As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he's looking at three players poised to take a leap in 2013.
The Dallas Cowboys have had the good fortune of a Miles Austin-Dez Bryant pairing at wide receiver ever since drafting Bryant in 2010. But they've had a lot less luck keeping a viable third WR option around to partner with Austin and Bryant.
Roy Williams fizzled out in Bryant's rookie season, then Laurent Robinson (54 catches in '11) and Kevin Ogletree (32 catches in '12) both skipped town as free agents. Dallas' frustration in all instances was minimized by the presences of ever-reliable tight end Jason Witten (110 grabs last season) and versatile RB DeMarco Murray (61 receptions over the past two seasons).
The search for a No. 3 receiver, though, began anew as soon as Ogletree signed with Tampa Bay, with Dallas then using a third-round draft pick on Terrance Williams. While the Cowboys hope he eventually can become something special, Williams first has to fend off another competitor for playing time in 2013: Dwayne Harris.
A sixth-round draft selection in 2011, Harris took over last year as the Cowboys' primary punt returner and has seen work as a kickoff return man, too. He may be ready for a bigger role, if his close to the 2012 campaign is any indication.
And Harris is the first player in the spotlight as Audibles takes a look at this coming season's breakout candidates. He's there for a number of reasons:
1. Opportunity: Ogletree's departure left the door open on that No. 3 job, and Williams reportedly has looked unpolished and inconsistent thus far.
The other contenders for that spot form an unproven lot. There's Cole Beasley, who had 15 catches (two fewer than Harris) last season; Danny Coale, who tore his ACL in November as a member of the Cowboys' practice squad; and Anthony Armstrong, who posted 44 catches for the Redskins in 2010 but had just 10 grabs combined in the two subsequent seasons.
Harris certainly has a leg up on all of those guys right now -- Bryan Broaddus of the Cowboys' official website even wrote that "Harris along with Bryant has made the biggest jump as a receiver in the terms of route running and catching the ball."
2. Production late in 2012: It took Harris until late last season to crack the rotation at wide receiver. Once there, he gave the Cowboys reason to be excited. His 17 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown all came over Dallas' final seven games.
That chance was on the table, in part, because of ...
3. Miles Austin's injury woes: Austin played in all 16 games for the Cowboys in 2012, but he was severely limited by various ailments; he left both losses to the Redskins early, once because of a hip injury and once due to a high-ankle sprain.
That's two straight seasons now that Austin has often been at less than 100 percent -- he had a nagging hamstring issue throughout 2011 and sat out six games. Bryant and Witten remain Tony Romo's top two targets, even when Austin's at full health, but the Cowboys' offense is far more dangerous when Austin is on the field.
His inability to stay there recently simply ratchets up the Cowboys' need to find a reliable target out wide.
4. Terrance Williams' shortcomings: Williams delivered a sensational 97-catch, 1,800-yard season in Baylor's wide-open attack last year, and he's a serious threat all over the field at 6-foot-2 with terrific athleticism.
Yet, Baylor's playbook did not ask much of Williams as a route-runner and he entered the draft with questions about his hands -- that second drawback emphasized during a shaky Senior Bowl week. There are very few scouts who would question Williams' potential, but he still slipped into Round 3 because of those concerns.
Are they fixable? Yes. How quickly Williams' problems can be solved is the question. Harris, as pointed out in that blurb from DallasCowboys.com above, has developed well as a route-runner and he entered the league more polished in that area than Williams.
The 2011 draft has proven to be a major help for the Cowboys. They landed current starting left tackle Tyron Smith in Round 1, then plucked LB Bruce Carter and RB DeMarco Murray off the board in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively.
Harris certainly has a chance to join the mix now as an impact player in his third season. Dallas' talent on offense -- Murray, Bryant, Austin and Witten -- means that the No. 3 receiver, when the Cowboys' offensive sets call for one, receives favorable coverage looks and has open space with which to work.
Should Harris build off his strong close to 2012 and hold off Williams for the job, he could have a chance to develop into a dangerous playmaker.