Way back in the summer days of training camp, our staff wrote about their most anticipated position battle leading up to the 2016 Cowboys season. The majority of us agreed that the battle with the most intrigue was at wide receiver, where the roster spots were pretty set, but playing time was to be earned.
Now, the Dallas Cowboys are going to the playoffs as the NFC's top seed, thanks in large part to WRs that have stepped up in support of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
Let's take a closer look at all of the players at this position heading into the playoffs –
There's no question that Dez Bryant is the best pass catcher on the Cowboys currently. A true star wide out, Bryant has had to go through some adjustments with Prescott at quarterback – but is heating up right at the perfect time.
In his most recent performance, Bryant caught two spectacular touchdown passes against the Lions, both times stretching the field against a defense that was expecting the run.
Bryant is the ultimate competitor, and you know he'll want to silence any critics when it comes to playing in the postseason for just the second time in his career. With the way 2014 ended, there's not a team in the league that wants to try to cover #88 right now in the playoffs.
Cowboys Nation has surmised that the only thing capable of stopping Bryant from taking over any given game is Scott Linehan's inconsistent play calling with him on the outside, but we saw firsthand on Monday night how just one or two throws to Bryant can change a game.
Much of the intrigue at WR coming into this season for the Cowboys was because of Williams – the WR2 behind Bryant since his rookie season in 2013 – facing some serious competition (so we thought) from Brice Butler.
Both Williams and Butler will be free agents after this season, but for now their collective focus has to be on making plays in the playoffs. For Terrance Williams, hopefully this will mean more than the occasional splash plays.
Yes, his two touchdowns in that 2014 playoff win against the Lions were electrifying, but he also had 12 games that season with three or less receptions. This season, Williams has eight such games, but has shown improvement on film as a more consistent route runner with better overall field awareness.
A deep playoff run for these Cowboys would mean an appearance in Super Bowl LI, and you get the feeling that they'll need Terrance Williams in a few big spots to get there.
With Seattle's secondary not at full-strength, there doesn't appear to be a truly dominant passing defense standing in the way of the Cowboys and Houston, so Williams will be expected to play his part in the postseason.
The Cowboys offense has been their best defense at times this season, capable of grinding out long touchdown drives that wear opposing teams down. A massive part of this week-to-week offensive game plan is slot-receiver Cole Beasley.
The fascinating thing about the way all of the Dallas wide receivers are utilized is how well they all fit together into super-specific roles. Beasley is the Cowboys' best example of this concept, called upon to move the chains on third down and make the occasional explosive RAC play.
Often times for Dak Prescott, throws to Beasley are just as good as hand offs to Ezekiel Elliott, as they get him outside of the pocket with Beasley running across the field.
It is easy to see why the Cowboys offense is a juggernaut, when you put yourselves in the shoes of a defensive coordinator in the NFC playoffs – charged with the tough task of slowing them down. We've already talked about the threat that Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams provide in the passing game, but Beasley is capable of breaking a game with plenty of
saucy timely snags.
The X-Factor: Brice Butler
Everything about Brice Butler's most recent touchdown against the Lions – his first since week 6 – was spectacular. The pre-snap recognition from Prescott led to him throwing an absolutely perfect ball to Butler, who snagged in the end zone for six points.
Butler was brought in last season to make plays in the absence of Dez Bryant. Now, while he hasn't cut into Williams' playing time like some expected, Butler has the chance to play with the entirety of the Cowboys pass catchers.
Since the Cowboys are so deep, with such defined roles for their starting WRs, Butler's best shot to make an impact in the playoffs will be as a home-run threat on the outside. The over the top speed of Butler combined with his length makes him the perfect target for a few deep shots a game – even if they are just thrown to change a defense's perspective prior to a run play.
Butler has also hurt his cause at times by dropping a few of these opportunities, committing penalties, and not blocking well throughout the season, making him my x-factor at this position.
The Playoff Primer series will continue breaking down the Dallas Cowboys offense and defense prior to the Divisional Round. You can share your thoughts on this Wide Receiver analysis in the comments! Feel free to also email your feedback to Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com.