The Cowboys have one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL. Seriously, don’t let the uptick in interceptions make you believe any differently. The offense has scored more points than every other team but the Chiefs. They’re one of only four teams with at least 50 touchdowns through the first 16 games. Dak Prescott is threatening to throw for more than 3,000 yards despite missing five games, Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott are both already over 800 yards rushing, and CeeDee Lamb is a bona fide number-one receiver.
The one missing piece—or perhaps more of a rotating piece—of this offense is the next man up in the receiving corps.
Dallas doesn’t have a clear number-two receiving option. Michael Gallup has shown flashes, Noah Brown is the number two guy in terms of receiving yards among the wide receivers, and Dalton Schultz has caught 50-plus balls for the third straight season. But Lamb remains far and away the biggest threat in the air. He is one of five receivers in the NFL with more than a third of his team’s receiving yards, and the gap between him and the number two receiver is wider than the gap on every other team aside from Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in Minnesota.
Hence the search for a number two wideout heating up significantly over the back half of the year. Odell Beckham Jr. was the guy Jones very publicly courted, but a deal was never struck. Instead, the Cowboys added 33-year-old T.Y. Hilton after their Week 14 game against the Texans. He’s only five catches into his career in Dallas, but the early results indicate that while he might not be the Pro Bowler he once was, he can still be a part of the number-two-receiver-by-committee approach the Cowboys have employed in 2022.
Hilton kicked off his tenure with a huge 52-yard catch to convert a third-and-30 in the fourth quarter against the Eagles, setting up the game-tying touchdown four plays later. The Cowboys’ win probability before the play was a meager 17 percent. After the catch it jumped up to 41 percent. That was the biggest play of the day as measured by win probability added.
Hilton’s second outing didn’t include any deep completions. He didn’t catch anything more than seven yards downfield, but his involvement in the offense increased quite a bit. He ran 13 routes on Thursday night in Tennessee, compared to just five the previous week against Philadelphia. Prescott targeted him five times, third-most behind Lamb and Schultz. Running 13 routes hardly smacks of high-end usage, but being thrown at on more than a third of your routes? Well, he must be doing something right.
The NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracks many metrics to evaluate not only how many catches and yards a receiver gets, but also aspects such as catch rate over expectation and separation in order to give us a better idea of how a receiver is performing. On his targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Hilton is averaging 3.6 yards of separation from the nearest defender. Small sample size notwithstanding, that’s the most separation on short routes of any Cowboys wide receiver this season. Even if Hilton isn’t the first read, and even if he isn’t out there looking for chunk plays, simply being an open outlet for Prescott is extremely useful for the offense given how limited the non-Lamb options have been.
That being said, getting open hasn’t always been Hilton’s biggest asset. Some of that has to do with the fact that he’s often targeted deep downfield, giving defenders more time to close the gap before the ball gets there. But more importantly, Hilton has always been above average at gaining yards after the catch. Over the course of a career that began in 2012, he has gained more than 3,000 yards after the catch—eighth-most among wide receivers in the NFL. And those yards aren’t coming primarily on screens and drag routes that we’d expect for such a high YAC number.. Based on the nflfastR expected YAC model, Hilton has gained 212 more yards than expected based on factors such as game situation and target depth. ESPN’s new Receiver Tracking Metrics agree that he’s an above-average YAC player, although its data only goes back to his age-28 season.
These scores are calculated based on player tracking data for every route run. Hilton, even only counting his later years, might have the best hands on the Cowboys. His YAC abilities will undoubtedly diminish with age at some point, but he showed he still has that ability when he picked up 28 yards after a seven-yard checkdown against the Titans.
Hilton won’t be the Cowboys’ long-term answer at the secondary wideout position, but the spark he has shown is certainly enough to pique one’s interest. Already, it’s proven that his dip in production in recent years had a lot to do with injuries and the retirement of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis more than his own decline. Consider that over the course of six Luck-led seasons, Hilton averaged 2.17 yards per route run, compared to 1.70 yards per route run without him. For comparison, Lamb’s career number is 2.07, per Pro Football Focus. The point is that Hilton once again is playing with a top-end quarterback, and he doesn’t have anything close to a full season of wear-and-tear under his belt. With all of that working for him, Hilton has a chance to have a late-career revival and provide the Cowboys a real threat on the outside opposite Lamb. And with the playoffs looming, that couldn’t have come at a better time for Dallas.