Replacing Dez, Witten on Cowboys among key training camp battles

Eric Karabell

The leading receiver for last season'sDallas Cowboys is currently looking for work, and the No. 2 option is technically my colleague, as he joins the ESPN Monday Night Football crew as an analyst. Yep, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are no longer Cowboys after combining for 23 seasons and 1,683 receptions for the franchise. The Cowboys were not exactly a prolific passing offense last season, but someone is going to have to catch the passes Dak Prescott throws, and there should be ample competition in training camp as veterans and unproven options fight for supremacy.

That seems like a good place to start as I focus on summer battles that should matter for fantasy football, because the talented Prescott has thrown for nearly 7,000 passing yards in his first two seasons, with 45 passing touchdowns -- and just because his favorite targets have moved on, it hardly means the quarterback will struggle. No, I do not necessarily recommend Prescott as a fantasy starter, but I also do not think his statistics will plummet just because a few older players moved on.

After all, the dramatic Bryant certainly had not been playing like the star he was in his early years, failing to finish as a top-20 fantasy wide receiver in PPR scoring each of the past three seasons, as the metrics highlighted his steep decline. Bryant attracted extra defensive attention but did not play as if he warranted it. Witten was only a borderline top-10 fantasy tight end each of the past four seasons, somewhat making up for low totals in receiving yards and touchdowns by reeling in receptions.

Their production is replaceable, but the question is by whom?

Start with former Jacksonville Jaguars touchdown-maker Allen Hurns, as he should be mighty motivated after a pair of sub-par, injury-plagued seasons. Hurns will likely line up on the outside, opposite veteran Terrance Williams, while underrated (and I would argue underutilized) Cole Beasley will man the slot. To some, that might not seem so interesting, so let us throw in rookie Michael Gallup, a third-round pick who produced big numbers at Colorado State, and former Rams speedster Tavon Austin, acquired in a trade. There will be options.

I posted a Twitter poll simply to invite reaction, and several thousand votes and comments later, I found a few things interesting. First, here is the poll.

OK, fantasy footballers. Who do you think will lead the Dallas Cowboys in receptions this year?
- Eric Karabell (@karabelleric) July 24, 2018

Through 2,605 votes, Hurns was the leader at 45 percent, followed by Beasley at 39 percent, Gallup at 9 percent and Williams trailing at 7 percent. If the criteria is simply catches, my vote goes to Beasley. He caught 75 passes in 2016, and while he did not pile on the yards and scored only five times, that was good enough for occasional starting duty in PPR formats. He finished up at No. 40. That is not awful.

I do not see Hurns catching 70 passes. His career mark is 64. He is the deep threat and, if he is healthy, could flirt with double-digit touchdowns. Beasley, however, is a safer bet for catches than Hurns is for scores. I think Beasley will be the highest-scoring Dallas receiver in PPR.

As for the other options, only the Cowboys know how they intend to use the rookie Gallup, and things could change in August. Williams had offseason foot surgery and might not be ready for camp. Well-traveled Deonte Thompson, 29, is in camp and so is the diminutive Austin, often used as a hybrid for the Rams but likely behind Beasley for slot duties here.

As for running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has 58 receptions through two seasons, I suppose he figures to be a bit more active as a receiver, but I would not count on it. Rod Smith and Austin could handle third-down duties too.

The Twitter reaction was ample:

"Does it matter?" Yes, I believe it does. Every team matters and Prescott is good enough to throw downfield effectively and avoid rampant checkdowns.

"Why not Elliott?" Elliott is capable of 60 catches, in theory, but I could see Austin handling a Tarik Cohen-type role.

"What about Austin?" Yeah, if only I could add more poll options! Still, can he catch 50 and get into the end zone?

"Julio Jones? Not one of the options, but his situation in Atlanta could get uncomfortable soon, and Jerry Jones could absolutely pounce.

"Dez Bryant! That ship has proverbially sailed.

"No tight ends? I have seen random support for Rico Gathers, a sixth-round pick in 2016 and former college basketball player with intriguing tools. The next Antonio Gates? Perhaps there will not be another. It looks like Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin lead the tight-end depth chart, and competition is rampant for this position, but fantasy managers can avoid it for now.

Other WR battles to watch

-- The Jaguars are an extreme running team, but again, their quarterback has been a top-10 fantasy option in the past. (No, really, Blake Bortles achieved this distinction twice. Watch newcomer Donte Moncrief battle Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. One of them should be a top-40 fantasy receiver. I bet it is Lee.

-- Mike Williams begins Year 2 for the Los Angeles Chargers, and I know I have not forgotten how prolific he was at Clemson. I think he should pass Tyrell Williams on the depth chart -- perhaps soon.

-- Tom Brady always has options in New England, but there is intrigue this summer with Julian Edelman suspended the first four games. Jordan Matthews, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson and Malcolm Mitchell are among those vying for attention beside Chris Hogan.

-- I want to be optimistic about Josh Gordon having a big season, as his physical talent is immense, but I just do not know if I could actually rely on him as a No. 2 receiver for one of my teams that matters. Jarvis Landry will be terrific. Corey Coleman might be, depending on what Gordon does. Rookie Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins lurk too.

Running back battles to watch

-- Duke Johnson Jr. is going to get his catches in Cleveland, but early-down work is a toss-up between rookie Nick Chubb and veteran Carlos Hyde. It will matter.

-- I really like Denver Broncos rookie Royce Freeman, but Devontae Booker and De'Angelo Henderson remain from last season. Freeman will vault up rankings when he wins this starting job.

-- Does Detroit really matter? I realize I said Dallas receivers matter, but the Lions annually disappoint when it comes to running backs. Perhaps it is simply LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick sharing their obvious skill-set duties, but rookie Kerryon Johnson can do everything.

-- Green Bay's Aaron Jones will a serve suspension during the first two games, opening the door for Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery. I just have had a tough time viewing Montgomery as the team's starting running back.

-- If only D'Onta Foreman was not on the mend from a torn Achilles', perhaps he would make us ignore Lamar Miller. Wouldn't that be nice?

-- I have a hard time seeing Marlon Mack keep the starting role in Indianapolis with rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines looking like a perfect tandem.

-- Eagles brass claims Jay Ajayi will be the undisputed guy. I blogged about my skepticism on this one earlier this month.

-- With so many rookie running backs chosen in the NFL draft, we could focus on each of them in addition to the Broncos and Colts, but watch the Patriots, Buccaneers, Redskins and Seahawks as well.