FRISCO, Texas – This time of year always feels a bit like searching for the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
The big picture came into focus over the last three weeks. The Cowboys lost some big assets, they gained some other ones. The rough outline of a roster is starting to take shape.
But as the calendar turns to April, it's hard not to wonder about the remaining gaps. Yes, there are still free agents available. The Cowboys may have another trick or two up their sleeve before the NFL draft arrives, but the talent pool has shrunken. The odds of upgrading the roster with veteran talent are much slimmer than they were a month ago.
Nowhere does that feel more obvious than the slot receiver position. The Cowboys lost Randall Cobb to the Houston Texans in the early days of free agency, and the list of potential replacements has dwindled ever since.
As it sits right now, Paul Richardson, Taylor Gabriel and the Cowboys' own Tavon Austin lead the list of available free agents.
Typically, this team likes to address roster holes cheaply in free agency, allowing them to select the best possible players in the draft. Perhaps the fact that they haven't signed anyone should be taken as a sign that they believe a potential replacement is already on the roster.
Obviously, Amari Cooper just re-signed for the long-term, and Michael Gallup is still in place. But the Cowboys do have several other receivers under contract. Here's a look at their in-house options.
It wasn't a large role, but the Cowboys' 2018 draft pick played a bigger part than most realize during his second season.
Injuries helped Wilson onto the active roster in Week 2, and he stayed there until December, when a knee injury forced him to injured reserve. He only played 99 snaps on the season, but Wilson caught five passes for 46 yards, and he played a role as both a kick and punt returner.
It's that special teams ability that would probably help Wilson carve out a roster spot. He can play in the slot, but his ability to work on both return teams gives him versatility that not many others on this list possess.
Smith seemed to be writing a Hollywood script at the outset of 2019. The Cowboys signed him to a futures contract after injuries derailed his career, and the bet paid off. Smith had a phenomenal training camp, made the team and even had 74 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 against Washington.
And then he just ... kind of disappeared. He played all 136 of his snaps in the first four weeks of the season and was never heard from again. Keep in mind, this was a season in which Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb all battled various injuries. The decision to completely remove Smith from the equation still feels puzzling, all these months later.
There are a couple caveats. Smith is more of a traditional, outside receiver than a slot guy. He also doesn't have an obvious fit on special teams. But given the versatility of both Cooper and Gallup, surely there's a way the coaching staff could make this work.
The darling of last year's undrafted class, Johnson never actually got to have a rookie season. He had three receptions for 32 yards in the Cowboys' preseason finale, but he injured his shoulder in the game was soon sent to injured reserve, ending his year before it started.
It's obvious that Johnson is determined to build on his rookie preseason. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 across the U.S., Johnson was a constant presence in the team's facility, working toward the date that the offseason program would begin.
Much like Smith, the fit isn't as obvious here. Johnson is a burner with 4.38 speed – a guy who's noted for his ability to threaten vertically. That said, he does have some experience playing the slot in college.
Let's put the big guys here.
Bryant was mainly a special teamer last year, playing 184 special teams snaps as opposed to just 14 snaps of offense. He does, however, hold the fun distinction of hauling in a touchdown with his only career catch – a feat he managed last year against Buffalo.
It's a logical guess that Bryant has a good shot to make the roster because of how many special teams snaps he can provide. At 6-3, 205 pounds, he's hardly a prototypical slot.
It feels like a lifetime ago that the front office took a flier on Brown as a seventh-round pick in 2017.
He showed potential, albeit inconsistency during his first two years in the league, but knee injuries have slowed his progress for some time now. Brown opened the 2018 season on injured reserve, and he only played eight games that year. Last season he didn't appear at all, as injuries kept him away from the playing field.
It's anyone's guess what he'd bring to the equation at this point. He's also a healthy 6-2, 230 – again, not necessarily what qualifies as a standard slot receiver. But perhaps this new coaching staff can help him get back on track.
With all due respect to everyone on the list above, it doesn't do much to allay concerns about the position. This group of players has combined for 55 career catches in the NFL – and most of those came from Smith, prior to his rash of injuries with the New York Jets.
If this group isn't added to in the next few weeks, then receiver certainly looks like a draft need – but how big of a need? It's not like this front office to force its hand in the early going of the draft. But that seems to be the scenario that's setting up right now.
Perhaps the Cowboys' urgency – or the potential lack thereof – could speak volumes on how highly they view the guys that are already on their roster.