If you weren't sure why the Cowboys didn't have a fifth-round pick in this year's draft, it's because they traded it to Oakland last year to acquire wide receiver Brice Butler. Now in the final year of his rookie contract, Butler could be in a position to have a significant impact on the coming season.
Butler wasn't traded for until September 15th of last year, meaning he missed all of the offseason and preseason opportunities to work with the Cowboys offense. His opportunities were limited throughout the season but finally opened up in the final two weeks when Dez Bryant went out with injury.
Taking passes from Kellen Moore in Weeks 16 and 17, Butler had eight catches for 134 yards. He was the team's leading receiver in Week 16 in Buffalo and was second to Terrance Williams in the season finale against Washington.
Butler's an exceptional athlete. Despite being 6'3″ and about 215 pounds he can still run a 4.37 forty and had a 39-inch vertical at his 2013 college pro day. He is more physically gifted than Terrance Williams. However, it's important to keep in mind that they were in the same draft class. Dallas took Williams in the third round and Butler fell to Oakland in the seventh.
That said, receiver development is one of the more unpredictable career trajectories in the NFL. Some guys flash early and disappear while others take time to put it all together. Some get drafted for their physical tools but can't move up the depth chart until injuries or some other circumstance allow it.
One opportunity that Butler has never really had is to practice with Tony Romo. Based on last year, Dallas will hopefully give him more chances to work with Romo and see what kind of chemistry they can develop. With both Butler and Williams on expiring deals, it would make sense to give them equal opportunity to see which one might be worth a long-term extension.
Butler's speed and vertical threat would seem to fit well with Dallas' existing weapons. Dez Bryant will draw extra attention anywhere on the field. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley are dangerous short and mid-range weapons. Newly-added Ezekiel Elliott and Lance Dunbar are pass-catching options out of the backfield. Butler stretching the defense on deep routes only opens up more windows underneath for Romo to exploit.
We know that Tony can develop chemistry quickly with a receiver. In 2011 he and free agent Laurent Robinson had immediate mojo that helped land Robinson a big contract in Jacksonville the following offseason. Even if Butler's future isn't in Dallas, he can at least hope to get enough touches to try and get noticed for next year's free agent market.
Robinson's opportunities came thanks to injury issues to both Bryant and Miles Austin. Not that anybody wishes injury on their teammates, but Butler may have to wait for the same issues to befall the guys above him. Bryant's aggressive play makes injury a constant concern for him. Terrance Williams stays fairly healthy but has had performance issues that could open the door for Butler.
Would Dallas let Butler and Williams battle openly for the number-two receiver job? Has Williams really done enough to be entitled to it? There are varying opinions on this.
Personally, I think Butler presents a lot of upside and I don't think they owe Williams anything. Terrance has made some great plays but he's also blown just as many, dropping far too many easy passes and several of them on third-down plays.
Football players and coaches always talk a good game about a constant state of competition on the roster, but we know that's not entirely true. Veterans do get deference and incumbent starters often have a leg up on the guys below them on the depth chart. The number of open competitions for roster spots and roles aren't aren't as many as get presented to the media.
In this case, I think a competition is more the justified. Last year Butler showed me that he could step up and make plays despite suspect quarterback play. I'm intrigued to see what he can do with Romo back under center.
I'm sure he feels the same way.