FRISCO, Texas – This won’t surprise you, but I spend a ton of time thinking about this wide receiver corps.
It’s a fun testament to the life cycle of the NFL. For most of my years covering the Cowboys, the team’s wide receiver depth chart has been as easy to predict as the sunset. From 2015 until this past offseason, the group went relatively unchanged.
As we’re all aware by now, that couldn’t be further from the case today.
That’s the burning question – what’s this thing going to look like in September? The fun thing about being a writer and not a receiver is that I have the luxury of projecting. During these OTAs, I’m not necessarily concerned with who looks the best running routes in shorts. I’m just trying to think to the end, when the Cowboys’ coaches eventually have to whittle this thing down to just a handful of players.
The conventional wisdom of NFL roster building says you’ve got five, maybe six spots for receivers. The Cowboys have settled on five for the vast majority of Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach, but they’ve made exceptions – last year being one of them, when Noah Brown played his way into a sixth spot.
That line of thinking gives the Cowboys a tough task this year at training camp. Even if you assume they go with six receivers, it’s hard to make that math make sense.
I’m always perfectly happy to admit when I’m wrong, but I assume we can fill out the majority of this depth chart, right here in early June. Let’s do that real quick:
Allen Hurns – The Cowboys gave him a two-year, $12 million contract two months ago, and he is arguably the most accomplished NFL receiver on the team, with 189 career catches and a 1,031-yard season in 2015. He’s making this team.
Terrance Williams – Again, one of the few accomplished veterans in this receiver corps. Williams has five years of starting experience and the coaches love his all-around polish as a receiver and blocker. On top of that, his contract structure makes it unlikely he’d be released in 2018. If Williams is suspended as a result of his recent arrest, I suppose this could change. But I don’t think that will happen.
Cole Beasley – The incumbent starter in the slot, a six-year veteran and the team’s leader in career receptions with 254. Beasley is entering a contract year, but his ability to win one-on-one matchups – close to the line of scrimmage – makes him incredibly valuable to Dak Prescott.
Michael Gallup – The Cowboys drafted him in the third round, No. 81 overall, just a month ago. Assuming he’s healthy, he’ll be on the 53-man roster.
Cool story. Now you’ve got two spots left and a whole bunch of guys who could fill them.
The Cowboys seem incredibly aware of that fact, if their OTAs are any indicator. In the couple of practices we’ve been able to watch, I’ve counted as many as seven guys taking first-team reps – whether that’s Hurns, Beasley, Lance Lenoir Jr., Deonte Thompson, Noah Brown or K.D. Cannon.
The departure of Dez Bryant has left a void among that group, and it’s cool to see them looking at all options to replace him.
Which takes me back to the conundrum – there are a lot of appealing options here.
Thompson may be chief among them. The Cowboys signed him to a modest contract in March, and he looked like a depth signing who could take the top off a defense. During these offseason practices, we’ve seen him do far more than that – and look every bit like a guy who could claim a starting role.
Lenoir fits a similar bill. The Illinois native made a good enough impression last preseason that he earned a practice squad spot. In the time since the season ended, he has perhaps spent more time at the Cowboys’ facility than any other player on the roster. The works seems to be paying off, given that he’s getting opportunities to play multiple different spots within the first-team offense.
Then there’s the curious case of Tavon Austin, which I’ve already written about extensively.
Strictly speaking, Austin is on a one-year deal and was acquired for just a sixth-round pick. There’s nothing concrete tying him to this team. But it seems odd that the Cowboys would make the effort to trade for him, not to mention describe a role for him that might include up to a dozen touches per game – only to release him later.
Just a hunch on my part, but I think Austin is a near lock to make this roster.
Which, having gone on this long diatribe, I finally come back to my point. Maybe I’m making a mistake by projecting six wide receivers in the first place.
It’s not something they’ve done in recent memory, but maybe the Cowboys would be willing to keep as many as seven receivers in 2018.
Like I said, you’ve got four – probably five – spots already filled. You’ve got an intriguing veteran in Thompson, not to mention promising youngsters like Brown and Lenoir. That doesn’t even include sixth-round draft pick Cedrick Wilson, who my esteemed colleague Bryan Broaddus listed as one of the standouts of OTAs.
If you’re going to account for all of these guys, an extra roster spot might be needed.
It might be difficult to pull off. Roster spots are precious, and you’d have to find a way to feature your bottom of the depth chart receivers on special teams. But there are things working in the Cowboys’ favor.
Austin has the fluidity to function as both receiver and running back, which could offset needs elsewhere. The offensive line has tremendous versatility, which may not require a ton of extra bodies. There’s also the tight end spot, which could conceivably go light in the wake of Jason Witten’s retirement.
It’s not completely unheard of around the league landscape. The Bengals kept seven receivers last year, in an effort to hang on to as much talent as possible.
The big key is going to be how that talent acquits itself during training camp. If these guys don’t make it hard on the coaching staff, it’s all a moot point. And, as we’ve seen on dozens of occasions, it’s actually easier to sneak players onto the practice squad than a lot of us want to admit.
At the end of the day it’s a fruitless exercise to try to predict the decisions of September in June. But this is easily the most competitive position group on the Cowboys’ roster, and I’m not going to be surprised if their roster cuts reflect that fact.