The "Next Man Up" mantra is one of the most overused cliches thrown around press conferences in professional sports. It can mean either nothing or everything depending on the context. Of course, someone has to step in and play when a starter is unavailable. There will always be a "next" man as long as NFL teams continue to fill out their roster. But will they be ready to contribute? Will they be ready to be more than a matchup for the opponent to exploit?
Cedrick Wilson appears to be ready. He might not have been ready during his rookie year in 2018, even had he not suffered an injury back then. Readiness can take time. Trust usually takes time. And Wilson earned the staff's trust to fill in for Michael Gallup while he recovers from his ankle injury.
"It definitely feels good to have my teammates and coaches believe that I'm the next man up," Wilson said this week.
Wilson was a sixth-round pick in 2018 who tore his labrum in training camp. In 2019, he was passed up in the wide receiver room by Devin Smith and ended up on the practice squad. But he was called up during the season. And he did what was in his control: contribute to special teams, learn the offense better than anyone else, and practice with intensity. So, he lasted with the Cowboys.
The far end of a wide receiver depth chart is typically a place with a lot of turnover. Teams are always looking to stick a young player in their wide receiver room who's a long shot to be a big-time playmaker in the right environment. It makes sense, but perhaps less important than raw talent in the role of "next man up" is familiarity with the playbook. Wilson didn't focus on trying to prove he should have been drafted higher. He focused on making sure he wouldn't prevent a high-scoring offense from running on all cylinders if needed.
"I feel like I can fill the role because I've been here," Wilson said of his likely increase in offensive snaps over the next month. "The offense hasn't changed, so just go out here and play my game."
The confidence of both Cowboys coaches and Cowboys fans in Wilson's ability to perform in an important game comes a little easier after his unexpected showcase in last season's 38-31 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson came out of nowhere to record 107 yards and two touchdowns.
The young receiver says his readiness combines with Dak Prescott's equal opportunity mindset under center. "He looks for who's open and not necessarily [which receiver] is in that spot," Wilson explains. "It's my job to be ready when the ball gets thrown to me."
Wilson isn't Gallup, who's athleticism makes for a huge asset within the offense. But Wilson knows every route for every receiver in that offense. His readiness wasn't dependent on which receiver he might ask to fill in for. He said on Wednesday that the coaching staff hasn't told him specifically if he'll be filling in directly for Gallup's role or if there will be some fluidity to how he is utilized. He doesn't feel that conversation is necessary.
"I come out here and do it every day so I don't give them any doubt in their mind that I can do it on game day."
He doesn't want a reduced role in special teams, and practice isn't different this week than it was before Gallup's injury. He is still learning route-running from Amari Cooper. He is still practicing and perfecting the routes of different receivers in the offense.
"I don't look at this week any differently," Wilson said. "I go out there and practice hard."
Cowboy fans are hoping they can count on Wilson. But from the sound of it, Prescott doesn't have to hope. Wilson earned his quarterback's trust well before he got his opportunity to capitalize on it.