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Cowboys Camp Battles: Wide Receiver Is Always Unpredictable

Every year, it seems at least one unheralded receiver turns heads in camp. But it is going to be a tough job to crack the roster this camp.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Cole Beasley broke through as a UDFA. Could another unheralded receiver do it this year?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While there are different stories each year in training camp for the Dallas Cowboys, one thing seems to be an annual tradition. There is always a wide receiver or two, usually from the crop of UDFA players, that creates a lot of buzz. Sometimes, it doesn’t come to much, but often one of the unheralded players makes the roster, as Lucky Whitehead did last year. Dallas often finds starter-quality talent this way. Cole Beasley is the current example of that, serving as a slippery slot receiver who has become a favorite target for Tony Romo when he needs a completion to move the chains. And Miles Austin also rose from the UDFA ranks to have some successful years for the Cowboys.

Currently, Dallas has eleven wideouts scheduled to show up in Oxnard next week. There are three UDFAs signed this year, Chris Brown, Ed Eagan, and Andy Jones. Another player trying to make the roster, Rodney Smith, came to the league as a UDFA with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. They are joined by another long shot, Vince Mayle, who was originally drafted by the Cleveland Browns.

These hopefuls are going to be battling for one spot, and may only have a real shot if the Cowboys keep six wide receivers. That may be difficult given other needs, such as a fourth running back or extra defensive linemen. Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley are locks, and Terrance Williams is almost certainly one as well. Brice Butler and Whitehead have a definite leg up on the rest because of their time on the field last year, and Whitehead also is likely to be valued for his role as a punt returner. Additionally, Devin Street is in a make or break situation this year. The former fifth-round pick has not done much in his opportunities with the team, but he has the advantage of familiarity with the system and coaches.

It would appear to be a steep challenge for the fringe candidates to make the team, although a couple of them will receive strong consideration for the practice squad as well, where the team has gone heavy at WR in the past. However, injuries seem to be even more of a concern for wideouts during camp than for most players, as distasteful as the subject is to consider.

But outside of that unpleasant prospect, can one of these players mount a serious challenge to make the roster purely on merit? They would likely have to beat out Butler or Whitehead. That may not be as far-fetched as it might seem. While Butler has been frequently mentioned as someone who could push Williams for the WR2 role, he also has not been consistent enough to really consider him certain to make the roster. And Whitehead has had some ball security issues in the return role. That would appear one of the best paths for one of the upstarts to follow to force the coaches to take notice.

Another level of difficulty is faced by those trying to break into the roster. Much of their time in practice and preseason games will involve catching passes from the backup quarterbacks. Romo will spend most of his time throwing to the more established WRs in order to hone their connection, since those are the players the team expects he will be throwing to in the regular season. None of the backups would be likely to be as accurate as Romo, which makes catching the ball all that much harder. Dropped passes are what kills chances for a player fighting to get noticed, and they don’t get that much slack for balls that are not on target. While showing a large catch radius would definitely be a plus, the likely outcome is that there will be more incompletions when the starters are not on the field. It is not exactly fair, but no one really cares about fair. All that truly matters is whether the ball falls to the ground or not.

For fans, however, the wide receivers are always something to watch. First off, it is easier to see if they are flashing or failing than an offensive tackle or defensive lineman, especially in the non-contact practices. You generally don’t need as deep an understanding of the subtleties and intricacies of football to see if a receiver makes a good play or not (although those who do have a deeper grasp of things also will make more accurate determinations about what happens when the ball arrives downfield). The "splash" factor also comes into play. Nothing is quite as impactful to the casual observer as a ball hauled in running full speed 30 yards past the line of scrimmage or in the back of the end zone, even if the defender is also a down-roster guy trying to earn a job. And speedy wideouts always seem to generate a little extra buzz due to the perception that Dallas needs more of that speed to stretch the defense.

There is no way to predict who might emerge as a new favorite to force himself onto the roster, but it is highly probable that at least one will emerge, at least with the fans. This is always a fun aspect to watch as the Cowboys prepare for the regular season. Get to know the names, and don’t be surprised if a new one or two shows up at some point, as well. Dallas is always looking for more options at receiver. Given their history, they know that sometimes they can strike gold in the unlikeliest places.