Spagnola: A Little Good Might Go A Long Way


And as you guys know I had no problem making an argument for No. 3 being No. 1 if no available pass rusher was worthy of a pick that high since the Cowboys had cut ties with the oft-injured Miles Austin, leaving them one injured starting wide receiver away from either Cole Beasley or special-teams ace Dwayne Harris having to start on the outside or spending sparse free-agent dollars on a veteran wide receiver. Plus, did they really think last year's rookie Terrance Williams was ready to take on a starting role? So no problem putting a high priority on a wide receiver, too.

Well, the Cowboys went two-for-three on those priorities during the first three rounds, selecting guard Zack Martin in the first, then grabbing defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the second. Unfortunately we know all about what can happen with the best laid plans, having to trade their third-round pick to move up high enough to be assured of snatching that must-have pass rusher in the second after the Steelers nabbed the outside linebacker the Cowboys had their sights set on – and name already on the card – Ryan Shazier, one pick before theirs.

By the time the Cowboys had another choice (at No. 19 in the fourth), 19 receivers had gone off the board, including second-rounders Marquise Lee, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews and third-rounder Josh Huff.

So they ended up taking the wide receiver they secretly had their eye on in the fifth, Pittsburgh's Devin Street, after using their fourth-round pick on Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens, now somewhat of a clairvoyant move considering Sean Lee's successful reconstructive knee surgery (ACL and meniscus repair) on Thursday that surely will sideline him for the season.

Can still hear the sarcastic oh boys from back then.

But you know what, after nine OTA practices heading into this coming week's mandatory three-day minicamp (June 17-19) all we are seemingly hearing out of the wide receiver position are atta boys.

Dez Bryant has been impressive, not so much doing what he's always done, but from strides being made working on his craft: improving getting off the line of scrimmage using his quickness and footwork instead of trying to outmuscle pressing corners intent on tying him up. Because once he starts hand fighting with corners the safety sitting over the top has a much easier job of doubling.


Or as he says, "By time I get away, Tony is looking elsewhere."

Also, Bryant is working more inside, not just because the Cowboys came up with this brainstorm and want him to, but because he finally is learning the nuances of running routes and accompanying adjustments from the slot position.

"He's learning how to play as a little man," says wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, meaning using his feet and quickness more than solely brawn. "Build his craft."

That's a good.

Then there is Williams, the guy the Cowboys are counting on to become the No. 2 receiver, and with good reason if rookie numbers mean anything. Last year's third-round draft choice finished with 44 catches for 736 yards and five touchdowns, serving mostly as the team's third receiver while starting just five games. Williams played 679 of the Cowboys 957 offensive snaps last year, or 68.4 percent. That means he averaged one catch for every 15.4 snaps, where Bryant had one catch for every 10 snaps. Not bad for a rookie, and one playing roughly just two-thirds of the snaps.

And let's put a little more perspective on what Williams did last year. Only two rookie receivers in club history have finished with more catches than Williams' 44 in 2013. They would be Bryant (63) and some guy named Bob Hayes (46). Of his 736 yards receiving, only Hayes (1,003), Bryant (928) and Mike Sherrard (744) had more. And when it comes to rookie wide receiver touchdown receptions, while Williams' five would seem a modest total, only the Hall of Famer Hayes had more, his 12 still standing as the rookie receiving record. And his five ties for second most with Bryant, Michael Irvin and Sherrard.

That's a good, too.

Here is the better news on Williams.

"Terrance is confident," Dooley says of his demeanor.

No kidding. All you have to do is watch practice. He seems to be playing faster,  and better than even that, he appears to be attacking the ball instead of waiting for the ball to come to him, as he did too many times last year. And because he's confident, "he's playing faster," Dooley said, and face it, speed was never Williams' problem. Saw him catch a deep sideline route on Monday, and instead of celebrating as he'd might have as a rookie, he defiantly threw the ball away as if to say, "take that."

Mickey_061314_650.jpg


Quarterback Brandon Weeden really likes what he sees of the guy, too. Says when he signed with the Cowboys he watched video of every offensive snap from all 16 of last year's games, and he has noticed – since he's taking all the first-team snaps during these OTAs with Orton missing and Romo still running under the caution flag – a significant difference in Williams' play. He used the descriptive words "more aggressively."

 "Tony worked with him a lot," Weeden said of Romo this offseason, "wanting him to be faster at the top of his routes (meaning coming out of his breaks). Plus he's attacking the football. If the football is up in the air, he's going to go get it."

Quarterbacks love that, just the way they love how Bryant wins those 50-50 throws. Trust that your receiver will come down with a contested ball instead of you being charged with an interception is huge with quarterbacks.

That then brings us to the guy whose name creased a huge smile on Weeden's face:

Cole Beasley.

"Just gets open," Weeden said. "I watched last year, they couldn't cover him out of the slot."

Well, if OTAs mean anything, they still can't cover him out of the slot, no matter 5-foot-8, 180. He, too, is running his routes with more confidence, and remember he caught 39 passes as the sometimes fourth receiver last year (368 yards, 2 TDs), playing just 242 offensive snaps, a very productive catch every 6.2 snaps. To me, he just seems even quicker.

To Dooley, too, "He's stronger, quicker, faster," and this knowing that by the end of last season defenses "had to be aware of No. 11," since a third of his total catches (13) turned third and fourth downs into first downs.

Plus, during OTAs when the ones are going three wide with Bryant lining up in the slot, there is the diminutive Beasley lining up outside, and the Cowboys giving him some routes conducive to his speed and quickness, especially dragging back over the middle.

"Let's go see if you can do some of the things people think you can't do," Dooley said of his offseason message to Beasley.

All good.

And since Dwayne Harris won't be cleared for team activity until training camp following offseason shoulder surgery, that brings us to Street, the wide receiver the Cowboys finally grabbed in the fifth round. Sure, he's a rookie, and these are only OTAs, but he runs mature routes and isn't afraid to stick his nose in traffic.

As Dooley says of selecting Street, "Having another outside receiving presence was a priority." [embedded_ad]

Weeden says for a rookie "he's polished."

And before we leave this assessment of the wide receiver position, I'd be remiss if I didn't add this aside from Weeden:

"The guy I really like is Escobar. He's a tight end, but versatile enough to be a slot guy. And if you can get him matched up on a linebacker …

"He's playing faster."

Makes you want to smile … at least a little, right?

So when you ask just where do you think this Cowboys team has improved over last year, if any since usually defense becomes the heart of that matter, well, if Romo is still Romo and DeMarco Murray is still DeMarco Murray, and assuming Jason Witten is still Jason Witten, then just maybe this offense improves. And considering the addition of Martin at guard and just maybe having to take into account the maturation of the wide receiver position … potentially much improved over last season.

Come on, smile a little. At least something encouraging on this Friday The 13th.


IRVING, Texas – Heading into the NFL Draft a tad more than a month ago, here were the Cowboys' now apparent priorities:

  • A pass rusher, encompassing either a true defensive end or a weak-side linebacker. Someone, anyone who could get to the quarterback.
  • An offensive lineman, preferably a tackle capable of initially playing guard.
  • A wide receiver, one big enough to play outside but crafty enough to play inside, too.

All came with sound reasoning, especially the first one since the Cowboys had lost the franchise sack leader (DeMarcus Ware), last season's sack leader (Jason Hatcher) and it appeared their 2012 Pro Bowl defensive end who led the team in tackles that year and finished with a career-high 11 sacks (just a half sack off the team lead), but who had season-ending microfracture knee surgery early in the 2013 season (Anthony Spencer).

 As for No. 2, certainly no arguments with a versatile offensive lineman, since question marks pocked their starting guards in 2013, Ronald Leary struggling past the halfway point, bothered by the otherknee, and Mackenzy Bernadeau initially having been replaced by salty veteran Brian Waters, plus after that no depth to speak of.


And as you guys know I had no problem making an argument for No. 3 being No. 1 if no available pass rusher was worthy of a pick that high since the Cowboys had cut ties with the oft-injured Miles Austin, leaving them one injured starting wide receiver away from either Cole Beasley or special-teams ace Dwayne Harris having to start on the outside or spending sparse free-agent dollars on a veteran wide receiver. Plus, did they really think last year's rookie Terrance Williams was ready to take on a starting role? So no problem putting a high priority on a wide receiver, too.

Well, the Cowboys went two-for-three on those priorities during the first three rounds, selecting guard Zack Martin in the first, then grabbing defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the second. Unfortunately we know all about what can happen with the best laid plans, having to trade their third-round pick to move up high enough to be assured of snatching that must-have pass rusher in the second after the Steelers nabbed the outside linebacker the Cowboys had their sights set on – and name already on the card – Ryan Shazier, one pick before theirs.

By the time the Cowboys had another choice (at No. 19 in the fourth), 19 receivers had gone off the board, including second-rounders Marquise Lee, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews and third-rounder Josh Huff.

So they ended up taking the wide receiver they secretly had their eye on in the fifth, Pittsburgh's Devin Street, after using their fourth-round pick on Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens, now somewhat of a clairvoyant move considering Sean Lee's successful reconstructive knee surgery (ACL and meniscus repair) on Thursday that surely will sideline him for the season.

Can still hear the sarcastic oh boys from back then.

But you know what, after nine OTA practices heading into this coming week's mandatory three-day minicamp (June 17-19) all we are seemingly hearing out of the wide receiver position are atta boys.

Dez Bryant has been impressive, not so much doing what he's always done, but from strides being made working on his craft: improving getting off the line of scrimmage using his quickness and footwork instead of trying to outmuscle pressing corners intent on tying him up. Because once he starts hand fighting with corners the safety sitting over the top has a much easier job of doubling.


Or as he says, "By time I get away, Tony is looking elsewhere."

Also, Bryant is working more inside, not just because the Cowboys came up with this brainstorm and want him to, but because he finally is learning the nuances of running routes and accompanying adjustments from the slot position.

"He's learning how to play as a little man," says wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, meaning using his feet and quickness more than solely brawn. "Build his craft."

That's a good.

Then there is Williams, the guy the Cowboys are counting on to become the No. 2 receiver, and with good reason if rookie numbers mean anything. Last year's third-round draft choice finished with 44 catches for 736 yards and five touchdowns, serving mostly as the team's third receiver while starting just five games. Williams played 679 of the Cowboys 957 offensive snaps last year, or 68.4 percent. That means he averaged one catch for every 15.4 snaps, where Bryant had one catch for every 10 snaps. Not bad for a rookie, and one playing roughly just two-thirds of the snaps.

And let's put a little more perspective on what Williams did last year. Only two rookie receivers in club history have finished with more catches than Williams' 44 in 2013. They would be Bryant (63) and some guy named Bob Hayes (46). Of his 736 yards receiving, only Hayes (1,003), Bryant (928) and Mike Sherrard (744) had more. And when it comes to rookie wide receiver touchdown receptions, while Williams' five would seem a modest total, only the Hall of Famer Hayes had more, his 12 still standing as the rookie receiving record. And his five ties for second most with Bryant, Michael Irvin and Sherrard.

That's a good, too.

Here is the better news on Williams.

"Terrance is confident," Dooley says of his demeanor.

No kidding. All you have to do is watch practice. He seems to be playing faster,  and better than even that, he appears to be attacking the ball instead of waiting for the ball to come to him, as he did too many times last year. And because he's confident, "he's playing faster," Dooley said, and face it, speed was never Williams' problem. Saw him catch a deep sideline route on Monday, and instead of celebrating as he'd might have as a rookie, he defiantly threw the ball away as if to say, "take that."


Quarterback Brandon Weeden really likes what he sees of the guy, too. Says when he signed with the Cowboys he watched video of every offensive snap from all 16 of last year's games, and he has noticed – since he's taking all the first-team snaps during these OTAs with Orton missing and Romo still running under the caution flag – a significant difference in Williams' play. He used the descriptive words "more aggressively."

 "Tony worked with him a lot," Weeden said of Romo this offseason, "wanting him to be faster at the top of his routes (meaning coming out of his breaks). Plus he's attacking the football. If the football is up in the air, he's going to go get it."

Quarterbacks love that, just the way they love how Bryant wins those 50-50 throws. Trust that your receiver will come down with a contested ball instead of you being charged with an interception is huge with quarterbacks.

That then brings us to the guy whose name creased a huge smile on Weeden's face:

Cole Beasley.

"Just gets open," Weeden said. "I watched last year, they couldn't cover him out of the slot."

Well, if OTAs mean anything, they still can't cover him out of the slot, no matter 5-foot-8, 180. He, too, is running his routes with more confidence, and remember he caught 39 passes as the sometimes fourth receiver last year (368 yards, 2 TDs), playing just 242 offensive snaps, a very productive catch every 6.2 snaps. To me, he just seems even quicker.

To Dooley, too, "He's stronger, quicker, faster," and this knowing that by the end of last season defenses "had to be aware of No. 11," since a third of his total catches (13) turned third and fourth downs into first downs.

Plus, during OTAs when the ones are going three wide with Bryant lining up in the slot, there is the diminutive Beasley lining up outside, and the Cowboys giving him some routes conducive to his speed and quickness, especially dragging back over the middle.

"Let's go see if you can do some of the things people think you can't do," Dooley said of his offseason message to Beasley.

All good.

And since Dwayne Harris won't be cleared for team activity until training camp following offseason shoulder surgery, that brings us to Street, the wide receiver the Cowboys finally grabbed in the fifth round. Sure, he's a rookie, and these are only OTAs, but he runs mature routes and isn't afraid to stick his nose in traffic.

As Dooley says of selecting Street, "Having another outside receiving presence was a priority." [embedded_ad]

Weeden says for a rookie "he's polished."

And before we leave this assessment of the wide receiver position, I'd be remiss if I didn't add this aside from Weeden:

"The guy I really like is Escobar. He's a tight end, but versatile enough to be a slot guy. And if you can get him matched up on a linebacker …

"He's playing faster."

Makes you want to smile … at least a little, right?

So when you ask just where do you think this Cowboys team has improved over last year, if any since usually defense becomes the heart of that matter, well, if Romo is still Romo and DeMarco Murray is still DeMarco Murray, and assuming Jason Witten is still Jason Witten, then just maybe this offense improves. And considering the addition of Martin at guard and just maybe having to take into account the maturation of the wide receiver position … potentially much improved over last season.

Come on, smile a little. At least something encouraging on this Friday The 13th.

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