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Miles Austin May Make Or Break The Cowboys Offense

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The stock of Cowboys' WR Miles Austin has fallen in fantasy drafts and pundit opinions over the last couple seasons, but if he stays healthy, there's no reason that shouldn't change this year. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
The stock of Cowboys' WR Miles Austin has fallen in fantasy drafts and pundit opinions over the last couple seasons, but if he stays healthy, there's no reason that shouldn't change this year. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

If there’s anyone else feeling the pressure stemming from the mad scramble to anoint Dez Bryant a premiere receiver, it has to be Miles Austin. Since exploding for 150 receptions and 2,341 yards over the course of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the slot receiver’s game has been hindered by injuries and subjected to doubts about the inflated value of his $54 million contract.

Bryant emerged as the No. 1 target among wide receivers, as well as the primary deep threat — superlatives previously held by Austin. Without question, Bryant’s development has paid huge dividends for the team. But it’s also reinforced the perception of Austin as an overpaid, under-producing player who peaked too early — the Alvin Harper to the original No. 88, Michael Irvin.

Austin should get his chance to disprove critics in 2013. While the decision to hand Bill Callahan the play-calling chores has been interpreted by some as a sign of offensive balance forthcoming, the Cowboys still lack the personnel to deviate from the pass-heavy identity established in 2012. There’s no proven running back on the roster beyond the oft-injured DeMarco Murray, and the offseason investments in Tony Romo’s contract, offensive line and receiving help are too big to justify taking the ball out of his hands.

Balance remains important in the quest for a postseason run in Dallas, but it won’t manifest itself in the first few weeks — the younger running backs need to log some legitimate carries and reps at the NFL level.

So with the penchant for the pass intact and the hailing of Bryant as an elite talent unanimous, it’s logical to think the expectations behind Austin’s role have increased. He’s healthy and in the prime years of his career. He knows the playbook staples and tendencies of his quarterback inside and out. He has an experienced receiver’s knowledge of everything from quickly processing cover formations to reading the ball’s airborne trajectory to selling pass interference calls. In almost every way that matters, Austin represents a central, proven piece in a puzzle that is quickly taking shape.

At 6-2 with good speed, Austin has the frame and ups to haul in tougher sideline passes, as well as the first-step quickness to contribute between the hash marks. Yes, a higher number of drops — nine in his last 26 games — has been part of his recent slump. But if you think attributing him great hands is out of line, you obviously didn’t see him play in 2009.

In 2012, teams knew Bryant was good, but not scary-good (that perception is gone). The safety help coming over the top that he now commands should create one-on-one matchups for Austin, where his size becomes a bigger advantage — particularly on sideline routes, because Jason Witten is still the primary target when the play calls for a pass over the middle.

But whether he’s lined up on the flank, manning the slot or motioning out of the backfield, Austin needs to be a big part of stretching the defense and opening up whatever rushing attack the Cowboys have. He needs to be exceptionally precise with the execution of his shorter routes, because every defense Dallas faces is going to be dialing up the heat on Romo. Mistimed routes are going to breed sacks, plain and simple.

If he stays healthy and gets utilized correctly, Austin could easily regain the respect and statistical success he had two years ago. And given how the offense’s identity and personnel are shaping up, Austin’s production will be a big indicator of how efficiently the unit is operating.