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Cowboys wide receiver competition in camp may be closest in years

Outside of the three locks, almost anyone looks capable of stepping up and claiming a spot.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys
Allen Hurns looks to have an inside track - for now.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Get excited. The Dallas Cowboys open their 2019 training camp in Oxnard this month. We are now less than four weeks away from what many consider the real start of the NFL season. That means, among the surge in coverage, a lot of talk about camp battles and who is contending for the available roster spots.

There are, of course, many players who are a lock to make the team if they can just stay healthy. This season, the depth positions have a lot of places where there is going to be some great competition to earn a job. In many positions, it is good competition. There are places all over the roster where there seem to be more NFL-caliber talents than the team can manage to keep.

One of the clearest places for that kind of close battles is wide receiver. There are the three presumptive starters who don’t have to fight anyone off: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb. But nine more wide receivers are currently on the 90-man roster. Although the team could carry anywhere from five to seven receivers in the fall, the most likely number seems to be six, based on what is going around the interwebs. That means there are only three places to contend for.

How it all shakes out is going to be driven by camp and preseason performances. At the moment, some in the Cowboys media, like Mike Fisher, have those backup jobs going to Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, and Tavon Austin. Part of the logic is that Dallas has always had a preference for veterans who have a year or more with the team.

But the other candidates are all intriguing. So here is a rundown of all nine, and what their chances look like.

Allen Hurns

He is returning from that gruesome ankle injury in the wild card round of the playoffs. His rehab is reportedly going well. However, that is what we are hearing about all the players who had surgery in the offseason. But we also have seen some videos of most of them looking really good in personal workouts, so maybe it is really true.

In any case, Hurns will have to be fully recovered to make the roster. If he is indeed a full go, he has an additional advantage in being able to play all three wide receiver positions. That added value does give him a lead before camp even starts. It would take a setback or some notably poor practices and preseason performances for someone to leapfrog him.

Noah Brown

Brown did not do much in his first two years, but that is hardly unusual for wide receivers entering the NFL. He is something of an outlier in that he is not known for his speed, as almost all the other WRs in camp are. What he does look to have is that ability to go up and get contested balls, the thing that Dez Bryant largely made his career doing. If he can show he is capable of that, his role could be as a third down and red zone specialist for Kellen Moore to use.

But to me, his spot is more uncertain than Hurns’. He was not drafted until the seventh round, so the team doesn’t have much invested in him. He would also still be practice squad eligible. Brown really cannot afford to slack off at any time in camp or preseason, because there are plenty of players coming after him.

Tavon Austin

Like Brown, Austin may rely on a specific role to stick with the team. In his case, it is as a returner on special teams. Kickoffs are increasingly irrelevant, so it is punt returns where he has to show his value.

On the negative side, he faces a unique challenge. He was originally traded for to be a slot receiver and change of pace running back - and now the Cowboys have drafted Tony Pollard who can do the same jobs, plus fill the traditional running back role. Austin is also not a good option except out of the slot, so he has a certain lack of flexibility. Cobb, of course, will be the main guy in the slot.

Austin may well have the most trouble fending off one of the remaining six names here.

Cedrick Wilson

Wilson is the forgotten man from the 2018 draft. Although he was a sixth-rounder, he was turning heads early in camp until he went down with a shoulder injury. The team elected to put him on IR immediately, which by rule meant he was ineligible to return during the season. It was effectively stashing him for this year.

Now, he is probably Brown’s biggest challenger. He is the same height, and almost exactly the same 40 time coming out of college. It certainly looks like they will be fighting for the same role with the team. Wilson has to be better than Brown, because a tie will go to the guy with two years on the field. It is one battle to watch closely.

Lance Lenoir

Like Brown, Lenoir has been with the Cowboys for two years, but it has been a markedly on-again, off-again tenure. He has only been on the 53-man roster for eight games in his career, and has just one catch to his credit.

Lenoir developed a reputation as a camp favorite both years, but has not delivered, mostly hanging around on the practice squad until the team needed him as it did when Hurns was injured. He would have to have a simply outstanding camp to make it onto the roster - but those flashes he has shown in the past mean he is not just another camp body.

Reggie Davis

He had been kicking around on practice squads for the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, and Philadelphia Eagles before winding up on the Cowboys’ PS, but he had some standout days during OTAs. His main attribute is something he shares with the remainder of names on this list: Speed. He put up a remarkable 4.31 40-time during his pro day, and demonstrated that it was legit during those OTA practices.

That brings up a question of just how important pure speed is for the Cowboys at the position this year. Hurns, Brown, and Wilson all have 40 times in the 4.55 range. If the plan is to get seriously faster, that mean Davis and the other burners could be more serious competition than some think.

While those nice catches were just in helmets and shorts, it is never a bad thing to do something good in front of the coaches. Now Davis has to continue it to stake a claim.

Devin Smith

Another fast (4.42) receiver, he came into the league with the New York Jets, only to see his career derailed by a series of injuries. He sat out 2018 before being signed by the Cowboys as a reclamation project. He is largely an unknown at this point, but if he is finally healthy he could be a surprise. Of all the wide receivers, he is the longest shot to make the 53. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Jon’Vea Johnson

One of two UDFA WRs signed this year, Johnson had a camp much like Smith, putting some very good reps out there. His 4.40 puts him right in the mix with the fast crowd and he has shown he has pretty good hands, too, at least when there is no contact allowed.

With this crowded group, he may be someone the staff tries to sneak onto the PS. That is always a bit of a risk, especially if he has some good preseason games. But we largely overestimate the value our players have to other teams when they try to get them through waivers.

Still, there is a history of UDFA wide receivers making it onto the roster in Dallas. A strong August, perhaps aided by a true shift to faster receivers, may add his name to the list.

Jalen Guyton

Except for having had a quieter OTAs, the same things that apply to Johnson fit Guyton. He had a 4.35 40 time coming out of North Texas and the staff may have a little extra familiarity given how close he played his college ball. It is a bit of a shame that he and Johnson are going up against one another as well as the rest.

That is a quick rundown. There are certainly some that are longer shots than others, but every one has something to point to that puts them in the mix. Wide receiver is always one of the most entertaining battles in camp. This year, it may be one of the best in memory.

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