms of roles, I set a pretty clear hierarchy where Ezekiel Elliott is the RB1, Darren McFadden is the RB2, and Alfred Morris is the RB3. I’ve seen some suggest that they could cut McFadden, but they would only be saving $2.05 million, which doesn’t seem like enough to justify cutting a RB who had 1,417 yards from scrimmage last season.

For all of Zeke’s stats, including yards per carry, percentage of rushing attempts, percentage of team targets, TD rate, catch rate, and yards per target, I went with the means of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 RB1s. That gives us a projection that represents a compromise between the veteran incumbent starter DeMarco Murray and the muddle they had last season, which seems like a good fit for a rookie.

This projection works out to 17.6 PPG, which is certainly very good, especially for a rookie. But it’s not that good. Elliott is currently being drafted as a first round pick and the fourth RB overall. Mark Ingram scored 16.9 PPG last season, and he’s currently being drafted in the early third round as the ninth RB overall. It’s not necessarily an either-or decision, but I’d much rather have Ingram as a matter of value. Elliott simply may not get enough receptions to get the Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, Jamaal Charles type of scoring, so I’m not sure that he should be drafted as such. David Johnson has a very similar ADP, and I have him projected to score 1.6 PPG more than Elliott.

I set most of McFadden’s stats to the median for a RB2, though I set his yards per carry and target percentage to the 75th percentile mark. I bumped up his yards per carry because of the Dallas offensive line and his own 4.6 yards per carry last season. I bumped up his target percentage because he was actually fairly heavily utilized as a receiver last season, and was quite efficient as well.

For Morris’ percentage of the rushing attempts, I just went with what I had left after Romo, Elliott, and McFadden, which ended up being close to the median for a RB3 anyway. I set his yards per carry and TD rate to the 75th percentile mark for a RB3. I set his target percentage to the 25th percentile mark, as he’s (in)famously never been used much as a receiver. I set his catch rate and yards per target to the median.

I didn’t project Lance Dunbar at all because his injury was more severe than initially known.

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