Sports Outside the Beltway

Cowboys Use Injuries to Evaluate Young WRs

The Dallas Cowboys are making lemonade out of their lemons, using the injuries to geriatric wide receivers Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn to see how ready their young backups are for prime time. Clarence Hill:

Glenn, who will be out at least two weeks, turns 33 in a couple of weeks and Owens will be 34 in December.

Owner Jerry Jones acknowledges the Cowboys need to get younger at the position. But he said he didn’t force the issue on draft day because Owens and Glenn remain one of the league’s top receiver duos and he likes the team’s chances of mining for gold from within.

Patrick Crayton Training Camp Photo Patrick Crayton hopes to catch more of a role with increased playing time this season. In third receiver Patrick Crayton and second-year players Sam Hurd and Miles Austin, Jones said the Cowboys already have players who could potentially develop into highly productive receivers. “I feel real good about what we’ve got coming at the young receivers,” Jones said. “So good that I didn’t feel compelled at all to take a receiver early in this past draft. And it was because of feeling good about these young guys, and I’d like to see them develop and see what we’ve got.”

So rather than be concerned about Glenn’s and Owens’ absences, the Cowboys choose to look at the situation as an opportunity to see what they have in Crayton, Hurd and Austin. “That’s the only way to look at it,” receivers coach Ray Sherman said. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get a lot work. It’s a big plus for the young guys.”

Crayton will start alongside Owens until Glenn returns. It’s unknown if Glenn will play at all in the preseason, but coach Wade Phillips expects him to be ready for the opener.

“Patrick Crayton has gone in and done the things we thought he would do,” Phillips said. “He’s consistent in what he does. He’s athletic and he certainly has great hands. I’m pleased with Patrick Crayton.” Crayton has improved his numbers every year since being taken in the seventh round out of Northwestern Oklahoma State in 2004. He has been the team’s third receiver the past two years, catching 36 passes for 516 yards and four touchdowns last season. Most impressive about Crayton is his sure hands, which former coach Bill Parcells compared to meat hooks. While Owens made headlines last year for 17 dropped passes, Crayton made the most of his chances. He caught 97 percent of the passes thrown to him the past two years, the highest percentage in the NFL.

What’s important to Crayton is taking the step from reliable third receiver to full-time starter. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. So he’s looking forward to having a big year to secure his future with the Cowboys as a possible replacement for Owens or Glenn, or look somewhere else. “Nobody wants to be a career No. 3 guy,” Crayton said. “Right now that is what I am asked to do. This is a good opportunity to show the coaches what I can do. But no question this is a big year for me. I want to make the most of it. I want to stay here, but if it happens to be somewhere else, that’s fine, too. But my focus is working hard to help the Cowboys in 2007.”

Hurd and Austin made the Cowboys’ roster last season after coming to training camp as long shots. Both were unknown and undrafted out of college, Northern Illinois and Monmouth, respectively. Hurd, used mainly on special teams, caught five passes for 75 yards as a rookie.

With training camp being held in his hometown, Hurd has been a celebrity of sorts the past couple of weeks. Only Owens receives more cheers from the Alamodome crowd when he catches a pass. Rather than putting pressure on himself, he said he uses the attention as motivation. He said his focus is to continue to work to prove that he not only can make the team again but solidify himself as a Cowboys player for years to come.

“He comes out and likes to practice,” said Owens, who serves as Hurd’s mentor. “He’s hungry. He wants to get better. He’s always asking me questions. It just shows the maturity he has from last year to now that he has to get better.”

Austin needed the most development because of limited exposure to big-time competition in college, and spent much of the season on the practice squad. But he eventually emerged as a standout special teams player, returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the playoff loss to Seattle.

Can Austin and Hurd prove to be options for the future departure of Owens and Glenn?

“Miles and Sam are practicing well,” Sherman said. “They are coming on strongly. I am high on them. But time will tell if they can be starters in the league. This is a great opportunity for them to get a lot of work.”

Let’s hope they make it. TO and Glenn are still studs despite their age but that can’t last forever.

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