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Spagnola: Try, Try, Try To Let The WRs Ride


OXNARD, Calif. – Now, you know, when the Cowboys decided 3½ months ago to part ways with Dez Bryant my skepticism boiled over.

Thought it took a lot of nerve to release the franchise's all-time leader in touchdown receptions at age 29, also the guy who led the team in receptions last year – his 69 more than any of the receivers they have on their roster. Also, the guy who led the team in receiving touchdowns (6), more than anyone currently on the roster produced last year and only two short of the current group of 13's collective eight.

Didn't sound right "friendly" to me.

In fact, only Cole Beasley among the 13 receivers currently on the roster has ever caught more passes in a single season (75 in 2016) than Dez caught last year.

This was going to be a "group" effort we were told, the NFL's version of line dancing I guess.

Now fast-forward to Aug. 3, a mandatory off-day from practice for the Cowboys here at training camp, and from what we've seen so far, this budding "group" might just be one of the deepest receiving corps the Cowboys have gathered in quite some time, and at this time, from 1 to 8.

No, seriously.

Now there is no lead dog, I get it. Not yet anyway. Rudolph has yet to shine brightly.

But you're heard the term, right, strength in numbers. The Cowboys seem to have numbers. In fact, they just might find themselves trying to squeeze eight potential receiving candidates into five, probably six and maybe seven slots on the 53-man roster.

The serious candidates to wind up on the 53-man roster come Sept. 1 are, and look, too early to place them in any particular order:

Cole Beasley.

Terrance Williams.

Noah Brown.

Lance Lenoir Jr.

Allen Hurns.

Deonte Thompson.

Tavon Austin.

Michael Gallup.

We probably should call them The Unknowns.

After all, only one has been a fulltime, multiple-year starter in the NFL, that being Williams, he of 66 career starts over five seasons. No one else has more than Austin's 50 starts over the past five years. Plus, only Williams, Beasley and Brown were on the Cowboys' roster more than Lenoir's one game last year.

We got a lot to find out.

We'll find out much more after these initial five padded practices the next four days, which includes Sunday's Blue-White exercise, along with the Aug. 9 preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers.

But as a group . . .

Well, let's let receiver whisperer Sanjay Lal give you the idea he gave me the other day about all this group attack.

He first asked me if I watch the Tour de France. Yeah, sure somewhat.

You know, the peloton? Yeah, sure, the pack of riders.

So his analogy goes like this. There always seems to be a rider who breaks away from the peloton, and goes it on his own in the lead. But by the time the race has concluded, the peloton has caught up with the Lone Ranger.

Meaning the whole is greater than one part.

You have heard of ride share. This just might become the rare receiver share.

Because in the 58-season history of the Cowboys only three times have they had four wide receivers with at least 20 catches: 2013, 1996 and 1973. This very well could be the season, especially without a tight end the caliber of Witten, who only in the rookie year of his 15-season career had fewer receptions than the 63 of 2017.

Everyone wants to know who is going to replace Jason Witten's production, right. Well it just might be a combination of a fourth and fifth receiver, along with Ezekiel Elliott. They do say there is more than one way to skin a cat.

If you watch these practices, the wide receivers are all over the formation. Beasley inside and outside. Austin the same. Quite unusual for short guys. Hurns inside and out. Williams, Thompson and Gallup usually outside but some in. Lenoir whatever you want him. (Brown has been out with a sore hamstring.)

Plus, Lal will tell you he wants all his receivers to know all the spots, X, Y and Z, plus they just might not always be lining up in those traditional places. And so far, there really hasn't been a pecking order established. Can't assume territory with any of these guys.

"We are not concerned with who is one, two or three," Austin says. "It's a collective unit."

When all are healthy, sometimes it's Hurns, Beasley and Gallup on the field. Sometimes it's Austin and Beasley outside, with Hurns and Gallup inside. And hey, if the tight ends aren't productive, or not needed for blocking, don't be surprised if you see some of the empty formations of last year, with either five receivers on the field or four and Zeke.

That is why when Lal teaches, he doesn't just teach specific techniques and skills to where this receiver or that receiver is playing.

"Coach Sanjay is doing a really good job teaching all the wideouts how to run go-routes," says Austin, with his speed one of his specialties. "It's not all about out-running, there's technique to a go-route."

And while a few mistook what Lal was saying the other day, and says he meant no disrespect to Bryant, he actually was pointing out that no one receiver would specialize in like a back-shoulder fade and that he certainly has receivers who can get down field on deep routes.

"I would rather have down-the-field guys that go run down a ball and score than live in the back-shoulder world," Lal said. "We want touchdowns. We have some of those."

Who knows, they might have more than one or two of 'em.

So far, Beasley has been a staple lining up with the ones. Williams, just getting back from foot surgery, seems a receiver intent on proving just what he can do out from under the shadows of Dez. Gallup has been impressive so far for a rookie, Lal, calling him "a young moldable, future good receiver."

Hurns seems quite reliable, a really nice route runner. Austin is playing with a chip on his shoulder, feeling the Rams did him wrong last year, knowing he was trying to play through that wrist injury. Look, the previous two seasons (2015-16), starting 30 of 31 games played, he totaled 110 catches, 982 yards and eight touchdowns.

And don't go to sleep on Thompson. This guy can scoot, too. Just last season playing for the Bears and then Bills, in 16 games he caught 38 passes for 555 yards and two touchdowns. And in the final 11 playing for Buffalo, he averaged 15.9 a catch. Plus, he averaged just 41 snaps a game in 2017.

So, for now, and I've repeatedly said this about this young Cowboys team, let's not let the unknown cloud our judgment of this team. Nor the fact that maybe, just maybe they don't have that lead receiver, a Dez Bryant or Miles Austin or Terrell Owens or Keyshawn Johnson or Michael Irvin or Tony Hill or Drew Pearson or Bob Hayes or the recently-deceased Frank Clarke. Yet.

How 'bout just letting the peloton ride.