In 2018, the Chiefs pass-catching corps broke out in what was one of the single greatest passing displays in NFL history. Speedster Tyreek Hill turned flashes of brilliance into spells of consistency, as Travis Kelce continued to anchor the Chiefs’ passing attack. But Patrick Mahomes led the way for this team and it’s not safe to say they entered the year as the league’s top pass-catching group, even with the acquisition of LeSean McCoy to catch passes out of the backfield. The Rams, Browns, Texans, and Saints would certainly have argued otherwise.
The Dallas Cowboys entered 2019 with a ton of question marks behind clear number one receiver Amari Cooper. Michael Gallup coming off of an inconsistent rookie year, Randall Cobb off of sustained mediocrity, and Jason Witten off of a quick trip to the announcer’s booth. Ezekiel Elliott is a big support out of the backfield, but many question marks remained. The Cowboys have overperformed in 2019 and are beginning to emerge as an elite pass-catching group this year. Let’s decide who takes the top spot after eleven weeks into the season.
The common logic on the Chiefs is that their receivers seem to benefit more from playcalling and Patrick Mahomes’ electric talent than route running. Many of their top receivers are not fantastic in a technical sense. You can see that Tyreek Hill’s routes are fairly one dimensional , and some of Sammy Watkins’ charts are laughably simple . But Travis Kelce runs an advanced route tree that is very rarely seen among the NFL’s tight ends — one of the reasons he has been so hard to adjust to during his 6+ years in the league. The running backs add some balance out of the backfield but do not add significantly to the tree.
Now to the Cowboys. Outside of Stefon Diggs, it’s unclear if there’s any receiver in the league who runs routes quite as dynamically as Amari Cooper. The Alabama product has been a top route runner since he entered the league, but has taken his game up to a new level this year. Watch some of his route running highlights this year, which have been thoroughly circulated across the NFL community. On one play, he takes Eagles’ cornerback Rasul Douglas right off the screen, and on another he has top coverage corner Janoris Jenkins completely turned around. While Cooper is a top, flashy runner, Randall Cobb is extremely efficient out of the slot, and has benefitted from opportunities in the middle of the field. The Cowboys use shorter routes from their Jason Witten and stretch the field a bit with Blake Jarwin, opening up big plays on more straightforward corners and streaks from Gallup.
But in terms of arm strength, it really is no comparison. Mahomes has one of the strongest arms of all time and takes the tally easily.
Quickness & Speed
Anytime you change your Instagram handle from @ImFasterThanYa to @cheetah, you better be the second coming of The Flash. And Tyreek Hill fits that mold as well as anyone. The burner who ran a 4.3 forty yard dash out of West Alabama has lived up to the hype on his speed, and has overachieved on every other front. He’s widely known as the league’s fastest man, and made headlines on Damien Williams’ touchdown earlier this season simply by how fast he caught up to his teammate from a flat-footed start . The Chiefs have the flat out fastest receiving group in the league, as Hill is flanked by fast-for-a-Tight-End Travis Kelce, quick Sammy Watkins, and blazing Mecole Hardman. LeSean McCoy also adds significant speed on screen passes, as he has shown over many years in the league.
The Cowboys don’t compare even closely in this regard. Amari Cooper certainly touts above average top end speed, and elite quickness, but he’s seen much more as an all-around receiver than one who uses speed and quickness to dominate. Michael Gallup’s speed is just average, and Randall Cobb and Jason Witten are definitely on the slow side. Witten could actually be the slowest tight end in the league. Zeke adds some speed to the passing game, but his contributions are not part of the core passing attack.
Tally to the Legion of Zoom , as ESPN insists on gimmick-labeling the Chiefs receiving group.
When you think of the fastest receivers in the NFL, you often think that size does not correlate. But the Chiefs actually stack up pretty well up top. Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman are each only 5’10, and that may be generous for Tyreek. But DeMarcus Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Byron Pringle are all 6’1 and give the Chiefs some balance of size and speed. Travis Kelce then adds his big body across the middle, standing at 6’5, 255 pounds. The only knock on this group is that they do not have a true over-the-top threat on the outside, and often have to rely more on separation and trickery in the red zone.
Amari Cooper often looks larger on the field than he appears on the roster card. At 6’1 and 225, Cooper is blessed with incredible athleticism and can make terrific catches over the top with his strength. Michael Gallup is also over six feet tall, and looks physically dominant near the sidelines, as shown by an insane circus catch over a helpless Detroit Lion cornerback on Sunday. Blake Jarwin also provides a ton of size and often goes unmentioned, but is on pace for a respectable 27 catches and 400 yards this season. He provides a second big target at 6’5, 260 lbs. And let’s not forget Jason Witten, who made Joe Tessitore look like a middle schooler in the booth.
While the Chiefs are surprisingly large for a group that is headlined by Tyreek Hill, the Cowboys provide a significantly greater physical threat, outside and inside, to opposing defenders. Tally, Cowboys.
Let’s start with Travis Kelce, one of the league’s most reliable receivers with nearly 500 career catches that provides a long record of success. Well Travis Kelce hasn’t been quite himself this year, as he has dropped five passes on his way to a sub-70% catch rate that grades as sub-par for a tight end. And this is one year after dropping seven balls in 2018. Tyreek Hill has actually been even more inconsistent, catching only 62% of passes — understandable for a home run receiver — but has already dropped two balls in six games. Sammy Watkins is not exactly known for his hands either. LeSean McCoy adds good balance at running back as a sure-handed pass catcher, but Damien Willaims has sightly underperformed in the passing game this year.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, have still not found a way to solve Michael Gallup’s hands issues. In 2018, he caught less than 50% of his targets and had very consistently reported miscues that created trust issues with Dak Prescott. While he has found a way to get open more consistently in 2019, his hands issues have remained — flubbing seven balls while challenging for the league lead in dropped passes. Gallup is shaping up to be the ultimate boom or bust pass-catcher, with his circus catch on Sunday but frequent misplays. Amari Cooper has been flashier than he has been consistent, and Cobb actually has six drops of his own. Zeke also adds a couple of drops and a sub-80% catch rate that is not elite for a running back.
This is the type of comparison where the deeper you look, the less you like either side. We’ll take the Chiefs here for better hands, given that the Cowboys’ drop numbers are pretty remarkable.
To give them credit, the Chiefs backs and tight ends have a tough assignment on blocking, as this is the first year since Mahomes has taken over where their offensive line has significantly rotated throughout the season. After two years of total consistency, anchored by post-Joe Thomas ironman Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs line has been plagued by injuries. All five of the Chiefs opening day offensive line starters have missed some sort of time, the most significant of which was tackle Eric Fisher, who has missed most of the season after sports hernia surgery.
Travis Kelce has received criticism over the past few years for his willingness, and is primarily a receiving tight end. Blake Bell is the Chiefs’ blocking tight end, but is currently banged up with an ankle injury. Deon Yelder has received the majority of the remaining tight end snaps for the Chiefs, and he is a young player who is not a specialized blocking back. Damien Williams only has mediocre ability as a blocking back, and ‘Shady’ McCoy is a notoriously poor pass blocker.
The Cowboys have a much more balanced blocking group of backs and tight ends, anchored by a great offensive line. Jason Witten has struck a great balance late in his career between receiving and blocking — and is playing a very high percentage of the team’s snaps — typically over 80%. Blake Jarwin has improved this year as a blocker, after struggling with that side of his role in past years. Dalton Schultz supports the group as one of the league’s best young blocking tight ends in his second year out of Stanford. Beyond the tight ends, Ezekiel Elliott is one of the league’s best pass blocking backs, at 225 pounds and with great instincts for pressure.
Tally to the Cowboys’ pass-catching group, which provides great protection for Dak.
The Chiefs’ offense is run distinctly through Patrick Mahomes, the league’s reigning MVP who has averaged 8.7 yards per attempt this season. With Reid’s savvy playcalling and Mahomes’ world-class arm, the Chiefs pass-catching group is set up perfectly to succeed with a dynamic blend of speed and deception. But this pass-catching unit benefits more from its situation than any other in the league, aside from perhaps the Patriots.
2019 has been a watershed year for Dak Prescott. Despite having a slightly weaker offensive line than he did in previous seasons, when the Cowboys’ line was the clear top unit in the league, Dak has had his best season in the league. Zeke has looked great on the ground at times, but has also struggled in surprising performances the last two weeks against the Lions and Vikings, as well as earlier in the season against the Saints. The main point of change for the Cowboys’ offense is the improvement of their elite pass-catching group, which has given Dak his best set of options in his career. This unit carrying a major share of the Cowboys’ offensive success, particularly over the past two weeks.
Tally to the Cowboys’ pass-catchers, who have lifted Dak into the MVP conversation.
While Patrick Mahomes has made his pass-catchers into the league’s most dangerous weapons, they benefit more by association to their quarterback and head coach than nearly any other group in the league. The Cowboys are the most improved pass-catching group in 2019, and right now should be considered the league’s best through 11 weeks. They have brought Dak Prescott to the center stage of the NFL, and made him a very rich man in a contract year.