The third in a series looking at each of the Dallas Cowboys’ position groups:
What went right: Miles Austin saved the season by morphing into a Pro Bowler.
Austin didn’t make his starting debut until the fifth game, seizing the opportunity with a franchise-record 250 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs. He finished as the NFC’s leader in receiving yards (1,320) and 20-plus-yard catches (21) and ranked second in touchdowns (11).
All Austin did was produce like Terrell Owens in his prime without any of the drama. Austin’s emergence gave Tony Romo a much-needed big-play threat, which opened up the middle of the field for tight end Jason Witten to work.
Patrick Crayton wasn’t pleased to be demoted, but he produced well as a No. 3 receiver. He actually had more yards than Roy Williams, which we’ll discuss more in a moment.
The Cowboys believe they’ve landed another undrafted gem in Kevin Ogletree, who beat out Isaiah Stanback for a roster spot and earned playing time as a rookie. Ogletree showed speed, quickness and solid hands in his limited opportunities.
What went wrong: The Roy Williams trade appears to be one of the worst in recent NFL history.
Williams’ biggest contribution was bruising his ribs against the Denver Broncos, opening up a spot for Austin the next week. The $45 million man was an epic failure during his abbreviated stint as the No. 1 receiver.
Williams ranked among league leaders in drops and has yet to develop a rapport with Romo. Williams believes that Romo and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett have lost confidence in him. Although Romo and Garrett deny that, they’d have good reason. Williams (38 catches, 596 yards, seven TDs) was substandard as a starter.
What’s next: Jerry Jones want to lock up Austin to a long-term extension. It won’t come cheap, especially with a receiver who has a $9 million-per-season deal already on the roster.
The Cowboys do have some leverage since Austin is a restricted free agent. They could give him the first- and third-round tender ($3.17 million) and try to work out a deal during the season. That assumes some risk, though, if a team decides the picks are worth the price and constructs an offer that would be difficult for the Cowboys to match.
Letting Austin leave is simply not an option. The Cowboys are incredibly fortunate to have a Pro Bowl receiver just entering his prime.
Williams won’t be going anywhere this offseason, no matter how much Cowboys fans would like to see him go. He’s owed too much money, and releasing him would force Jones to admit a massive mistake.
The question is whether Williams will have to earn his starting job instead of just being penciled in because of his salary.
With a good offseason, Ogletree ought to be ready to challenge Williams. Ogletree is the Cowboys’ fastest and most elusive receiver. Garrett will find ways to get him more involved.
Hurd is down the depth chart, but there’s no reason the Cowboys shouldn’t have him return. He’s arguably the best specials teams player.
Jones has said he doesn’t believe the Cowboys need to draft a receiver, mentioning that he’s intrigued by practice squad players Jesse Holley and Manuel Johnson. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cowboys did select a receiver in the draft, especially with the uncertainty about Williams’ future.