While we wait for training camp to get underway, we’re taking a look at all the position groups for the Dallas Cowboys, with the focus on whether the team was successful in improving during the offseason. You can find the links for the earlier parts of this series at the end of this one. This installment dives into one that should be the most exciting one to watch in camp, the wide receivers.
This exercise began to help keep your appetite whetted during the “dead period” before the Cowboys get to Oxnard, and this group was one I was really looking forward to doing. This is one of the bigger groups in camp, with twelve players currently vying for five to seven spots on the 53-man roster. And it has some real talent.
The benchmark for this series is where the team stood at the end of last year, but for wide receiver, we also have to look back a bit further to the rather disastrous “by committee” approach the team tried to use going into 2018. As we all know, it took the investment of this year’s first-round pick in a trade to fix that. Fortunately, this is a far different situation now.
The focus here is on improvement, and we have to start with two foundation players from last season who are locks. Amari Cooper is now officially The Receiver Who Saved a Season after coming in and energizing the passing attack midway through 2018. Now he is back and will get a full camp with Dak Prescott to build on the work begun during the OTAs. And Prescott is planning on getting together with the receivers during their down time before leaving for camp, and you have to figure that Cooper is going to be part of that. This could become one of the premier passing combos in the league.
Michael Gallup is in his second season, and there is every reason to believe that he will just grow and develop. He also should be more valuable with the reported emphasis on deep throws that emerged in OTAs.
The team lost Cole Beasley to the snowy lands occupied by the Buffalo Bills, which created a pretty significant hole at slot receiver. Dallas broke with recent practice by getting a name player to replace Beasley, former Green Bay Packers member Randall Cobb. And just as Prescott and Cooper clicked almost immediately last season, Cobb has developed a noticeable chemistry with his quarterback in the helmets and shorts workouts of the OTAs. He is not just able to do everything Beasley did, either. Cobb can line up in any wide receiver position and be effective. If he can stay healthy, which was a problem for him recently in Green Bay, he looks like a real upgrade.
Those three are the presumptive starters for the Cowboys, and they also present a very intriguing possibility of being moved around. That is supposedly going to be a notable trait of Kellen Moore’s offense. Using Cooper out of the slot and flipping the other receivers around out wide can create some real headaches for defenses.
The other nine players have to prove they belong on the team, but there is not one of them that can be assumed to be out of the picture. Noah Brown and Tavon Austin return, which gives them the advantage of familiarity with the system. That is of value. Moore has said that he is more making adjustments and tweaks than wholesale changes. Brown could carve out a role as a big, possession and red zone type receiver. Austin is the opposite, a fast receiver who can be moved around and used for the more creative plays.
Allen Hurns is also returning. He is coming back from a severe injury, but he had most of the season to work with Prescott and the offense, so he is not going to go quietly. The coaches are also reportedly fond of him, which never hurts.
Another player coming back from injury is second-year player Cedrick Wilson, who missed the entire season on IR. He is a vertical threat and adds good size to the equation. He looked like he was going to have a definite place on the roster before his injury. His best quality is how he should be able to back up all three of the locks.
Lance Lenoir had limited use last year, appearing in seven games, but only recording one catch. He has been hanging around since signing as a UDFA in 2017. He has yet to break through, but that is what the preseason is for.
Then there is the quartet of new players. Reggie Davis saw time on the Dallas practice squad last year, so he is not precisely a new face. He is certainly something of an unknown to most of us. But he had some standout moments in the OTAs and minicamp. If he can build on that, he could be one of those surprise stories in camp.
Devin Smith is another player who has lots of speed. That led to him being a second-round draft pick of the New York Jets in 2015. But injuries severely hampered his career. Now he is trying for a comeback, or perhaps more accurately, a new beginning.
Finally, there are the two UDFAs from this year, Jon’Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton. They are part of the “speed kills” movement for the Cowboys. Johnson had his own moments when he shone in the offseason practices. Dallas has something of a history of UDFA wide receiver finds, including Beasley and Miles Austin. This year’s pair hope to write a new chapter.
This bunch is going to be exciting to watch, especially the ones fighting for a spot, since you can expect the three top names to be protected in camp and the preseason games. All the rest have a legitimate opportunity to prove their worth. Sadly, wide receiver is one position where injuries usually play a part in thinning the herd in July and August. It is something of a game of survival as well as demonstrating ability and talent.
But this is a deep-looking bunch, and there may be some hard decisions to make when the time for cutting down comes. It depends to a large part on development, and also on how well Moore uses his resources, but this is also a place where the position group looks to be better than last year. And by quite a bit.
Here are the links to the earlier parts of this series.