There are few camp battles each year that are more exciting to watch than the wide receivers. First, these guys are in the flashiest position in the NFL. Second, this is a position where players can and do suddenly burst onto the radar for both the coaching staff and the fans. And third, it is usually one where there are a lot of players fighting hard for a very few positions. The Dallas Cowboys finished up minicamp with ten wideouts on their roster. They will probably carry five or six on the regular season roster, and four of the spots are pretty much locked up. So this leaves the remaining players fighting it out for one or two roster positions, and, for those who are eligible, a practice squad spot or two.
Anyone who thinks wide receivers aren't tough has never considered those kinds of odds. This is what they face on just about any NFL team. You have to have a lot of bodies at the position to get through training camp, so the coaches know full well they are out there working hard with a bunch of guys they are going to kick to the curb when it is all said and done. Showing up for camp, in some cases for several years in a row, and knowing what you might be going through when the chance is taken away at the end of it all, takes a lot of mental toughness and not just a little courage.
But along with that heartbreak for many, there is the thrill for a few, when they emerge, sometimes as the longest of shots, and earn their way to the NFL stage.
Here is where the Cowboys stand as they count the days to Oxnard.
The emerging superstar: He is being talked about in the same breath with Calvin Johnson. Dez Bryant is no longer known just as the misbehaving physical freak who gets all the bad headlines. Not only has he cleaned his act up and started showing welcome signs of maturity, but Johnny Manziel has staked an impressive claim for the role of Generator Of Most Headlines Guaranteed To Give Your Owner And Coaches Ulcers. Now most give him credit as the most potent weapon the Cowboys have on the field. Oh, and about that Calvin Johnson thing:
The troubled kid from Lufkin is well on his way now.
The solid number two: Terrance Williams' biggest contribution to the Cowboys: He allowed them to part ways with Miles Austin and his overly taut hamstrings without a second thought. Although the second-year player is still working on his game (you catch those balls with your hands, TWill, not your body), he was perhaps the best value the Cowboys got in the 2013 draft, only costing them a third-round pick and basically becoming an instant starter.
(And just to digress for a moment, has that trade back that wound up netting the Cowboys Travis Frederick and Williams not turned out to be pretty much a stroke of genius? Are you listening here, Jerry Jones? Trade back, not up! Have that tattooed on top of the thumb on your drinking hand, so you see it all the freaking time! We now return you to your regularly scheduled, non-ranting post.)
736 yards and five touchdowns while he was learning the pro game. Who knows what he'll do when he actually knows how to play?
The return and coverage ace: With that kind of talent ahead of him on the roster, Dwayne Harris may never see a lot of snaps with the offense, forced to mostly doing relief duty when the two starters need a breather. But that does not reduce his value to the team, as he has become a true star as a kick and punt returner. He contributed 1,113 return yards last season, and he also goes screaming down the field to cover returns as well, notching nine tackles. He is just about as secure as the two starters.
The small white guy who is always compared to that other short white wide receiver who used to play in New England and is now in Denver: He almost walked away from football. He actually packed his bags and left training camp in Oxnard. But Jason Garrett and his staff saw something in him and talked Cole Beasley into coming back and giving it another try. Now, going into his third year, he has a career average of 9.2 yards per catch. He is a league leader for percentage of targets he catches, and it seems all he does when he catches the ball is move the chains. After using him strictly in the slot his first two seasons, Dallas, with Scott Linehan handling the passing game, is trying him out in different roles - and mixing him up with Bryant and tight end Gavin Escobar in the slot. He may never have a lot of snaps in a game, but you can be sure he is going to make them count.
These first four guys have slots wrapped up on the roster. That leaves the rest struggling to grab whatever is left.
The draft pick: The Cowboys saw fit to invest a fifth-round pick in Devin Street. That means he has a leg up in competing for a spot. With initial reports looking fairly good, he has to be considered the leader to make it as the fifth WR spot. But he has to avoid both bad performances in camp and that dreaded injury bug to take it.
The journeymen: These are guys you have to feel for. All have been around the league to some degree for the past two or three years, and are still fighting to make that NFL dream come true. None of them has an easy road ahead.
Tim Benford was signed as a UDFA by Dallas in 2012, but released before the season and saw no action. In 2013, he made the practice squad, and at least can claim that he worked as a professional football player for an entire year. Now he is trying to finally break through and make that 53-man roster, but he also should have another year of eligibility for PS work. And being on the PS means you can be just one injury away. It is an unpleasant but nonetheless accurate description of the life of a practice squadder.
LaRon Byrd signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, but played very little and spent 2013 on injured reserve. He flashed a little in the OTAs.
Jamar Newsome has had a very unusual career track, and not in a good way. After signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a UDFA in 2011, he started in the first two NFL games of the season - and then was waived to make room for another player. The Jags signed him to their PS. Released from there, he was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers for their PS in early November, where he spent a month, then was signed to the Kansas City Chiefs' PS, where he finished out the year. He stayed there until November 2012, and then made the roster for the Chiefs for the last six games of the season, including two more starts. But he failed to make it out of camp the next year with Kansas City, and Dallas picked him up for their 2013 PS, where he spent the entire year. It has to be hard for him, because he has been there, twice, and not been able to hang onto that roster spot.
Benford and Newsome have an advantage in their time spent learning the system in Dallas. But for all three of these players, there is a bit of the air of damaged goods about them, however unjust that may be.
The UDFA rookies: Rounding out the group of receivers are two more rookies. Chris Boyd is out of Vanderbilt, and L'Damian Washington from Missouri. Both bring speed to the table, but both are most likely fighting for a chance to supplant Benford and Newsome on the practice squad. Washington in particular has a backstory that grabs at the heartstrings, but NFL coaches leave their heartstrings behind when they go out the door to drive to work.
That's five players, all who came to the league as UDFAs, whose best hope is for the Cowboys to go deep at wide receiver. It is a slim straw to grasp, but you can be assured they will all be grabbing for it with all their might. It will be a riveting story to watch.