By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys started Organized Team Activities (OTAs) on May 21, which means competition for one of the 80 spots at Cowboys Training Camp in Oxnard, CA, has begun. For the next several days RattleandHumSports.com will break down each position, determine who’s in competition and who you should keep an eye on the next few months. We’ll update this again after the team’s mandatory mini-camp in mid-June.
Projected depth chart: WR (1) Dez Bryant, (2) Miles Austin, (3) Terrance Williams, (4) Dwayne Harris, (5) Anthony Armstrong, (6) Cole Beasley, Anthony Amos, Tim Benford, Danny Coale, Jared Green, Carlton Mitchell, Eric Rogers. TE (1) Jason Witten, (2) Gavin Escobar, (3) James Hanna, Colin Cochart, Paul Freedman, Andre Smith.
Current health: Benford is out until training camp after arthroscopic knee surgery.
Last year: Bryant had a breakout year, catching 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. And he might not have been the team’s best overall receiver. Witten had a monster year, breaking the NFL record for receptions by a tight end in a season with 110 despite failing to make a catch in the season opener. Austin struggled with hamstring issues all year, but still managed to catch 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 scores. He nearly recorded his third 1,000-yard season. After being handed the return duties midseason, Harris flourished and became a more significant part of the offense. He caught 17 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Cole Beasley, a rookie, added 15 receptions. Witten swallowed up most of the tight end receptions, but Hanna did show some field-stretching capability late in the season, catching 8 passes for 86 yards.
Competition scale (1 being no competition and 5 being highly competitive): 2.
Why?: Austin, Bryant, Hanna, Harris, Beasley and Witten are all back. The most significant loss in terms of pass catches was Kevin Ogletree, who signed with Tampa Bay after catching 32 passes last year. Harris and Beasley figure to make up for that loss between the two of them. Williams, the third-round pick, appears to be a likely candidate for the No. 3 receiver spot, though the Cowboys will give Harris and Beasley a chance to push him. But based on the experience the Cowboys have coming back and the limited number of spots – likely six at receiver and three at tight end when it comes to the 53-man roster – there aren’t many spots up for grabs.
The biggest issue the Cowboys must look at when it comes to tight end is whether there is enough blocking capability among Witten, Hanna and Escobar to negate the need for a blocking tight end. It seems clear the Cowboys want to use a 12 formation (two tight-ends) and these days that means having three tight ends who can block and catch. If Escobar and Hanna both prove they can do it consistently, then Cochart, Freedman and Smith face a real uphill battle.
Player to watch: Rogers. If you’re going to make the jump from NCAA Division III to the NFL, you better have high production during your college career. Rogers was a big time player at Cal Lutheran. He left the Kingsmen as their all-time leader in receiving and in scoring. As a receiver Rogers finished his career with 220 receptions, 3,471 yards and 41 touchdowns. He had 45 total touchdowns and 3,592 yards in total offense. He helped the Kingsmen to four straight conference titles and had eight multiple-touchdown games last year. The Cowboys weren’t the only NFL team interested in him after the draft. He has the size NFL teams are looking for these days (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) and he can run a sub-4.5 40. The odds are against Rogers making the team, but several Division III prospects have made NFL rosters. One of the most notable ones recently is wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who played for D-III power Mount Union. It’s the high-end production, combined with his overall size and maturity, that make Rogers worth watching. He’s probably a practice squad guy, but if he progresses the Cowboys will have to be careful because other NFL teams were interested in him after the draft.
What they’re working for: The Cowboys will probably take anywhere from 9 to 11 receivers to training camp, so there are probably three to five roster spots available. Meanwhile the Cowboys will probably take at least four tight ends. So there’s hope for the trio sitting behind Witten, Escobar and Hanna, but just a little.
Next: Offensive line.