Yesterday's reports from the Cowboys' rookie training camp were almost universally positive. Other than suffering from the intense heat, players acquitted themselves rather well: the draft picks looked good and made some nice plays; several second-year players showed development; promising UDFA guard Ronald Leary got some push in the running game. The one exception to this generally praiseworthy effort was the passing game, which was generally inept, and plagued by poor timing and inaccurate passes.
By all accounts, the crop of wideouts were not the problem; rather, the moribund passing attack was primarily a result of quarterback play (or a lack thereof), as the two guys in rookie camp, Larry Smith and Nathan Dick, are "tryout" players who have suddenly been thrust into an NFL offense. As a result, the four UDFA receivers in camp, Cole Beasley, Tim Benford, Saalim Hakim and Donavon Kemp, might have to wait until the veteran throwers show up to prove they can be this year's version of Raymond Radway, an unknown local product who staked a claim to a roster spot.
Wideout might well be the least settled position on the Cowboys' depth chart; after the starting two of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, there exists a never-ending vista of question marks. So these four guys will have a terrific opportunity to join Radway, fifth rounder Danny Coale, 2011 draftee Dwayne Harris, and incumbent youngster Andre Holmes in knocking BTB punching bag Kevin Ogletree off the roster.
Do they have what it takes? Need more info before you can make an educated guesstimate? Then make the jump!
Cole Beasley, SMU
The diminutive Beasley, who tilts the scales at 5'8", 175, was a four-year starter at SMU, where he flourished in coach June Jones' run-and-shoot system. In 2011, he was selected All-Conference USA First Team after gathering in 79 catches for 954 yards--this after a scintillating junior campaign wherein he caught 87 balls for 1,060 yards and six scores, and added one punt and one kickoff return to his scoring total. Over his collegiate career, Beasley tallied 255 receptions and 14 TDs.
As his size suggests, the former Mustang is a waterbug (frankly, the recent Danny Coale-Wes Welker comparisons are weak; the guy in camp who most resembles Welker is Beasley). He uses terrific speed (a 4.49 forty) and quickness (6.98-second three-cone drill) to get open. And, despite his size, he's very explosive, as his 38-inch vertical and 10'6" broad jump marks will attest. Probably because of his size - and perhaps due to the fact that he's been seen as a "system" receiver - Beasley is an under-the-radar guy. But, like Welker, the fact that he thrived in a pass-happy college offense might, after some development, translate into NFL success. He clearly knows how to get open.
Want some visual evidence? Here's a nice highlight compilation. Check it out and determine for yourself whether you can see him driving linebackers and third corners crazy on underneath routes in, say, 2014 and beyond.
Tim Benford, Tennessee Tech
Benford was named the Ohio Valley Conference's 2011 Offensive Player of the Year after hauling in 65 receptions for 923 yards. This capped a productive, consistent four-year collegiate career in which he amassed 216 receptions for 3,097 yards and 26 touchdowns and was the first wideout to receive all-Conference honors three years running. This was enough to gain him an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, where we was a standout in practices and performed well in the game.
Tennessee Tech Coach Watson Brown, who coached Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White when both were at UAB, sees some similarities between the two players' games. Benford is a smooth athlete who runs good routes. He's more quick than fast (although he does have some wheels; he notched a 4.48 forty at his pro day), using sharp footwork to separate out of breaks. He is adept at finding soft spots in zone coverage. And once he's made the catch, Benford can do some damage. At 5'11", 205, he's built like a running back, and can use his bulk to break tackles and "rack some YAC." To top it all off, he's an RKG (Are you surprised?): scouting reports characterize him as a "humble player with a good head on his shoulders"; indeed, Benford is an honor roll student and has earned a reputation as an extremely hard worker.
Donovon Kemp, UTEP
Kemp is another local (DeSoto) product with a productive but checkered college career. In his case, the speedbump was injury-related: he missed the remainder of his 2010 season with a torn ACL after ranking second on the team in receptions through the first seven games. Unlike Beasley and Benford, Kemp was not a multi-year starter. As a consequence, much less is known about him. That said, he certainly fits the Cowboys' physical prototype at the position. Kemp is 6'1", 195, and has legit NFL measurables: 4.4 second 40-yard dash, 37.5" vertical, and an 11'2" broad jump. Length. Speed. Explosion. What's not to like?
According to our own Coty Saxman, not much. Last week, you may recall, C-Sax took a longer look at a handful of the more athletic UDFA signees, in which, among other things, he demonstrated that Kemp's measurables compare favorably to NFC East receiving standouts Hakeem Nicks and Jeremy Maclin. Not bad company, indeed. But there's more, as Coty notes:
When you watch him, you might be disappointed to see that none of his routes are all that crisp. In fact, a number of his plays were made by simply flowing to an open area and waiting for the ball (then again, if you watched Laurent Robinson for us last year, that's essentially what made him so productive for us).
Once he gets the ball, however, he has an explosive first step and eats up yardage quickly. In traffic, he sometimes gets into trouble. His measured agility is very average for an NFL receiver, but, in college, he would often use jukes to get around defenders. In the NFL, those tricks won't work. Thankfully, he has the explosiveness to compete at the highest level, and has two of the best in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to learn from.
Another area in which Kemp stood out was special teams. In the video, you see him blocking for returns, and returning. He really stands out as a blocker. He was all too willing to put his shoulder into coverage personnel and lay them out. He almost seemed to enjoy it more than catching the ball.
All-in-all, Kemp has the measurables to become a real force on the outside for the Cowboys, even if only in spot duty. His straight-line burst is exceptional. He should be as effective as Sam Hurd was on special teams (and much faster). Look for Kemp to seriously threaten for a roster spot. He was an excellent pickup as a priority UDFA.
Want to see Kemp in action? Here's an extensive highlight portfolio. And, of course, he wouldn't be in Dallas without some RKG qualities. At UTEP, Kemp was honored as one of his graduating class's leading student-athletes.
Saalim Hakim, Tarleton State
Of all the UDFA's currently in camp, Hakim is probably the best athlete. He certainly has the most interesting story. The brother of former NFL player Az-Zahir Hakim, Saalim was a soccer player, and didn't play football until attending Palomar College, in San Marcos, Calif. (which, I must add, is where I went before transferring to a university). Here he is killing it in JC. Hakim then transferred to Tarleton State, where he played only one undistinguished season, nabbing 18 passes for 358 yards and two TDs.
Rather than play a final season at Tarleton, Hakim decided to go pro; unfortunately, he missed the deadline to declare for the draft after his 2010 season. As the Mothership documents in greater detail, Hakim decided to try out for Las Vegas' UFL team, where his older brother was playing out the final chapter in his starry career. The younger Hakim didn't see much action, serving largely as a backup wideout and sometime kick returner. But here's where things get interesting: the Vegas head coach, Jim Fassel, was Jason Garrett's head coach when Garrett was with the Giants (where the receivers coach was Jimmy Robinson). Fassel contacted Garrett, encouraging him to take a look at the raw kid with NFL bloodlines.
Oh, and legit NFL speed. He has been timed as fast as 4.23 (!) in the forty; here's video proof. But he's not merely strong; the kid is quick and powerful (here he is bench pressing 225 pounds 20 times). It remains to be seen, of course, whether any of this athleticism will translate to NFL success. But we should look at him as another Teddy Williams: a deluxe athlete who the Cowboys can stash on the practice squad in the hope that he can develop the game to match his raw ability. He's got a long way to go, clearly. But if he can offer the Cowboys anything close to what his brother gave those "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis teams, there will be a more-than-sufficient return on investment.
All of these players represent low-stakes gambles who, if they hit, promise good returns. Normally I wouldn't get too worked up about guys who we might normally characterize as camp bodies. Given their lack of solidity at the position and the stunning rise of Miles Austin from a similar level of obscurity, I'm going to watch these cats (notice I didn't say pet cats...not yet, anyway) when I'm out in Oxnard for training camp. Seeing the photos from yesterday's rookie minicamp is getting me antsy. I can hardly wait!