The Cowboys' selections of tight end Gavin Escobar, wide receiver Terrance Williams and running back Joseph Randle are interesting because all three players will be backups in 2013, barring injury. The picks suggest the 'Boys are really looking toward the future, perhaps seeking the eventual replacements for Miles Austin, DeMarco Murray and, yes, Jason Witten.
That doesn't mean that the rookies can't be productive this season. While the odds of Witten, Austin and Murray all going down are slim, the chances that one of them gets injured is probably better than a coin flip, meaning we're going to see at least one of these guys play a significant role right out of the gate. Using past rookie data and other numbers, I'm going to project Escobar, Williams and Randle in 2013.
TE Gavin Escobar
When projecting any player for a single season, the primary concern is opportunity. While efficiency metrics like yards per reception (YPR) don't typically differ all that much, there can be massive differences in workload for two players. Thus, the key to making any projection is accurately predicting opportunities.
The Cowboys ran 314 plays with at least two tight ends on the field last season. That number would have been a lot higher if it weren't for unfavorable game situations that forced the offense into "11" personnel: one running back, one tight end and three receivers. With the Cowboys unlikely to get down so much so early in games and the team emphasizing more two-tight end sets, we can probably project Escobar for around 500 snaps. In comparison, Martellus Bennett averaged 499 snaps in his last three seasons with Dallas.
Over the past few years, the Cowboys have passed the ball around 46 percent of the time when they have at least two tight ends on the field. If that number holds up, Escobar would be looking at 230 pass snaps. Based on past rates and Escobar's blocking ability, he'd probably be used as a receiver on around 200 of those plays. If the rookie tight end is targeted on 20 percent of his receiver snaps, which is slightly higher than Tony Romo has targeted No. 2 tight ends in the past, he'd wind up with 40 targets on the season.
Since Escobar won't draw too much attention with superior receiving options attracting coverage, he could easily catch 75 percent of his targets, giving him 30 receptions on the year. And with his receiving ability and plenty of room to run, it isn't unreasonable to anticipate Escobar averaging 14.0 YPR as a rookie, giving him 420 yards on the season.
In my view, Escobar's biggest potential contribution as a rookie will come in the red zone. He's 6-6 with excellent ball skills and turned 13.9 percent of his catches into touchdowns at San Diego State. With the Cowboys' lack of red zone rushing efficiency, Escobar could see a high number of targets inside the opponent's 20-yard line, so don't be surprised to see him score five times in 2013.
- Final Projection: 30 receptions, 420 yards, 5 TDs
WR Terrance Williams
The selection of Williams was intriguing for Dallas because his production will likely be inversely connected to that of Escobar in 2013. Since the two won't be on the field together too often unless a starter gets injured, Williams' production will increase as Escobar's declines, and vice versa.
The 'Boys probably want to see Escobar on the field more than Williams simply because that would mean the team is winning more often. Last year, the Cowboys were forced into using at least three receivers on 56 percent of their snaps. That won't happen again this year. Barring injury, it's more likely that Williams will play around 45 percent of the Cowboys' snaps. That would probably put him in the range of about 475 total plays.
Historically, Romo has targeted his No. 3 receiver on around 12 percent of snaps with at least three receivers on the field. There's no reason to think that rate will change much in 2013, giving Williams 57 targets. No. 3 receivers often haul in a high percentage of their looks, usually around 65 percent. Williams' rate could actually be a bit lower since he figures to see a lot of downfield targets. His catch rate will probably hover around 60 percent, but he could easily average 16.0 YPR. Those figures would give him 34 receptions for 544 yards. Like Escobar, Williams could help Dallas in the red zone as early as this year. With 34 catches, Williams should be able to find the end zone at least four times.
- Final Projection: 34 receptions, 544 yards, 4 TDs
RB Joseph Randle
Projecting Randle is more difficult than the other rookies because there could be a wild change in his opportunities based on DeMarco Murray's health. While it's not likely that Witten or even Austin, who has played in 16 games in three of the last four seasons, get injured, it's probable that Murray will miss at least a handful of games. That needs to be factored into Randle's projection.
Based on past distributions, Randle is a good bet to see around 30 percent of the Cowboys' carries in 2013. That number takes Murray's health into account. The 'Boys had 355 rushes in 2012, but that number figures to increase simply because the team won't be forced to pass so much late in games. In 2011, Dallas ran the ball 408 times, and that's probably a solid projection for 2013. With 30 percent of that workload, Randle should see in the neighborhood of 122 carries as a rookie.
Believe it or not, running backs play at near peak efficiency from the moment they enter the league. In terms of yards per carry (YPC), running backs peak at age 22, and it's a steady decline from there. Considering Randle should play a lot on third down and receive other touches in high-upside situations, it's not out of line to project him at 4.6 YPC.
Think Randle's draft slot should be factored into his efficiency? Think again. Since quality running backs aren't scarce and NFL teams have been horribly inefficient at drafting the position, backs drafted in the middle and late rounds since 2000 have actually averaged a slightly higher YPC than those drafted in the first two rounds. Even though Randle has just 4.63 speed, he's still a good bet to record a higher-than-average YPC. With 122 carries at 4.6 YPC, Randle would rush for 561 yards in 2013. [embedded_ad]
Randle's biggest contributions as a rookie might come as a receiver. He's excellent out of the backfield and solid in pass pro, so there's a good chance he'll handle the majority of the third-down work. If that's the case, Randle could haul in 30 passes or more.
- Final Projection: 122 carries, 561 yards (4.6 YPC), 30 receptions, 240 yards, 5 total TDs