There was once no question about who would be manning the slot receiver position for the Cowboys. The sauce was covering it. Cole Beasley had his up years and his mediocre ones, but there he would be lining up in the slot and converting those third downs. Now, he’s left for greener pastures in Buffalo. The Cowboys had a hole to fill.
Just a week ago, a jump-the-gun Cowboys writer put up Allen Hurns as the logical candidate to replace the Bease. There are some decent arguments for Hurns being a better slot receiver that outside guy, and he’s done the job before in Jacksonville. Despite not looking the part of a prototype slot receiver, his route-running skill-set lies in that direction.
But that was so last week. Since then, the Cowboys have re-signed Tavon Austin and have now agreed to a deal with Randall Cobb. The wide receiver room is filling up fast.
So what’s the plan. Is former star receiver Randall Cobb going to be the guy? Or has his game fallen off enough that there is going to be a committee?
It’s been since 2014 when Cobb had his massive year. 91 receptions, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 2015 follow-up was a 79 catch, 897 yard effort with six touchdowns. That was also the last year Cobb played 16 games. In 2018, Cobb bottomed out by playing only nine games with 38 catches and 383 yards and two touchdowns. He posted the second-lowest catch rate of his career at 62.3%. He also didn’t have a single rushing attempt for the first season of his career.
So, can we write last season off as a bust because of injury and a Packers team that fell on hard times? Or has Father Time started to win the battle? As has been noted, on a per game basis last season, Cobb was similarly productive to Beasley.
So writing off Cobb might be a little premature. Sure, his volume numbers have decreased over the years, but when on the field and healthy he can still produce. Can he stay healthy? And how will he do with Dak Prescott and the Cowboys run-oriented offense versus the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers?
Because of his body-type, many observers don’t associate Allen Hurns with the slot role. That’s a mistake, one the Cowboys probably made last year when they used Hurns on the outside and his production took a nose-dive. The Cowboys talked a good game about the versatile Hurns and how he could play any of the receiver spots, but with Beasley firmly entrenched in the slot, Hurns never really got a chance to exploit that area. One problem with Hurns is that his catch-rate has never been exceptional. Last season it was only 57.1% and he’s only had one elite year in that metric when he posted a 69.6% in 2017.
If you want to read more about why Hurns is possibly better as a slot guy, you can see that here. Of course, Hurns is coming off the gruesome ankle injury that ended his 2018 season, but he is already working out and claims he will be ready to go once the season starts. The Cowboys picked up his option, but his money is still not guaranteed until the season begins. The Cowboys could still cut him with minimal dead money. But Hurns is a solid teammate, he is versatile and has had productive seasons in the past. Don’t count him out yet.
Austin is the wild card in all of this. With his diminutive size and his electric quickness, he certainly seems like the ideal slot receiver. He’s just never been that. He’s always been more effective either as a runner or catching passes on screens or other gadget type plays, or using his speed to get deep on the outside. His real value, when used correctly, is keeping the defense guessing as to what he will do on any given play, especially if he’s lined up in the backfield, and then using his home-run ability in the open field to make things happen.
Being the safety net for a quarterback that a slot receiver usually is doesn’t seem to be particularly suited to his skill-set. Certainly they can line him up there occasionally and work a variety of plays off of that, but filling the role that Cole Beasley performed is not really what Austin does regularly. His size and quickness has fooled many an observer, but traditional slot receiver have never been Austin’s strong suit.
As things stand right now, you would have to guess the Cowboys plan to roll out a lineup of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb as their wide receiver starting trio. We still don’t know if they will try to add more talent in the draft, and we still need to see how someone like Cedrick Wilson performs, but for now it certainly appears that the Cowboys have settled the wide receiver position for 2019. Besides the starting trio, you would expect Austin to be used as a reserve/gadget guy, and Hurns will battle guys like Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson and Lance Lenoir for primary reserve duties.