Dallas Cowboys

Message received: Put separation on tape and your big plays will come

Cowboys wide receivers Cole Beasley, left, Tavon Austin and Lance Lenoir, right, running sprints after training camp practice in Oxnard, Calif., on Saturday.
Cowboys wide receivers Cole Beasley, left, Tavon Austin and Lance Lenoir, right, running sprints after training camp practice in Oxnard, Calif., on Saturday. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

The Dallas Cowboys are likely to go into their first preseason game Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers with 13 wide receivers. By the time they whittle their roster down to 53 players on Sept. 1, that number of receivers will shrink to six, perhaps seven.

It will be among the team’s most intense position battles this training camp.

Here’s what you can count on, barring any training camp injuries: Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin and third-round pick Michael Gallup. The last two spots (or one) will be a battle among Deonte Thompson, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir and a slew of rookies.

“I’ve been in a lot of receiver competitions. It’s going to be a great battle,” said Thompson, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Cowboys in March. “Competition brings the best out of you. This is the game we play, you compete every down, every play.”

Thompson would seem to be a lock. At 29, he has caught 77 passes for 1,032 yards and four touchdowns for five different teams, including the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills in 2017 where he combined for 555 yards on 38 receptions.

The competition will only intensify for the rookies on Thursday night.

“I’m going out there to ball and have fun,” said Lenoir, who spent last year on the Cowboys’ practice squad. “Practice is where you study the little things. The game is where you let go and do what you do. Everything returns to muscle memory. I had a year under my belt to learn the system, learn the plays and catch up.”

Lenoir has made the most of last year’s experience and has turned some heads early in training camp.

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“He can play every position. And he’s making plays. More and more the trust is building in him,” first-year receivers coach Sanjay Lal said. “Obviously, when you’re trying to compete you want to see some plays in 50-50 situations and there’s a lot of road to go but he’s definitely on the right track.”

The veteran Hurns, who signed a two-year, $12 million deal in March, said the urge to try to do too much as a rookie in a preseason game is hard to resist.

“I tell them just try to slow it down mentally in their heads. Just treat it like a practice and things will go fine, said Hurns, who spent the past four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He combined for 74 catches for 961 yards and five touchdowns in 21 games the previous two seasons. “If you’re over-thinking a lot of things in your head you’ll be playing slow. I tell those guys to just control what you can.”

Plus, Hurns said, the game film tells the real story. A receiver can impress without making a huge play. “The No. 1 thing we take pride in is getting open and coaches see that on film,” he said. “As long as you’re showing on film that you’re creating separation, they’re going to put you in more opportunities to catch the ball.”

Lal reminds the group of that, too.

“I told them this in the meeting, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re thrown to or targeted in practice, we look at every route,’” Lal said. “Did he win the route? Did he win release? We have it on film and we quantify every single thing. So just because you didn’t get thrown to, if you won the route, we’re making note of that. You don’t have to make a big play, you have to get open and put that on tape.”

Does the competition cause any friction during camp?

“At the end of the day, we know we’re all competing for these six slots but we’re around each other every day. So I don’t want to see any of those guys do bad. They’re helping me, I’m helping them,” Thompson said. “It’s the game we play. That’s the business.”

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