Heads are undoubtedly hanging in Dallas with news that Tony Romo suffered a compression fracture in his vertebrae during the Cowboys' Week 3 preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks. The current timetable is midseason at best, which makes Romo a likely candidate for the IR designated-to-return list, or the IR boomerang as the Around The NFL heroes call it. The good news, if you can call it that when referring to a player with back injuries, is that this is a different bone than the one Romo injured in 2014. Per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the best-case scenario is that Romo returns midseason.
This not only has a massive impact on the Cowboys team and organization, but on the fantasy outlook for a Cowboys roster loaded with fantasy superstars, including Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott and Jason Witten. Preseason hero Dak Prescott looks to be the likely starter for Week 1, but it stands to reason that the Cowboys will seek a trade for or look to sign a veteran signal-caller, perhaps Josh McCown from Cleveland.
Dez Bryant's stock takes the biggest hit here. Using the RotoViz Game Splits app, in 70 games with Tony Romo under center Bryant averages 5.14 receptions, .74 touchdowns, and 73.24 receiving yards per game. In his 14 games without Romo, those numbers drop to 3.79 receptions, .5 touchdowns, and 49.43 receiving yards per game. Extrapolate those numbers out to a full season, and Bryant loses roughly 60 fantasy points without Romo. Now, this is a small sample size, and I doubt Dez's drop will be that precipitous in 2016 if he plays the full year, but it speaks to what type of fantasy receiver Dez is. As Matt Harmon explained on the most recent NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast, Bryant never approaches the target volume of the Antonio Brown's and Julio Jones' of the world, but remains a WR1 in fantasy because he is a truly elite red-zone threat. The lack of Romo likely means fewer trips to the red zone for Bryant, and thus, fewer fantasy points. As it stands right now, Bryant looks more like a WR2 sans Romo, and should be targeted in Round 3 or 4 instead of Round 1 or 2 as he'd been going all offseason.
Jason Witten falls farther down the tight end rankings for me. His appeal was as a PPR stud thanks to Romo trusting Witten more than his own family. However, with Romo down, Witten's appeal as a 34-year-old tight end in an offense with a new quarterback is minimal. Drafters waiting on the position should look towards Jared Cook, Zach Miller, or Dwayne Allen in the later rounds instead of Witten.
Lastly, this news has an interesting impact on Ezekiel Elliott. On the one hand, the lack of a dynamic passing attack will lead to defenses stacking the box more against Elliott, but on the other hand, the team will undoubtedly need to rely on him to shoulder the offensive load during Romo's absence. Last year without Romo, Darren McFadden still averaged 10.88 fantasy points per game in the Dallas offense. Elliott is a far better player than McFadden, and if Prescott (or whomever) provides some semblance of a spark under center, Elliott should be able to thrive with the expanded workload. If anything, the news of Romo's injury further cements Elliott as a first-round fantasy pick.