Baby Got YAC: How the Cowboys are reinventing themselves on offense

The Cowboys offense is going to look very different in 2022 after saying goodbye to three starters in Amari Cooper, La’el Collins and Connor Williams, as well as losing two other key contributors in Cedrick Wilson and Blake Jarwin.

But the players on the pitch aren’t the only ones who look different. We can expect head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to change the way they run the offense going forward. The moves they had made this offseason have already offered a pretty good hint of what things might look likebut one key aspect of this deserves a second look: post-capture meters.

Known more commonly as YAC, yards after the catch can be a huge factor for an offense if it happens regularly on the field. In today’s modern NFL, where attacks become easier than ever and defenses use deep shared security blankets to counter them, the YAC becomes even more vital. Having receivers, as well as a pattern to match them, who can pick up an average of five or six extra yards after the catch allows forwards to better take advantage of defenses that are doing their best to eliminate deeper passes.

In fact, that kind of defense was part of what started the Cowboys’ offensive crisis midway through last season. It started against the Broncos, whose defense was led by head coach Vic Fangio, the same coach whose split safety blanket has taken the league by storm in recent years. As was the case with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, Dallas and Dak Prescott were knocked down by defenses that pulled out deeper passes and forced them into a faster game.

In the case of the Cowboys, it didn’t help that they were struggling with injuries in their receiving corps at the time, but another factor was that the offense was not designed to play that style of football. The Cowboys’ top four at YAC last year were CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. This was almost 63% of their total YAC, and two of those players were fighting over snaps.

To put into context the importance of the YAC to offenses in the modern NFL, seven teams that ranked in the top ten in DVOA passing offense in 2021 recorded at least 2,200 yards after the catch. Of those seven teams, the Cowboys were sixth in the YAC, just ahead of a 49ers team that also featured a significantly more efficient running game than Dallas.

This was partly because the Cowboys lacked talented players who could reliably generate YAC. Running backs tend to have inflated YAC numbers due to the number of their screen receptions and checks, when defenders are further out than the average passer. It makes it even more alarming that Pollard and Elliott were among the top four Cowboys in the YAC.

Gallup has an excuse, having missed half the season; he’s also mostly used as a deep threat when he’s healthy, further dampening his chances for YAC. But Cooper finished sixth on the team at YAC, despite being by far the highest-paid receiver on the team. Even Wilson had more YAC than Cooper despite seeing almost half the targets. Jarwin also missed half the season, but his 3.5 YAC per reception tied Cooper as the team’s lowest number among players who saw 10+ targets. It’s especially bad for Jarwin, whose athleticism was a big reason the team believed in him so much at one point.

So what happened? Cooper, Wilson and Jarwin are gone now. Lamb is named the new top dog in the receivers room while Schultz was given the franchise tag. Then the Cowboys added two pass catchers in the draft in Jalen Tolbert and Jake Ferguson who thrived in YAC situations in college.

For Tolbert, he recorded 1,059 yards after the catch throughout his time at South Alabama; for comparison, Cooper had 1,244 YACs during his time in Dallas. Tolbert also posted the eighth-highest YAC per reception among all receivers selected in this draft, despite being the 15th receiver selected.

While Ferguson saw fewer opportunities in the passing game due to the way Wisconsin uses their tight ends, he still featured some of YAC’s best numbers among tight ends in this year’s class. Ferguson saw plenty of quick passes which he managed to turn into bigger wins due to his speed and physicality to keep breaking through contact.

Remember those seven teams that had at least 2,200 YACs in 2021? Five of them had at least 2,400 YACs, which the Cowboys weren’t particularly close to doing. But in 2022, the hope is that things will be different. Receivers and tight ends who didn’t produce after the take are gone, and their empty lockers have been filled by those who do. More than that, players who performed better after capture are given bigger roles and more responsibilities.

The Cowboys understand that defenses will continue to play deep cover until they prove they can beat him. That never happened last year, except for periodic beatings from terrible division foes, and it was a big reason the Cowboys were unable to move the ball against the 49ers in the game. WildCard.

So as long as the defenses are sitting down and taking things out deep, the Cowboys are going to load up on guys who can burn through a defense underneath. Lamb is one of the best at it, ranking 11th among YAC receivers last year, and there will be more alongside him now. It certainly won’t be the ultimate solution to the Cowboys’ problems, but it’s a good start and fixes a weakness that was particularly glaring last season.

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