Solving the Cowboys’ No. 2 receiver job

Dallas Cowboys

I am a Terrance Williams fan. I understand his game and why the Cowboys decided to sign him to a contract extension this offseason. In fact, I was for the extension because I believed that he has been a reliable piece in the Cowboys’ offense for years. He knows his role and he does his job well.

However, it’s time to have the discussion whether he can continue to keep his job as the Cowboys’ second receiver.  Let’s first start with his strengths as a receiver. Williams is a 6-foot-2 receiver that has good build-up speed. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he can often surprise defenders with his long-speed. He’s a tough player that isn’t afraid to block and will play through injuries.

But for him to succeed, his game requires a quarterback that is highly accurate and can use anticipation to sometimes “throw” him open. Williams doesn’t create a ton of separation and as Cowboys’ fans know, his small catch radius can often lead to mind-boggling drops. It’s very rare to see him catch a ball outside of the framework of his body and that’s what led to the game-changing interception on Sunday. The ball wasn’t thrown in his chest and that meant that he would be forced to use just his hands. Unfortunately for Dallas, that was the difference in the game:

When he was paired with Tony Romo, he was one of the more underrated receivers in the NFL. In his second year in the league (2014), Williams caught 37 passes and averaged a whopping 16.8 yards per catch. In that same season, Williams caught eight touchdowns during the regular season and three more in the playoffs. Romo was able to connect with him on multiple slants in which Williams was able to catch the ball in stride and make defenses pay.

But since Romo left, Williams is struggling to find a role in the offense. In his last 21 games with Dak Prescott, Williams has caught just 61 passes for 756 yards and three touchdowns. What is more concerning is that his yards per reception dropped from close to 17 in 2014 with Romo, all the way down to 12.8 with Prescott.

What’s concerning is that the second receiver in Dallas should have it made and should consistently create big plays in this offense. With Dez Bryant always occupying team’s No.1 cornerback and often taking safety help his way, the No.2 in Dallas should be able to feast, especially when you consider how often teams stack the box to stop their rushing attack.

But that’s not happening. In Williams’ last 36 games, he’s averaged just 40 receiving yards per game. He’s had just one 90-yard receiving game in the past 64 games and he’s failed to record a reception of over 25 yards this entire season. He just doesn’t have the connection with Prescott and I’m not sure it’s going to develop anytime soon as the two just don’t mesh well together.

One thing is clear; Prescott does have a connection with Brice Butler and he’s able to make big plays down the field. In just five games and being limited to a part-time role, Butler already has four receptions of over 30 yards (Williams has just four in his last 21 games).

Butler, while not as refined as route-runner nor as a blocker, is a much better fit with Prescott because of his ability to make plays on the ball down the field. Let’s take a look at why the two have been so successful together this season.

The play below perfectly sums up Brice Butler’s strengths as a receiver. He’s got the size and speed to get open with ease, but he sometimes struggles on the timing routes that the Cowboys’ offense features. But when the play breaks down, Butler has the ability to find ways to free himself to get open. More importantly, Butler knows how to attack the ball in the air to make sure the defender can’t knock the ball away, despite the ball being under-thrown.

On the same type of pass, Williams opted to body catch this once again rather than attacking it in the air. The pass was under-thrown some, but this throw came on a “free” play in which the defense jumped offsides. Prescott is giving his receiver a chance to make a play on the ball and Williams hardly gave an effort.

It’s never been Williams’ strength to win while the ball is in the air nor has he been great when the play structure breaks down. But with Prescott at the helm and the offensive line leaking more than usual, Dallas needs a receiver that knows how to play “backyard” football at times.

Last week was another perfect example of why Butler is so valuable to this offense. On the first third down of the game, Prescott was forced outside of the pocket and found Butler in the middle of the field. Butler recognized this and stopped his route short and worked his way back to the quarterback. His quick-decision allowed the Cowboys to convert on third down and scored them a big play on the opening drive of the game.

Butler has his own set of problems including inconsistent routes, drops, and the occasional dumb penalty. But his upside and connection with Prescott should earn him more snaps in the second half of the season. He’s going to frustrating and he may never become the polished receiver that this offense truly needs, but his ability to make big plays down the field could help push this offense to a different level.

Don’t expect Terrance Williams to suddenly disappear in this offense as he clearly has a role as a blocker and as outside receiver in certain packages, but it’s time to make this necessary switch as Butler has been too good to keep him on such a limited snap count.

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