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Spagnola: Trying To Catch On To These Names One Number At A Time

FRISCO, Texas – This receiver corps, both wide and tight, geesh, who the heck are these guys?

         Can’t watch a practice without a roster in hand. A numerical one preferably to speed up the process of reminding yourself who’s who. My suggestion if you plan on attending training camp, which is now just two months away, print out a roster. Don’t leave home without it.

         Take the other day, first OTA out here we were able to watch. There are 17 of these receiver types, 12 wide, five tight, and darn good thing Broaddus provided my laminated, positon-by-position numerical roster. Plain ol’ paper would not have withstood the workout this sucker got over 90-some minutes.

         So, I began the memorization process:

         No. 10: Little guy who runs like the wind. Got it, Tavon Austin.

         No. 11: Easy. Recognize him, despite the buzz cut. Cole Beasley’s still around.

         No. 13: Unlucky number helps. That’s third-round pick Michael Gallup.

         No. 14: Come on, 14. Remember that from last year. Oh, Lance Lenoir. Right, practice squad dude who played in that final game of the season.

         No. 15: Fifteen? Fast guy. Must be Deonte Thompson. It is.

         No. 16: Got no clue. Kept having to look. Cedric Wilson, sixth-round draft choice.

         No. 17: Nope, not Kellen Moore or Dwayne Harris or Jason Garrett anymore. New guy. So that’s Allen Hurns. OK, good.

         No. 18: Beats me. Marchie Who? Marchie Murdock, rookie free agent, Iowa State. Marchie, Marchie. Hey, local guy from Arlington.

         No 19: Seriously? Malik Earl? Missouri State? Missouri State? Oh wait, not that guy who ran right through the Missouri defense in last year’s season opener on a third-and-24 for an 89-yard touchdown reception, forecasting major defensive problems to come? Come on, he’s here? Yep, mental note, that’s him

         No. 81: Nope, not Rocket Ismail. That’s right, the Baylor guy, K.D. Cannon, signed as a futures free agent.

         No. 82: (Ha, just joking.) Vacant.

         No. 83: MIA … Terrance Williams still rehabbing from foot surgery and possibly worse problems on his hands.

         No. 84: No clue again. Rookie free agent David Wells.

         No. 85: Sure, that’s Noah Brown.

         No. 86: New guy. Remember him from rookie minicamp. Fourth-round pick, right? Dalton Shultz.

         No. 87: Easy. Geoff Swaim. Hey, the guy caught two passes last year. How could we forget?

         No. 88: Nada.

         No. 89: Remember him. Blake Jarwin, four snaps last year.

         You guys see what I mean?

         No Jason Witten. No Dez Bryant. No Brice Butler. No James Hanna. No Escobar or Harris anymore. And who knows about Williams.

         Talk about the dawning of a new day, definitely giving new meaning to brave new worldout here.

         Kinda scary, no?

         Think about this:

         Just last year, and not exactly a great passing season for the Cowboys, especially over the final eight games with protection problems abound, Dez and Witt combined for 132 catches, 1,398 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. All gone.

         And this will be a sobering exercise if adding up the 2017 NFL numbers of those 17 receivers now on the roster, again 12 wide and five tight. Ready?

         Those 17 guys, with 11 of them playing no more than one NFL game last year (Lenoir and Jarwin the one each), totaled 185 catches, 2,026 receiving yards and, uh, eight touchdowns – 77 of those catches, 1,039 of the yards and four of the touchdowns belonging to Hurns and Thompson.

         Now, the Cowboys are banking heavily on veterans Beasley and Williams, too, having totaled 89 catches for 882 yards and four touchdowns last year, all four Beasley’s. But what if Williams’ apparent one-car accident last week causes further NFL repercussions? Snatch 53 receptions from that 185 figure.

         Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, looking at the sunny side of this receiver unknown, says, “It’s an opportunity for those guys to step up.”

         He’s right, but baby steps won’t do.

         Also, here is another conglomeration of Bryant-Witten numbers, thanks to staffer Mike Marshall. From 2010, Bryant’s rookie season, through 2017, the last for both guys with the Cowboys, Bryant and Witten combined for 1,160 receptions. In other words, 41 percent of all passes caught by the Cowboys over those eight seasons. That’s a healthy two-man show.

         Also, the Bryant-Witten combo totaled 114 receiving touchdowns – Dez his Cowboys’ franchise career record 73 and Witt 41. All the rest of the Cowboys players over those eight seasons totaled 110 touchdown receptions. So, uh, 51 percent Witt-Dez to 49 percent everyone else. While the departed duo averaged 14.25 TD receptions a season, all the rest averaged 13.75 receiving touchdowns – note, though, that totaled bloated by the 11 of Laurent Robinson in 2011.

         Plus, only once during the past eight seasons has someone other than Dez or Witt led the Cowboys in receptions, that being Beasley in 2016, when he not only led the club with a career-high 75 catches, but also 833 receiving yards with Bryant playing in just 12 games. Only two other times has someone other than one of those two led the team in receiving yards: Miles Austin with 1,041 in Bryant’s rookie season and Williams with 840 in 2015 when Dez missed seven games.

         And to further understand the impact Bryant and Witten made on the Cowboys, while those two were combining for 14.25 touchdowns a season, Dallas only averaged as a team 12.6 rushing touchdowns, and even that total was bloated by two seasons: DeMarco Murray rushing for 13 touchdowns in 2014 and Ezekiel Elliott 15 in 2016.       

         Not to overly burden you with numbers, but this one, too, comes to mind: Bryant and Witten combined for 687 of the team’s eight-season total of 1,591 receiving first downs, or 43 percent. Just two guys now.

         Face it, all of this is a lot to replace, especially when you consider third down. Who’s the go-to guy? Who are you looking for first on third-and-8? And just who will draw defensive attention away from loading up against Ezekiel Elliott.

         Not saying none of these guys are incapable of stepping up to help fill the void. It’s just that other than Beasley and Hurns, who had 64 catches for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns for Jacksonville in 2015, his career year, no one else has ever caught more than 55 passes in a single NFL season.

         Meaning, there sure is a lot to prove.

         “I don’t know that every team in the league needs a No. 1 receiver,” Dak Prescott said the other day. “It’s about getting the ball out, spreading the ball around and keeping the defense on its toes.”

         Dak knows what Beasley and Williams (he hopes) are capable of. As for newcomers, he’s already figured out with Tavon Austin, “just get him the ball.”

         And as for Hurns, who has missed 11 games over the past two seasons: “I love what Allen does. He’s a very smart guy, one of the smartest receivers we have. He can move all across the board, from X to Z to inside. Knows defenses … he’s getting better.”

         Well, that’s what these OTAs are all about, learning and getting better. So, too, the minicamp. Training camp and preseason will be as important, if not more so, than ever before for this offense to link up on the same page.

         Especially with the receiving chasm created by the losses of Dez and Witt, something guarantee you Dak knows best.

“Obviously, there are a lot of guys gone, a lot of new guys (here), so it’s been a different energy. It’s been a different vibe, but it’s been fun. A lot of energy, a lot of excitement,” Prescott says. “I’m sure Coach Garrett says it, we’re far away, we’re not anywhere where we need to be, but it’s fun getting there and improving each and every day. …

“A lot of young guys, a young team. We’re definitely growing and getting better.”

An indication of how fast and how much might just be how soon we can put names to all these numbers.

Somehow compensating for the loss of 82 and 88.

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