IRVING, Texas – On the surface this unit appears to be just fine heading into another season – particularly if good health holds.
The trio of Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley was plenty productive when the Cowboys were en route to a division title two years ago. Things went awry when Dez went down last September, and they fell even further when Tony Romo followed him onto the injury report.
Still, this is a position with some questions worth answering. Behind Bryant's talent, the Cowboys haven't found great consistency behind him despite allocating several draft picks at receiver. They also need to consider the future, considering guys like Terrance Williams and Brice Butler are headed toward free agency.
That's all worth weighing with the NFL draft just two days away. As it stands, this is what the Cowboys' receiver depth chart looks like.
Dez BryantWhat We Know: When he's healthy and playing to his capabilities, Bryant is one of the game's elite talents. He earned his $70 million contract last summer on the strength of three straight seasons with 88-plus catches, 1,200-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns – highlighted by his 16 scores during the Cowboys' 12-4 season in 2014. He has the rare combination of size and athleticism that makes him one of the NFL's best receivers. He's also linked with the Cowboys for the foreseeable future, as the huge contract he signed last summer keeps him in Dallas through the 2019 season.
Still Need To Know: How well will he bounce back from his injuries in 2015? After sitting out of voluntary activities all spring, Bryant couldn't avoid injury problems last year. A hamstring issue limited him throughout training camp, and he broke his foot during the season opener. Credit to him for racing back to the field, but the injury clearly limited his abilities – and that was only compounded when he injured his knee and ankle just one week after returning. Bryant had surgery immediately after the season, and he's expected to be on track for OTAs and training camp. After posting a meager 401 yards and three touchdowns, though, there'll be no shortage of expectation for Dez to return to his dominant ways.
Terrance Williams Williams
What We Know: We know that the three-year veteran has a penchant for making game-breaking plays. His jaw-dropping third-down conversion in Seattle, his three playoff touchdowns, his acrobatic leaping score against Houston – all come to mind when considering Williams' career. He's scored 16 touchdowns in three seasons, and six of those have come from a distance of 30 or more yards. On the other side of that coin, we also know that the Dallas native can be maddeningly inconsistent. Last year, with Bryant injured for much of the season, Williams had an opportunity to help fill the void. Instead, he finished with fewer than 60 receiving yards on eight separate occasions. That's a career-long trend, as he has finished with two or fewer receptions in 28 of 50 career games – 56 percent.
Still Need To Know: This marks the final year of Williams' rookie contract. By this point, he has proven he has the ability to make game-breaking plays. He's also failed to prove that he can produce consistently. So what's the real story? This fall serves as an opportunity to produce with greater consistency and solidify a spot in the Cowboys' offense for the future.
What We Know: Despite the struggles of the Cowboys' passing game last year, Beasley actually enjoyed a career year. Fresh off a four-year contract extension, he set career bests with 52 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns. He also did most of that without Tony Romo, as he caught just seven passes for 52 yards from the Cowboys' usual starting quarterback. That's not to say Beasley didn't have his struggles, though, as he caught one or no balls in five games.
Still Need To Know:Similarly to Williams, it's all about consistency with Beasley. He has shown why the Cowboys value him as a mismatch player, and he certainly has a penchant for picking up first downs. He caught nine passes for 112 yards and two scores in the overtime loss to Philadelphia, and he finished the season with five catches for 53 yards and another two touchdowns. Given that the Cowboys are paying him $3.4 million per season, they'd surely like to see those types of performances more often.
Lucky WhiteheadWhat We Know:The undrafted rookie showed that he's got ability with the ball in his hands. Whitehead returned punts and kicks in his first season and proved adept at both – particularly as a kick returner, where he averaged 28 yards per attempt. The Cowboys also schemed ways to get Whitehead the ball in the running game, and he showed ability. He got the ball 10 times on jet sweeps and other designed runs and amassed 107 total yards – nearly 11 yards per pop.
Still Need To Know:What else can he do? Overall, you'd have to consider it a successful season for an undrafted rookie. Whitehead saw his role improve on special teams, and he factored on a limited basis in the offense. The goal for Year 2 should be to expand those duties. After all, he is a receiver and he managed just six receptions for 16 yards on the season. The run plays were creative and fun, but it's hard to imagine that working over the long haul. Whitehead has a future by virtue of his special teams role, but can he improve on that?
Devin StreetWhat We Know:Street found the end zone in impressive fashion last year, hauling in a 25-yard touchdown catch in the Week 6 loss to the Giants. Unfortunately, that was about it for highlights. In two seasons with the club, Street has managed a total of nine catches for 132 yards. His versatility and special teams ability have gotten him on to the field, given that he's appeared in 30 of 32 possible games so far. But halfway through his rookie contract, Street has produced at the desired level.
Still Need To Know:Where does it go from here? The Cowboys are looking for talent behind the established trio of Dez, Williams and Beasley. Street has showed flashes of the promise that made him a fifth-round pick, but he hasn't been able to turn it into production. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Cowboys part ways with Street if the arrow doesn't start trending upward – particularly if they address the wide receiver position in the draft.
Brice ButlerWhat We Know:We know that the Cowboys thought highly enough of Butler to use a fifth-round draft pick to acquire him from Oakland. Butler was supposed to help offset Dez Bryant's loss to injury, but he wound up getting injured himself by straining his hamstring in the Week 4 loss to New Orleans. That injury limited him for most of the year, but he got an opportunity at the end of the season and delivered with eight total catches for 134 yards in the final two games of the year.
Still Need To Know:Butler has a 6-3, 215-pound frame and impressive speed, which makes him an intriguing possibility as the Cowboys' deep threat. There's been no shortage of speculation that he could grab the No. 2 receiver job if he stays healthy this time around. He showed glimpses of big-play ability, but the hamstring problem got in the way consistently. Much like Terrance Williams, Butler is entering a contract season, so he should have plenty of motivation to perform. The big question is how much of a role he can carve out for himself.
Vince MayleWhat We Know:Maybe the most intriguing thing about Mayle is that he was good enough to be a fourth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns a year ago. Of course, he was disappointing enough that he was also cut after his rookie training camp – despite being the No. 123 overall pick. Mayle spent the vast majority of the fall on the Cowboys' practice squad, but injuries did push him up to the active roster for the Week 6 loss to New England – though he didn't tally any statistics.
Still Need To Know:Mayle figures to be one of the half-a-dozen guys fighting for a roster spot at training camp this summer. His draft pedigree makes him stand out among a lot of other names, but that's obviously no guarantee to get him a job. Mayle does have the benefit of spending the full 2015 season in this offense, though, and that could give him a leg up in the competition.
Rodney SmithWhat We Know: It's been a longer road for Smith than Mayle. He was undrafted in 2013 and kicked around the league for a couple seasons before the Cowboys signed him to the practice squad last fall. He has appeared in eight career games without logging a catch, and he wasn't activated to the 53-man roster at any point last year.
Still Need To Know:Much like Mayle, he'll likely have a chance to earn a roster spot this summer at camp. He should have an early advantage on any rookies and late additions because of his experience within the offense.