Young Trio of Wide Receivers Quickly Becoming Difference-Makers in Dallas

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 19, 2013

We're all well aware of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Miles Austin, but the Dallas Cowboys have yet to get over the hump in recent years, despite the fact that those guys have hit some very high peaks. 

For Dallas to take that next step forward this season, several things will have to happen. That aforementioned offensive core will have to be good. The offensive line will have to be semi-reliable. The defensive front seven will have to get some pressure. Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense will have to pay off. 

We know all of that. Everyone does. 

But I'd like to point out that there's also a trio of young offensive weapons that have quietly emerged during the first six weeks of the 2013 regular season. They're all receivers, they're all under the age of 27 and they're all very different from one another. 

If you're a Dallas fan, you've already started to become familiar with Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. But we still haven't had a chance to step back and look at the potential impact these three young Cowboys could have on this organization, now and in the future. 

The up-and-coming trio
PlayerAgeDrafted2013 claim to fame
Terrance Williams243rd round, 2013NFL-high 85.7 REC%
Dwayne Harris266th round, 2011Leads NFL in punt return AVG
Cole Beasley24UDFA, 2012NFL-high 91.7 slot REC rate*
Pro Football Focus/NFL.com (* min. 10 targets)

Now that it looks like all three will be sticking around for a while, let's formally introduce football fans to three of the game's most talented up-and-comers.

The perfect complement

Remember how much heat the Cowboys took for trading down and taking Travis Frederick in the first round of April's NFL draft? Consider that they gained a third-round pick in that deal with the San Francisco 49ers, one which they used on Baylor's Terrance Williams. 

On paper, the guy looked like a steal. Big frame, big reach, nice wheels. Maybe he could become the No. 2 receiver...one day. But he didn't participate in a very complex offense in college, so many figured it would take Williams a little extra time to get his NFL legs. 

But no, he's been improving at a ridiculously fast rate. 

Nobody expected his routes to be polished early, and a botched route led to this Romo interception in Week 1:

He also had some issues with drops during the preseason and training camp. Those apparent jitters spilled over into the early part of the regular season, and they might have cost Dallas a game when he fumbled inside the 5-yard line in San Diego:

But with Austin suffering a hamstring injury against the Rams in Week 3, the Cowboys were forced to keep giving Williams looks. That has paid off in a big way. 

In his last three games, Williams has 13 catches, 249 yards and two touchdowns. That alone is impressive, but consider, too, that he has caught those 13 passes on only 14 targets and has just one drop this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

In fact, PFF's database indicates that, on the season, Williams has caught 85.7 percent of the passes thrown his way, which ranks first in the NFL. How amazing is that for a rookie who barely had a route tree at Baylor?

Even in Week 2, you could see the confidence Romo was gaining in his rookie receiver. Look at the coverage when Romo throws this ball to him on his first read against Kansas City:

Williams would gain just enough separation over the next 10 or 15 yards to catch that for a 20-yard gain.

I've also noticed that he does a great job working back toward Romo once the pocket has been breached. Many of his grabs have come those situations. 

But the biggest catch of his career thus far came on an 82-yard touchdown against Denver. Considering he's running a deep post here, Williams doesn't look to be wildly open:

But with no safety help in that area, Romo unleashes with the assumption that Williams will gain some separation:

It's a bit underthrown, preventing Williams from being able to pull away. He makes the grab with Tony Carter right in his face:

And look at the separation he has created only a couple seconds later:

After the catch, he would essentially win a 40-yard race by a six-yard margin.

From Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com

I don't think any of us could have seen the kind of progress that he has made since training camp. It is there. He's such an overachiever [to go] along with some great physical talent. I'm really proud of the success he's having for all of us and he makes a big difference out there when you look at what we're going to be doing the rest of this year at receiver. 

The guy is 6'2" and 200 lbs of mainly muscle, but he's got the speed as well. He's essentially the exact type of receiver the Cowboys will need to keep Dez Bryant from consistently drawing bracket coverage. He's becoming more consistent and reliable by the day, so the sky really is the limit. 

The special teams stud

Romo's had a hell of a year and Bryant is a force, but if there's one Dallas Cowboy who is currently on track to make the Pro Bowl, it's Dwayne Harris. 

That's because Harris has been a game-changer as a return man while also contributing as a receiver. He might have only six catches thanks to the emergence of Williams and Beasley, but the 26-year-old former sixth-round pick has scored twice—once as a receiver and once on a return.

As a receiver, he somehow pulled this touchdown catch in on a go route out of the slot:

And on that 86-yard punt return score against the Redskins, he displays his great vision as well as an uncanny ability to dodge defenders. 

But that's not the full extent of the impact he's made. In that same game against Washington, he also took a kickoff back 90 yards from his own end zone, setting up a Williams touchdown. 

Six weeks in, Harris is averaging 23.6 yards per punt return, which ranks first in the NFL. In fact, he's got a 5.4-yard lead on the next-best man on that list. He also leads the NFC with 34.7 yards per kick return. And it's not just a six-game anomaly, because he's got the highest punt return average in the league dating back to the start of the 2012 season. 

NFL's top return men
RankPunt returnsKick returns
1Dwayne Harris (23.6)Trindon Holliday (37.7)
2Tandon Doss (18.2)Dwayne Harris (34.7)
3Trindon Holliday (13.4)C. Patterson (33.8)
Pro Football Reference

Harris also had 14 catches and 202 yards receiving during the final six weeks last season, and he's dropped just three passes the last two years.

He might not be as polished a receiver as Williams, but the team knows it can rely on him there if necessary, and he's got the speed to deliver any time he touches the ball. 

Considering the impact he's had in two of the three phases, Harris has emerged as one of the most important players on this Dallas team. He also has five tackles as a gunner on punt coverage this season, including this one for a loss against Josh Morgan in Week 6:

"I feel like I'm one of the more versatile special-teams players in the league," said Harris, according to ESPN.com's Watkins. "I do a little bit of everything. I don’t think too many people go out and return punts, go down on kickoffs and then go to receiver. I don’t think too many people do that." 

It's been a while since the Cowboys have had a versatile and reliable weapon like Harris. It must be nice to watch him as he continues to get better.

The slot sensation

When Austin went down with that hamstring injury, Cole Beasley Stepped in. The second-year SMU product has registered 11 catches, 107 yards and a touchdown the last three weeks. He's dropped only two of the 38 passes thrown his way in his career and has managed to catch 86 percent of the passes Romo has targeted him on this season, per PFF.

Here, he runs what is pretty much an unstoppable curl route on Tony Carter and then breaks the tackle attempt in order to pick up the first down:

That's not uncommon. Beasley has already missed three tackles on 12 receptions this season.

Later in the same game, he nearly breaks Omar Bolden's ankles on a 23-yard catch and run to set Dallas up with a 1st-and-goal:

He also scored on a screen in the fourth quarter. And yes, that's Terrance Williams throwing the block to set to make it all happen:

Unsurprisingly, head coach Jason Garrett continually calls Beasley a receiver who is "quarterback-friendly." From Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

We’ve thrown the ball to him, and he consistently makes plays. He wins his matchups, and he gives the quarterback a place to throw. Again, he is quarterback friendly. He’s done a nice job in scramble-type situations finding a place to throw the football for the quarterback.

He's only 5'8", but he's quick enough to get separation in the slot and has surer hands than the man he's often—but lazily—been compared to, Wes Welker

Considering that Beasley's only 24 and has already become one of Romo's favorite safety valves, it's fair to wonder if he might one day become the team's permanent option in the slot. 

Making Miles Austin's job redundant?

The problem with Austin is that he'll turn 30 after this season, he can't seem to keep his hamstring healthy and he makes over $8 million a year. He was held without a catch in his return to the lineup against Washington, and now you have to wonder if the the Cowboys would be better off with Williams as the No. 2 receiver out wide and Beasley permanently in the slot. 

Keep in mind that Harris has also had some work in the slot, and Beasley and Harris make approximately $1 million combined. 

If Williams is a bigger deep threat with a higher upside and Beasley and Harris can pretty much accomplish similar feats schematically, you have to wonder if the Cowboys are thinking that Austin's presence is no longer necessary.

If I'm Dallas, I definitely shop a guy like that as the Oct. 29 trade deadline approaches. The problem is that his stock has never been so low, what with the injury problems and the lack of production, and his salary is quite high. 

If the team can't unload that contract, it'll be "stuck" with Austin for the remainder of the year, possibly longer. But that's not the worst problem to have. Right now, there's more depth, talent and promise in that Dallas receiving corps than there has been since the turn of the century. Look for these guys to continue to help Romo and Jason Witten more and more every week, starting Sunday against a very leaky Philadelphia Eagles defense.


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