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Cowboys counting on WRs Crayton, Austin, Hurd
Roy Williams won't have to replace Terrell Owens' catches, yards and touchdowns all by himself. The Dallas Cowboys just have to figure out where the rest will come from.
The candidates: A guy who caught 39 passes last year and two other guys who've caught a combined 42 passes in their three-year careers.
Tony Romo insists it's not as bad as that suggests. The front office is so confident in Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Sam Hurd that the Cowboys didn't sign any free agents and spent only one draft pick on a receiver — their last one.
"We're a lot deeper than people think," Romo said Sunday. "We don't have guys who have 1,000-yard seasons all over the place, but we definitely have guys we feel very strongly about."
Crayton has the best hands of the group and Austin the most speed, but there's not much difference among the three in any category. They are versatile enough that all three can play any of the receiver slots. Those similarities have made the depth chart moot, too. While Crayton will start opposite Williams, it doesn't really matter whether Hurd or Austin is considered No. 3 or No. 4.
"There's no competition," Hurd said. "We're just having fun, teaching each other, learning from each other."
Then again, the Cowboys might be throwing to receivers a lot less than they did when T.O. was demanding the ball.
With three proven running backs, the Cowboys are talking about getting the ball to them a lot more this season. Not just more handoffs, more receptions, too, perhaps.
Then there are the tight ends, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett came into training camp planning to use them together a lot this season, but might want to do so even more based on how well Bennett is playing.
"He seems to make a spectacular play every day," coach Wade Phillips said.
So Williams and the "other" receivers won't have to be Owens-esque. They'll just have to be good enough to keep defenses honest.
"As this thing unfolds, we'll find roles for (everyone) and we'll get going," Garrett said. "But their approach is the right one and I think that gives us a chance."
Crayton, Austin and Hurd have drawn rave reviews. All three are supposedly faster than before, with Crayton again showing the reliable hands that have gotten him this far.
A quarterback at Northwestern Oklahoma State, Crayton arrived as a seventh-round draft pick in 2004 and worked his way up the depth chart. A training-camp injury to Terry Glenn turned him into a starter in '07 and he played so well (50 catches, 697 yards, seven touchdowns) that he received a $14 million, four-year extension just before the playoffs.
Crayton started again the first half of last season, then was bumped to the third option once Williams arrived. He caught only 20 passes the last 10 games, getting shut out twice. Now he's back to being No. 2 and seems intent on keeping it that way.
"He's always had great instincts and good ability to get himself open," Romo said. "But he's really pushed the envelope in some ways this year."
Williams didn't get to see Crayton at his best in their half-season together. Now that he's gotten a better look, Williams has been impressed.
"Everybody already knows that he's solid, but I didn't know he's that solid," Williams said. "He's going to help us out tremendously."
Hurd and Austin made the club as undrafted rookies in 2006. That also was the year Romo rose to prominence, so he has a pretty good feel for what they can do.
"They're much better than people realize," Romo said. "I think it will show."
Hurd is a fan favorite at the Alamodome because he's from San Antonio. But he's always been a training-camp star, even when the team worked out in California. What remains to be seen is whether he can play as well from September to December as he does in July and August.
He didn't have a catch last season, but played only three games because of an ankle problem. The year before, he caught 19 passes for 314 yards and a touchdown.
Garrett said Hurd deserves a chance because of how hard he's worked to recover from last year's injury and to prepare for this season. Receivers coach Ray Sherman said Hurd sometimes works too hard.
"You have to tell him to slow down, to rest his body," Sherman said. "If you let him, he'll train 15 hours a day."
Without Hurd around, Austin was the third option early last season, then slipped to fourth after Williams arrived. He had only 13 catches for the season, but he averaged 21.4 yards a catch. He's also been the team's main kickoff returner the last three years. It's easy to see, then, why he's gained a reputation as a big-play threat.
But Austin wants to be known as a receiver who can do anything, which is what Crayton and Hurd are hoping to prove, too.
"There are doors open for everyone," Austin said.