The surprising story of Cole Beasley

One month ago, you could have given me an infinite number of guesses about what would be my top reason for getting mail this preseason and I never would have guessed it would be an undrafted candidate to be one of the smallest men in the NFL, Cole Beasley.

Beasley has generated headlines in June, July, and now August.  In June, news from Organized Team Activities was this tiny slot receiver was having his way against the Cowboys defenders.  In present times, the media is stationed nearby and must report on every detail – even in June – and often time they would get the fans worked into a frenzy about someone who has very little chance to make the team or play professionally.  But, what else would you discuss at OTA’s?

Then, in July, there was talk about his spot on the roster and in the plans.  Given his SMU ties, he was interviewed about other smallish WRs that have flourished in the NFL.  Wes Welker has a very similar body, but when asked about him, along came more headlines: “I get tired of it a little bit because I feel like I have a little bit more speed than Wes Welker does,” Beasley told KRLD-FM. “He’s got a little bigger frame than me, but I feel like I’ve got a little more versatility to my game than he does.”

But, August has been his finest work.  On August 3rd, at the end of the first week of training camp in Oxnard, Beasley left the team for personal reasons. Jason Garrett explained the situation by relaying a conversation where Cole indicated his heart was just not in it anymore.  He wasn’t sure he had any desire to play football.  The team gave him some space and a short amount of time to clear his head and change his mind.  They thought he would be right in the mix for a job until the end, but they are also not unfamiliar with the grind of training camp messing with the mind of a rookie.  Does he really want to be here?  Does he care to take the beating of football any longer?

That, of course, is a very big concern for someone this size.  The Cowboys have him listed at 5’8, 177, and that makes him the lightest player on the training camp roster.  In fact, Chris Jones, the punter, is 6’0, 208 and will likely go several weeks between personal contact.  Dan Bailey, the kicker, is 6’0, 189.  When the punter and kicker have more size and mass than you, and you are expected, if you are lucky enough to get a job, to cruise through the secondary and receive a hard hit every time then you can understand the concern.  The desire to take a beating is both necessary and enough to have some people wonder if you need a mental evaluation for being insane enough to sign up for that.

There are certainly players that are about his height.  And, there are players who are about his weight.  But, the combination is what frightens you about his ability to take the beating on an NFL Field.  Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson may be the prototypes, but that should not mean that other 5’10, 180 humans have what it takes to play in the NFL because we have found very few cases of it.  They are surely a very rare outlier, and the odds of finding the next from that collection are extremely long.

But, beyond the questions of whether he is mentally up for the punishment he is signing up for, and physically able to survive the beating that the position requires, we obviously have far more complicated matters if we look at this from the Dallas Cowboys point of view.

Can he be that slot receiver that you desperately need?  Can he replace Laurent Robinson and his 11 touchdowns or be some version of Wes Welker – a guy who has caught over 110 passes in a season 4 different times?  Of course not.  Don’t be silly.

But, can he stake his claim as one of the 5 best wideouts the Cowboys have in camp?  That is far more reasonable.  In 2007, the Cowboys kept 6 receivers for Week 1, but as a general rule, 5 is the number.  With Dez Bryant and Miles Austin already givens, that leaves 3 spots available to all of the candidates.  And of the group of Andre Holmes, Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Danny Coale, and Cole Beasley, it seemed he started camp in 5th place where only the top 3 get jobs.  But, now?  It is admittedly too close to call. 

Holmes helped himself in Oakland, but has had very uneven moments at camp to say the least.  However, he is always going to be 6’5 in this conversation.  Ogletree is the least exciting to fans, since they have heard his name since 2009, but there are reasons to believe his game is coming together as a slot guy.  But, he has no special teams skills.  Harris is another player that brings plenty of intrigue, versatility and a college resume that jumps off the page.  Beasley wows you with 255 college catches for 2,959 yards and 14 Touchdowns at SMU.  Harris counters with 268 catches and 3,001 yards and 20 TDs at East Carolina.  But, while Beasley returned 5 kicks and punts at SMU, Harris has a return man resume of over 100 kicks and 50 punts in college.  And then, Danny Coale, the highest pick of them all, has hardly made any impressions during 3 weeks of training camp because of injury, but when you are selecting who to keep, you are not being wise to make a 5 year decision based on 3 weeks. 

As a receiver, you only have to watch the 4th Quarter in San Diego to see what Cole Beasley is capable of.  He caught a pass from Tony Romo in the 1st Quarter for 14 yards, but other than that, all of his statistics were from the final 15 minutes of the game.  In fact, with 57 minutes played on Saturday night, Beasley had 3 catches for 47 yards.  But, in the final 3 minutes with Rudy Carpenter, Beasley was the intended receiver on 5 straight plays.  4 were catches for 57 yards before he fell on the ball and left the field for his now-famous vomiting episode.  Otherwise, you certainly cannot count out the possibility of Carpenter to Beasley ending up in the end zone in the final moments.

He clearly has a wiggle about him.  He runs tight routes and has sure hands.  He then seems to have that trait to stay out of harms way with quickness and a smaller frame working for him as he weaves around much bigger players.  He might be the mulligan they always wanted since seeing Danny Amendola turn into the player that they thought he could be when he spent the 2008 season in Dallas on the camp roster and then the practice squad.  Amendola was another version of “the next Wes Welker” after his great success at Welker’s school, Texas Tech.  He has since gone on to be a very nice find in St Louis.

But, Amendola, Welker, Jackson, and even Harris have one thing going for them that Beasley does not.  They were and are all special teams weapons.  Everyone in that group was the regular returner on punts, kicks, or both in both college, the pros, or both. But, at SMU, Beasley returned 4 punts and 1 kick in 4 years.  He is just learning the complicated craft right now. 

They are not in the business (most of the time) of finding good stories of human interest and local significance.  They are trying to find the 53 most useful players that are at their disposal.  Each roster has 53, but can then bring 46 to game day.  This carries very little interest to the average fan, but for coaches, making sure you have the proper 46 dressed is vital.  Generally (and I plan on covering this concept in depth later in the week), teams will not ask starters to play special teams.  There are few exceptions, but that is the general rule.  So, 22 players are off the list.  Then, backup QBs, OL, and DL seldom play special teams, either.  So, subtract another nearly 10 players.  Then, you can only use your punter, kicker, and long snapper for those specific roles, so on things like punt return and kick return, they are not candidates.  And that might bring your number all the way up to 35 players are earmarked as being non-candidates when Joe DeCamillis is finding what 11 are going on the field to return this punt.  So, 46 players minus the 35 who are not options leaves DeCamillis no choices.  The 11 guys left are going to be what he has to work with.
And making sure no catastrophes occur can often separate winning from losing and playoffs from not.

Can he cover kicks?  No.  Can he cover punts?  No.  Can he block for another returner?  No.  So, if Dez Bryant is really your punt returner – as Jerry Jones indicated a few weeks back, and Felix Jones is going back to kick returns, then the Cowboys don’t have a vacancy at returns.  And if they did, Harris would be the obvious choice.

Wes Welker returned 104 kicks and punts in 2004, 104 more in 2005, and another 89 in 2006.  Without 300 returns, Wes Welker is likely never afforded the chance to become Wes Welker in 2007 when he got to New England.

There are plenty of things working against Cole Beasley.  One thing NOT working against him is fan support.  No undrafted camp body has had this much support from the fan base in years.  And his performance on Saturday surely turned some heads.  It was a huge game – in fact, the biggest since…. Dwayne Harris last August!  Harris caught 5 passes for 127 yards and 2 TDs on August 11th of last preseason.  And then he barely made the roster out of camp as a 6th round pick largely because he could play special teams.

I think this is a very interesting decision that will come down to the final hours of camp.  Can the Cowboys figure out a way to keep Beasley, strictly as a wide receiver?  Or, can they put the huge responsibility of returns in his hands despite the fact that he might be doing it for roughly the first time in his career at Giants Stadium in 2 weeks time?

I believe it comes down to Dwayne Harris versus Cole Beasley.  If so, I still expect Harris’ versatility will get that spot.  But, I am happy to admit that it is much closer than I anticipated 2 weeks ago.  And the plot thickens the closer we get to the finish line.