Dwayne Harris makes progress
No. 3 WR candidate hopes to impress Cowboys with improvement over last year
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' search for a No. 3 receiver behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant was not settled in organized team activities or minicamp, but the feeling from Jason Garrett and Tony Romo is that guy is on the roster now.
Garrett and Romo couldn't tell you who that guy will be, but they saw positive moments from Andre Holmes, whom owner and general manager Jerry Jones essentially nominated as the front-runner with his comments, Kevin Ogletree and even undrafted free agent Cole Beasley.
Another contender has looked better than he ever did in 2011, and that was Dwayne Harris.
Among the No. 3 receiver competitors, only Ogletree has caught a pass in a regular-season game, a whopping 25 in three seasons. Harris is the only other wide receiver who has at least been active for a regular-season game, playing in seven as a rookie and returning punts and kickoffs. The sixth-round pick averaged 28.9 yards per kick return and 5.3 yards per punt return.
But he was never part of the offensive plan in his seven games. Even with Bryant out and Austin hurt in Week 2 at San Francisco, Garrett went with Jesse Holley as the No. 2 wideout over Harris. The Cowboys did not tender Holley a contract in the offseason, making him a free agent, and he signed with New England last month.
Harris, at least, had a moment as a pass catcher with a 76-yard touchdown against Denver in the opening preseason game of 2011, finishing with five catches for 127 yards.
"It just showed everybody what I can do," Harris said. "I gave a little more exposure to what kind of playmaker I am."
He was cut and re-signed to the practice squad in October. He spent eight weeks there before the Cowboys called him back up to the active roster in December, in part because another team wanted to sign him to its active roster and in part because of a hamstring injury suffered by Holmes, who was also almost poached from the practice squad.
The Cowboys didn't want to lose a year of an investment in Harris, so it was encouraging for them to see his improvement in the spring.
"Like a lot of players, the development from year one to year two is typically pretty big," Garrett said. "Oftentimes, guys with the right approach try to learn from the experiences they had last year, the first time seeing everything and taking something from those experiences, both good and bad, and apply it when they come back. I think he's a good example of that."
Harris said he felt more comfortable with the playbook after not having an offseason to learn it last year. When he arrived from East Carolina, he immediately showed he knew how to work openings underneath coverages. But he also struggled in lining up in the correct spots, which led to a lack of faith for moments like in San Francisco.
"This has been better for me because it gave us times to learn the playbook and time to work our craft," Harris said. "Last year, we were right into it in training camp, and it was just new. Everything moved so fast, and you never had time to perfect your craft."
The biggest difference Garrett saw in Harris wasn't his ability to grasp the offense. It was how Harris looked. In a way, the 2011 version of Harris was the 2006 version of Skyler Green. The Cowboys were excited about drafting Green in the fourth round, and Bill Parcells thought Green could be a punt returner and work the slot. Unfortunately, he added weight and lost his quickness.
"He is looking leaner, and I think that's an important thing for him," Garrett said. "Wide receivers coming into the league don't realize the running they have to do in the NFL. Sometimes guys get a little bigger, thinking that's an important thing to be. My experience is most of the wide receivers who play great are as lean as they can be and hopefully naturally strong to handle the physical nature of the position. But you have to be able to run and run all day long over and over."
Later this month when training camp begins, Harris will get his chance to run all day long into what he hopes is the No. 3 receiver spot.