With the Senior Bowl behind us, the Dallas Cowboys now look to the next big stage of their offseason, this year’s NFL scouting combine. The Cowboys need explosive threats at wide receiver and should have a close eye on this year’s group of receivers at the combine in Indianapolis. Luckily for them, they’ll be plenty of players to zero in on. Among those likely to be present, are Quentin Johnson, Jordan Addison, and Jaxson Smith-Njigba.
Another player who should be in attendance at the combine that’s not as well known as the receivers previously named, but has been on the radar of draftniks and some in Cowboys Nation. is North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs.
The North Carolina Tar Heels offense has become a potent one in recent years under head coach Mack Brown. While most of the fanfare has gone to quarterbacks Sam Howell and last year’s freshman starter Drake Maye, the one constant in the production of both passers is Josh Downs. Having played sparingly in his first year at Chapel Hill, Downs solidified himself as the top target of the Tar Heels Air Raid offense.
Over the past two years Downs has totaled 195 receptions for 2,364 yards and 19 touchdowns, the highlight being a career-high 203-yard game against Virginia last year. In keeping up with our prospect preview series leading to the NFL Draft, we’re going to examine Josh Downs on film and see where he fits for the Dallas Cowboys. Undersized at 5’10” and 175 lbs., Downs plays almost exclusively in the slot. North Carolina used him in motion routinely, and at times was utilized as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Downs has mostly reliable hands. In the games that were reviewed, he rarely dropped a pass and was generally pretty sure-handed. As a route runner, he’s very shifty. He’s got a very good short area burst and changes direction on his routes very suddenly. He gets some help on this pick but how he can start one way and turn back the other is routine for him.
The other thing to notice is despite his size he can make contested catches while being contacted by defenders. Also, he can jump and highpoint the ball surprisingly well for somebody his size. Like on this play, he staggers the defensive back with his release and makes the catch on top of the defender’s head.
Downs can track the ball in the air downfield very well. In this game against Pittsburgh, they had been giving Downs extra attention in bracket coverage often. Finally, Howell, with time, gives Downs a shot on this play. He sets up the defender with an inside move to turn his hips in towards the middle of the field and Downs gets the step over the DB. Downs does a great job of locating the ball over his head and pulling it in with his hands for a big gain.
Because of his smaller stature, he can be engulfed by bigger corners if he’s pressed. Bigger corners in the slot will be difficult for him if they can get their hands on him and reroute him. Picture him at 5’10” squared up on a 6’4” Israel Mukuamu. It wouldn’t work well for him.
The other thing is that he tends to check out on running plays. Instead of standing in there and making more of an effort to block he sort of just gives up on the play and moves on.
His size limits him to being an exclusive slot utility player with some backfield elements. He was better in this department from his sophomore to junior year, but it felt like far too often the first defender was able to bring him down even when he caught the ball in space.
Despite having good speed and being able to take a few plays to the house, he doesn’t have the top-end speed that some would expect from a player his size.
In terms of fit with the Cowboys, Downs would give them a slot specialist. Not too dissimilar from ex-Cowboy Cole Beasley, when given a two-way release he could serve as a very good third-down receiver. With Downs, the Cowboys can allow CeeDee Lamb to play more outside numbers and give Dak Prescott somebody who can win against man coverage, an area that needs a lot of help.
Downs can also offer some punt return potential if they don’t have KaVontae Turpin available. If Dallas is going to a more traditional west coast offense, Downs would make a good addition with his physical tools. As to where Downs could be drafted, 26 may be too high, but Dallas would have to cross their fingers to see him drop to 58.
BTB talked to Downs in the lead up to Super Bowl LVII and got to know him a bit. He actually has a history of sorts with former Cowboys wide receiver Ryan Switzer. You can watch our interview with Downs right here.