The third in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:
What’s new?: The perception of Bryant has changed dramatically over the past year.
A year ago, Bryant was perceived to be a problem child who might be more trouble than his talent was worth. You won’t hear anybody making that claim now that Bryant’s many signs of maturation include blowing up for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in the second half of the season.
The widespread belief about Bryant now is that his breakout half-season will be a springboard to superstardom. He’s always been a physical freak. He’s worked hard -- and had a lot of help -- to develop emotionally and mentally and put himself in position to cash in on his immense potential.
It’s not his primary goal, but Bryant believes that a 2,000-yard season is within his reach. No receiver in NFL history has ever hit that mark, but why shouldn’t a guy with Bryant’s ability think big? He sets his standards high and works hard to try to reach them.
Bryant’s mixture of talent, work ethic and personality put him in a leadership role, whether he likes it or not. Bryant embraces it, saying he sees himself as an up-and-coming leader, although he still looks up to veterans such as Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Austin.
Bryant has made a point to take third-round pick Williams under his wing. Williams, a Baylor product via Dallas’ W.T. White High School, adds another big receiver with the ability to make plays downfield to the Cowboys’ arsenal.
Camp competition: The odds favor Williams, but he’ll have to beat out Harris for the No. 3 receiver role.
Harris has the advantage of experience, but the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Williams has a bigger frame, better ball skills and higher draft stock. (The Cowboys ranked Williams No. 23 on their draft board, so they considered him a steal at No. 74 overall.) If Williams wins the job, the Cowboys can continue to use Austin in the slot in three-receiver sets, which is their strong preference.
Harris, who had 17 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown as a receiver in addition to averaging an NFC-leading 16.1 yards per punt return, shouldn’t be a forgotten man even if he is the fourth receiver. He’ll continue returning punts, could be featured in certain offensive packages and needs to be ready to step in if Austin’s infamous hamstrings act up again or any other injury hits the receiving corps.
The competition for the fifth spot should be fierce between prototypical undersized slot guy Beasley, coming-off-a-torn-ACL 2012 fifth-rounder Coale and journeyman Armstrong. Maybe two of those guys are good enough to convince the Cowboys to keep six receivers. The Cowboys could also keep a couple of young receivers on the practice squad, especially since limiting Austin’s weekday workload is a priority.
2013 hope: The Cowboys are counting on Bryant to be a consistent beast. They’re expecting a bunch of big plays and a minimal amount of mental busts in what should be the first of many Pro Bowl campaigns for the fourth-year receiver.
It’d be nice if Austin played up to the level of the contract that makes him one of the league’s richest receivers, but the Cowboys really just hope he can stay healthy. Austin played in all 16 games last season, but he left two of those early and was limited in several others. He still had 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns. If the hamstrings aren’t an issue, he’s a heck of a No. 2 receiver.
The Cowboys want Williams to emerge as a big-play threat as a rookie. He might not get many opportunities, but his slugging percentage, so to speak, should be high given the attention defenses have to pay Bryant, Witten and Austin.
Future forecast: Bryant has two years remaining on his rookie contract. If he stays on the right track, the Cowboys will lock him up to a lucrative long-term extension well before his deal expires.
The addition of Williams gives the Cowboys an eventual replacement plan for Austin, who turns 29 on Sunday. The restructuring of Austin’s contract this offseason might have bought him another season of job security. The Cowboys would create less than $400,000 of cap space if they cut him next offseason, which is not enough to make it worth while to dump a productive starter. That number soars to $4.5 million in 2015, when Williams ought to be ready for the No. 2 role.