After an underwhelming offensive performance in 2018, the Dallas Cowboys have canned the stale and stubborn Scott Linehan in favor of the unknown upside of ex-QB and and QB Coach Kellen Moore. The team ranked just 22nd in total yards and points in 2018, and hope the 29-year old Moore will provide a jolt as the next young wunderkind of the NFL.
As the NCAA’s most winningest QB with 50 wins at Boise State, Moore knows a thing or two about offenses that work. Exactly what he’ll roll out remains a mystery, but early OTAs footage and comments are promising. With established and intriguing options across the offensive board, Moore certainly has the necessary weapons at his disposal. But just how great of a boost can Moore provide to talents like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper?
The Expected Scheme – Movement, Pace, and Variety
Given Moore is a first-time play caller, predicting exactly what offense the Cowboys will run is impossible. Still, most expect Moore to marry the Cowboys’ run-heavy, vertical “Air Coryell” passing backbone with the fast-pace, varied-formations, and motion-heavy concepts he excelled with at Boise State.
Early indications suggest Moore’s offense will remain mostly the same as Scott Linehan’s: run-heavy, with timely vertical shots. Moore spent six years within Linehan’s offense, first with the Detroit Lions before following him to Dallas. Moreover, the Cowboys have won two division titles in the last three years, after all, so this certainly seems like a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But if it could be a whole lot better, especially considering the talent here, a few tweaks are certainly acceptable. Most expect these changes to come in the form of presentation via pre-snap motion, unique formations, and a more aggressive pace to complement a mostly similar playbook.
Thus, according to former Moore teammate Dan Orlovsky (who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite film analysts), he expects Moore’s offense to be “like Sean Payton married with Matt Nagy married with Mike Leach. Like they all had a baby and that’s what this offense is going to be.”
Considering that guru parentage, this is an offensive baby fantasy owners would love to see birthed, healthy and happy. But what exactly does that infant look like?
All three of those minds are known for their ingenuity in formations, motions, and play design to gain advantages in the three offensive essentials: numbers, leverage and grass. Dominating in these areas was Boise State’s calling card under wizard Chris Peterson, which Moore detailed on Gruden’s QB camp:
To gain an advantage in these key areas, step one was a variety of pre-snap motion. On nearly every play, the Boise Broncos featured at least one, and more often multiple, players moving around to unsettle the defense. As Moore explains:
“Our whole goal from an outside perspective is to make it look as confusing as possible. And at the end of the day it’s pretty simple for us. It’s a lot of the same concepts, it’s a lot of ways of doing the same things.
The shifts and motions are very specific to each play. There’s a purpose to why we’re doing it. We’re not just shifting and motioning and running people all across the field just for the heck of it. There’s a reason. We’re trying to get an advantage. We’re trying to outnumber them. We’re trying to see a coverage or something.”
This would be in stark contrast to Linehan, as the Cowboys ranked 24th in the league in motion — well-below the league average. Once again, Orlovsky nailed the analogies when describing his expectations:
“I also expect to see some really unique pre-snap motions and movements and shifts and trying to do things that are somewhat simple from an Xs and Os scheme standpoint, but always constantly changing the dress-up of it. I kind of analogize it to like, every guy in the world owns a navy suit. But the guys that wear it really well are constantly changing the shoes, and the socks, and the belt, and the pocket square where, if I stand next to the guy, we both have the same suit on but it looks totally different.
I just expect this offense to be constantly changing what it looks like before the snap. And then there’s going to be some college aspect to it, I promise you because Kellen’s background at Boise State. There will be some spread, four wide receiver…”
Beyond more pre-snap creativity, expect a much faster offensive pace in Dallas. Previously, Dallas was all about grind-it-out football that methodically wore down the clock, ranking 24th in pace with an average of 28.73 seconds per play. But Moore’s Boise offenses (as well as Prescott’s attacks at Mississippi State) were up-tempo monsters that rarely huddled. Between Zeke’s punishing downhill running, a do-it-all threat in Cooper out wide, and Dak’s dual-threat ability, plus versatile weapons in Randall Cobb and rookie Tony Pollard, Dallas has the weaponry to push the pace and rarely release the gas pedal.
In fact, this versatility is the one hint Moore has released on his offensive approach. He detailed:
“I think the beauty of our current roster is we have a lot of versatility,” Moore said earlier this offseason. “We have guys that can kind of line up in a lot of different places. Hopefully we can be multiple and present things in different ways, and at the end of the day still have our foundation and our philosophy. You can run similar plays, just out of a lot of different looks.”
At minimum, some of the league’s most intriguing talents are going to be put in better positions, and utilized to greater capacities, than ever before. The results in early OTAs have been promising. 10-year veteran Sean Lee, who’s seen every X and O an offense can create, is certainly impressed:
“Yes, Kellen has been incredible,” Lee said, via Jane Slater of NFL Network. “They’ve challenged us with the different looks that they have, how they’re dressing things up and how many weapons they have — using all of them. It’s been a challenge for us defensively. Each day [there are] different looks and he’s throwing them at us fast. To us, it’s good for us because it stresses our system and you have to take on that challenge every single day.”
In short, the Cowboys offense will remain largely similar in its run-heavy “Garret Coryell” backbone: Zeke… Zeke… and more Zeke, with some deep balls mixed in. But, ideally, Moore will create more defensive confusion and offensive efficiency through pre-snap movement, unique formations, and a faster pace, all while maximizing the versatility of the weapons here.
Just how might this promising new attack manifest in fantasy value for specific players? Let’s dig in.
1) Dak Prescott, who may just be the most underrated QB in fantasy, can reach his full ceiling… especially as a runner
Over the last three seasons, only three quarterbacks have posted top 10 fantasy seasons each season: Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Prescott. He was even better once the team acquired Cooper, posting QB7 numbers from Week 9 on. He topped 21 FPs in six of their 11 games together, whereas he averaged just 17.4 FPs before the acquisition. Yet, for whatever reason, Prescott is being drafted as the QB20 in drafts, which is criminal underappreciation.
That’s especially true considering Dak’s achieved this fantasy success in a bland, stale scheme. We haven’t seen anything close to full, proper utilization. Moore, fresh off a season as Prescott’s QB coach, knows the QBs strengths and favorite plays better than anyone. As such, he’s a fantastic candidate to squeeze out all the fantasy juice Prescott can muster.
Step one will be maximizing Dak’s uncanny rushing abilities. Most who know Moore expect him to use Dak as a runner far more often, both on designed RPO style plays, but also to help him “change the launch point” in the passing game. In fact, while addressing the Cowboys’ Red Zone woes, Moore immediately suggested increasing Prescott’s usage:
I liked this quote from Kellen Moore today, about improving in the red zone. My interpretation is that he means taking advantage of Dak Prescott as a runner, which would be a very encouraging sight #cowboyswire pic.twitter.com/0ffFmoTfAN
— David Helman (@davidhelman_) May 29, 2019
This would be wise, considering Prescott’s success as a runner in the Red Zone. Athletic’s Bob Sturm pointed out Prescott’s average of 4.46 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns in the Red Zone between 2016 and 2018. The league average for all players is 2.64 and there’s no one close to over four yards and over 10 touchdowns in the league. Despite this, the Cowboys rarely dialed up read options or designed runs, which should change under Moore.
Additionally, after two weeks of OTAs, Blogging the Boys noted how Moore frequently used 10-personnel in the red-zone. This means they’re deploying more WRs to spread defenses out, a stark contrast from the load-it-up and pound the ball they’ve been deploying to mediocre success the past few years.
Whether as a runner or passer, this greatly favors Prescott’s fantasy outlook. If the defense goes into nickel or dime to match the pass-catchers, he’ll have more favorable running looks. Yet, if they stack the box, Dak should have easy chances on the outside.
Plus, this offense has reportedly preached “vertical speed.” Cowboys beat RJ Ochoa noted on our Podcast that many team insiders feel Moore was given a chance to showcase his play-calling skills in Week 17 versus the Giants. Coincidentally, the offense moved at a faster pace and took far more deep-shots, with Prescott posting the second-highest yardage of his career in a masterful 387 yard, 4 TD performance. Imagine a full season of similar performances?
In general, Prescott’s been wholly impressed with Moore. He called him “a young phenom genius” who can help him “take the next step in my game mentally,” all while noting he “loves the changes” so far. Between their chemistry together, improved play calling, and increased rushing usage, Prescott and Moore are shaping up as a beautiful duo made in fantasy heaven.
2) Ezekiel Elliott’s limitless ceiling is even higher with more creative run concepts and overall offensive ingenuity. No Brainer at No.1 Overall.
We all know Zeke is dominant. He’s led the league in rushing in both of his full seasons, and finally had his true three-down abilities utilized with a career-high 77 catches in 2018.
Still, he could be even better in 2019, specifically because of Moore.
Already in OTAs, observers have noted the increased creativity across the board, including the blocking assignments that better utilize this offensive line’s elite athleticism. Via team beat writer Bryan Broaddus :
“I believe this is by design, but I have noticed a lot of movement with this offensive line when it comes to the way Kellen Moore is calling plays. You see a lot of counters, screens and fold blocks. Moore is attempting to use the athletic ability of his linemen in order to create some favorable matchups for the scheme. I lost track of the number of plays where there was someone on the move and working in space.”
Zeke’s already displayed his uncanny ability to read blocks, with the patience to allow plays to set up properly. This counters, traps, and screens could create gaping lanes for Zeke to gash.
Additionally, boxes should be lighter with Moore’s heavy motion and formation variation better disguising the plays. Just like the Rams’ ability to “marry the pass and run games,” the Cowboys are aiming to become far less predictable than they had under Linehan, and Zeke could benefit schematically in ways similar to Todd Gurley these past few seasons.
Many expect an increase in RPO plays under Moore as well. Zeke and Dak could form a deadly duo on these concepts, with fantastic cutback lanes for the RBs.
Granted, the volume may take a slight hit. As team insider RJ Ochoa noted on our Fantasy Fullback Dive Podcast, Moore will try to get more playmakers active, including WRs in the run-game through jet sweeps and counters. Plus, rookie Tony Pollard is expected to play an immediate role, especially in the pass-game:
Still, a slight decrease in total volume would be offset positively by increased efficiency. Less predictability, lighter boxes, more space, and increased scoring chances would all help Zeke’s production spike even further, especially in the TD department. Despite finishing 2018 as the only back to top 300 carries (304, which was 43 ahead of the next closest Saquon Barkley), Zeke ranked just 8th in Red Zone attempts with only 39. With a 15 TD season already on his resume, don’t be surprised if Zeke returns to 13+ ground scores, while maintaining his 2018 receiving spike.
3) A more creative, modern passing game will only help Amari Cooper build further on last year’s success
Although previously boom-or-bust with the Raiders, Amari Cooper seemed to find some consistency once traded to the Boys. He logged the 7th most FPs from Week 9 on, and was on pace for 94 catches, nearly 1,300 yards and 11 scores, all while learning an offense and new-QB on the fly. Not only did Cooper’s own stats benefit, but the team rapidly improved, going from 3-4 without Cooper to 7-2 with him while earning a playoff win.
Cooper now enters 2019 with an established rapport with Prescott, and the chance to grow together inside Moore’s new attack.
Thus far, Cooper is encouraged with Moore. He “loves” the offense and play-calling, noting: “It really gives me an opportunity to showcase my whole skillset… we’re really running the same plays but disguising them. Different shifts and motions to confuse the defense, which allows me to do my best because it gets them off balance and the more you can confuse them the better it is… they can’t key in on one guy with all the playmakers.”
Moore certainly recognizes the upside Cooper brings. With a 6’1″ frame and 4.4 speed, Cooper has the size and speed to dominate every layer of the field. This is especially true with his excellent first step, smooth change-of-direction in his routes, and willingness to go over the middle for tough grabs. Plus, any coach who’s ever had Amari raves about his practice habits and cerebral nature to pick up any route concept from any position.
This type of versatility, and limitless route tree, has Moore foaming at the mouth to use Cooper all over:
“For him, it’s seeing the whole picture now,” Moore said. “Him being here for an offseason, you’re able to move him around a little bit more, put him in some different spots, some formations, motions, all that sort of stuff. That stuff will help us help him and create opportunities for him.”
In 2018, Cooper ran 428 routes, with 252 coming wide to the right, 176 wide to the left, 58 in the left slot, 57 in the right slot and five lined up tight to the left tackle, according to Next Gen Stats. According to reports, Cooper has been going in motion and lining up in the slot more often, where he’s dominated dating back to college.
Plus, the more aggressive Linehan is likely to emphasizee on Cooper’s long speed more often. WRs coach Sanjay Lal noted the team has been preaching long-balls, and the chemistry is tight thus far:
“The whole premise of this offense is vertical speed… Being able to hit those deep balls in the game is going to change everything. We are doing it out here. That is good to see. The quarterbacks are doing a good job throwing… He can run our dodge route, which is an option route, as good as anyone… And he can run a 9 route (a go route) as good as anyone. So he has the ability to be equally good inside or outside.”
Though Cooper’s inconsistent past with the Raiders may scare off many owners, Moore provides reason for optimism. In this offense, defenses will have a far harder time keying on the play pre-snap. Moreover, Cooper will be lining up all over, and could see his highest usage yet. With a late-third price tag, Cooper could be the ideal WR1 target for drafters who go RB-heavy or plunge on Travis Kelce in the first two rounds.
Though the Cowboys are fresh off a 10-win, division-title season, the offense was among the league’s worst, ranking just 22nd in both yards and points. Consequently, Scott Linehan was fired in favor of former QB and QBs-coach Kellen Moore, who many laud as the next young phenom. The core of this offense will remain largely the same: run-heavy with timely vertical shots in an “Air Coryell” passing game. However, Moore will “dress” the staples up with varied pace, formations, and pre-snap motions to keep defenses more confused and off-balanced.
Just these simple tweaks in presentation could yield monstrous results, particularly for Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper. Expect more “leg points” from Dak as a runner in the Red Zone, increased efficiency and scoring opportunities for Zeke, and more varied routes and alignments for Cooper, with all finishing as quality No.1 options in fantasy.