DENVER — If you were waiting for the preseason opener to ease your concerns about the Cowboys’ receiving corps, you didn’t get it.
What you got was a lackluster performance, one that should force Jerry Jones to revisit his statement that he has “no sense of urgency” when it comes to addressing the position.
The first half of Saturday night’s 17-7 loss to Denver, when key reserves and at least a smattering of starters were on the field for both teams, is the most telling assessment of where this group stands.
First impression: They’re not ready.
And that’s being gracious.
CeeDee Lamb didn’t play. Neither did Noah Brown, who has had the best camp of his career and got his work in Thursday’s scrimmage against Denver.
That meant no receiver who took the field for the Cowboys on Saturday night has caught a regular-season pass in the NFL.
Jalen Tolbert was the receiver the Cowboys wanted to establish. Coming into this game, coach Mike McCarthy said the third-round pick was “having an excellent camp for a young guy. The way he’s absorbed the scheme has been very impressive."
His debut wasn’t impressive. Quarterback Cooper Rush threw in Tolbert’s direction six times in the first half, resulting in two receptions for 10 yards.
Tolbert did draw a pass interference penalty. But he also dropped a ball on fourth down and was called for a false start penalty on another drive.
Simi Fehoko, a fifth-round pick in last year’s draft who made no contribution as a rookie, has come on strong in camp in recent days. He caught a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter from Ben DiNucci.
Rookie free agent Dennis Houston had an 18-yard reception on a crossing route into traffic to convert a third down to illustrate why the Cowboys coaches and players have been so impressed with him.
That was it. That was the highlight for this unexperienced receiving corp in the first half.
No wonder former Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown looked into the TMZ cameras a few days ago and told Jerry Jones “to give [him] a call."
Signing Brown and the emotional baggage that comes with him isn’t the answer. But you have to wonder what this current group can offer while it waits for Michael Gallup to return to the field early in the season.
“We talk about growth," McCarthy said early in camp after veteran James Washington’s injury exacerbated the situation. “We talk about draft and develop.
“Here it is. This is what it is all about."
There’s never an upside to losing a veteran acquisition the way the Cowboys did Washington. But since he went down in the first padded practice, it bought the coaching staff a little additional time to distribute those snaps among the younger players to see if any are ready to rise to the occasion.
Tolbert and Houston have looked good all camp. Fehoko has been making a late push.
“He’s playing with speed, very physical," McCarthy said before the team scrimmaged against the Broncos earlier in the week. “He’s done a really nice job time and time again in the contested catch areas, so I would say Simi’s in the process of making that second-year jump."
And Houston? Rush calls him a detailed route runner who makes tough, contested catches over the middle.
“He’s got a lot of potential," Rush said before the game. “He works his butt off. We really like him in the quarterback room, just his work ethic, his mind-set.
“For a rookie, he knows pretty much everything. He’s pretty much got it down. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
All three young players have taken advantage of their opportunities in practice. But that’s just the first part. There are receivers that catch the attention of coaches in training camps all across the league who can’t carry that performance into games.
Tolbert, Houston and Fehoko must start to make plays in these preseason games. If not, the front office will go out and find a receiver who will.
For now, all they can count on is Lamb and — let this sink in — Brown, who has 39 receptions for 425 yards in his first five seasons with the Cowboys.
“Noah is a guy, if you give him an opportunity, and he’s what, done it for going on six years now, you give the opportunity he’s going to take advantage of it,” quarterback Dak Prescott said after featuring Brown in Thursday’s scrimmage.
“He’s had a great camp. He’s been showing up, playing every position we need, then gets in there with us with that first group and does exactly what he’s been doing. Just consistent.
“He’s been great for the young receivers to follow, to learn and see how to practice. That’s what he means to this team.
“He’s continuing to showcase."
Someone else on this roster needs to join him.