'Older' Cowboys' receiving options

With Miles Austin already a top option, and exciting rookie Dez Bryant in the mix, what to make of Jason Witten and Roy Williams?

You know all about Miles Austin. He's a no-doubt No. 1 receiver in fantasy: a big, athletic, relatively fast 26-year-old whom Tony Romo trusts without question. And we've all analyzed rookie Dez Bryant to death, right down to his to-be-or-not-to-be shoulder pad carrying. He should eventually be a tremendous NFL player, though a high-ankle sprain has slowed him down this summer, and it's looking like he might be the Cowboys' No. 3 receiver on opening day.

So what about those other guys, those guys with the temerity to actually be 28 years old, Jason Witten and Roy Williams? Neither is coming off what you'd call an elite fantasy season. Witten finished eighth among tight ends in 2009 but caught only two touchdowns, one of which came in Week 17, when right-thinking fantasy players are already in hibernation. Williams finished 39th among wideouts despite grabbing seven scores; his 596 receiving yards in a season in which he was supposed to replace Terrell Owens was borderline pathetic. But given their circumstances, I think each bears further discussion.

Witten probably belongs in a different boat than Williams. He was one of only three tight ends to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving last season, and has finished among the top three men at his position in yardage in each of the past three seasons. Still, his average draft position this summer is 61st overall, a full 22 picks after Dallas Clark (and No. 5 among tight ends), and it's because of his lack of touchdowns. Witten has six scores the past two seasons combined, and that's not even the most alarming part. In '09, Witten got only seven looks inside an opponent's red zone. By way of contrast, Greg Olsen had 24. And in '08, Witten had only six red zone targets. (Tony Gonzalez led tight ends that year with 22.) Close-in targets aren't the only thing that make a fantasy tight end valuable, but they're one of the things. I mean, geez, Witten himself got 14 such looks in '07 alone.

Now, I read the columns that say this year Witten will finally get back into short-yardage receiving action. (ESPN Dallas has this one from a couple of weeks ago.) But I'm sorry; two years equals a trend. Witten's problem is that he's too good a blocker. Unlike many of the glorified wide receivers who play his position, Witten is an essential part of the Cowboys' short-yardage running game, and part of why Dallas running backs like, say, Marion Barber have had big-TD seasons in the past. So color me skeptical that Witten suddenly challenges Clark, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis et al for the TD lead at his position. I think it's correct that Witten's ADP is much lower than the elites at his position. His yardage makes him a fantasy starter, but don't feel compelled to reach for him.

Next let's look at Roy Williams. You know, the guy I stuck my neck out for last year, the guy we were all convinced would earn the job as Romo's No. 1 receiver. (To be fair, I also drafted Austin in just about every league I was in last year. But still.) The Cowboys paid a huge price for Williams (first-, third- and sixth-round draft choices, plus a five-year, $45 million extension with $20 million guaranteed) and the receiver did finally stay healthy for a full season last year. But he was just terrible. He caught 38 of the 86 passes thrown his way (an almost unfathomably bad 44.1 percent success rate). He eclipsed 100 yards in a game once. Austin did everything Williams was supposed to do, and the Cowboys gave Williams chance after chance. It was a gallingly bad performance.

But Bryant injuring his ankle might have been the best thing that ever happened to Williams. I do still have Bryant listed above Williams in my receiver ranks, but the gap closed once the news came that Bryant was hobbled. (The latest word is that the Cowboys think they might get him back sooner than expected, maybe in time to play in preseason games, but the jury's still out.) I've got Bryant at No. 44 in my positional ranks, and Williams at No. 58. I've got each of them being drafted in 12-team leagues. And I give Williams a nonzero chance of being a big-time fantasy steal this year.

Listen, it probably won't happen. But the numbers say it could be interesting. Austin and Witten accounted for 248 of Romo's 550 attempts last year (granted, that was in a season in which Austin started just 12 games), and another 80 went to running backs. That left 222 targets for everyone else, including Williams, Patrick Crayton, Martellus Bennett, Sam Hurd et al. If we accept that Romo will probably have roughly the same number of attempts in '10, and accept that Austin, Witten and the running backs probably won't account for more than between 350 and 380 targets, there's still a lot of "other" work available. What if Bryant isn't completely healthy by Week 1? What if he's fallen behind during his missed time? What if, in short, he's not ready to accept 80-plus targets this year? Do I think that's definitely going to happen? No. Do I think there's a possibility? I do.

If Williams ever started hot and established himself as a true No. 2 opposite Austin in lieu of Bryant posting a breakout season, he would be a fantasy starter. That offense can support two starting fantasy receivers; it just hasn't done so lately because of talent issues. I mean, Romo passed for nearly 4,500 yards and 26 touchdowns in '09. Those numbers support a Chad Ochocinco/T.J. Houshmandzadeh or, even better, a Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne/Dallas Clark-type of arrangement.

So take Austin in the second or third round of your draft. Take a flier on Bryant in the 10th or 11th. Feel fine about grabbing Witten in Round 6 or 7 and letting him be your fantasy starter, though a big-TD season doesn't seem particularly likely. And when the final rounds start clicking by (especially in deeper leagues), remember what I've said here. Williams has an opening to redeem himself, and in this situation, redemption would be huge.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.