Exploring Every Avenue For The Cowboys To Upgrade At Wide Receiver

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noah brown

Wide receiver is arguably the Dallas Cowboys‘ most critical position to address this offseason. Thanks to some expiring contracts, Dallas needs to put in some work just to maintain the level of play from last year. But if they have the goal of improving the position from 2022, which they absolutely should, then the Cowboys will need to consider some significant investments to boost the talent level.

Before we dig into the problems, let’s be clear that CeeDee Lamb is not one of them. His second trip to the Pro Bowl was earned with career highs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He was among the top-10 receivers in all three categories last season and accomplished this despite missing QB Dak Prescott for five games. Lamb finally put any doubts about his status as a true number one, and his place in the #88 Club, to bed.

No, Dallas’ WR issues start at the second spot on the depth chart. Michael Gallup simply wasn’t the same guy after his 2021 ACL injury. While he did many to play in 14 games, Gallup’s effectiveness on the field was severely lessened. Physicality has been Gallup’s advantage through the years and he just didn’t seem ready to bully opposing defenders as he’s done during his first four seasons.

The Gallup file

With Gallup still in his physical prime, turning just 27 years old this March, there’s good reason to hope that he’ll be back to normal in 2023. But the Cowboys got burned for assuming Gallup would bounce back last season/ Will they be so trusting again?

Not only is Dallas unsure of its other starting WR but the next two are about to become free agents. Longtime backup Noah Brown and veteran T.Y. Hilton, added in December for some late-season and playoff help, both have expiring deals. While they were able to contribute at times, with Brown especially stepping up during Cooper Rush’s run as the starting QB, neither can be reasonably expected to rise to WR2 if Gallup keeps struggling.

If we’re being honest, Brown and Hilton even being WR3 in 2023 isn’t a recipe for success. While we’re a little spoiled from the days of having Amari Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup all together, at this point I just want another Cole Beasley or Randall Cobb in that third spot. Between Brown’s lack of consistency and Hilton turning 34 in November, planning for either of them to fill out your top three just isn’t prudent.

Sadly, recent draft picks Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko also haven’t proven that they’re up to the task. Despite lots of hype from the summer camps, Tolbert was only active in eight games and had three passes thrown his way. Hopefully, the former 3rd-rounder is ready to do more in his second season. Otherwise, that was a pretty poor use of a Day 2 draft pick. Fehoko will face similar scrutiny, entering his third season after being a 4th-round pick in 2021.

For whatever reason, KaVontae Turpin was barely seen on offense last year. Considering his obvious athleticism there must have been some issues with his schematic knowledge, ball skills, or something else that kept him relegated to special teams. He is an x-factor going forward, especially if Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer find better ways to integrate him offensively than Kellen Moore did.

The rest of your current options are all undrafted and/or unpredictable prospects. The team was reportedly high on rookie Dennis Houston last summer but he got squeezed off the depth chart. Brandon Smith has flashed some potential over the last two preseasons. But again, counting on anything from this group of players is hardly the right approach for a team hoping to advance further in the playoffs.

So now that we’ve set the table, what’s next for the Cowboys in terms of replenishing and improving the wide receiver position this offseason?

Free Agency

Dallas can’t waltz into 2023 with its currently-signed receivers and expect to have an offense. With Hilton and Brown’s contracts expiring that would leave a projected top six of Lamb, Gallup, Tolbert, Fehoko, Turpin, and Houston. We don’t even know if we can count on Gallup next year, let alone any of the other guys. You might as well fire McCarthy now if this is all you’re going to give him to work.

Thankfully, there’s no reason to think that the Cowboys will be so cavalier in their offseason approach. While they won’t be flush with salary cap space in 2023, currently sitting around $7 million over the cap, several moves are likely coming soon to improve things. Between contract modifications for QB Dak Prescott and G Zack Martin plus some potential cap casualties in OT Tyron Smith, RB Ezekiel Elliott, and CB Jourdan Lewis, Dallas could be looking at anywhere from $30-$50 million in space.

With Gallup already counting $13.8 million against the 2023 cap and Lamb soon needing a new contract himself, the Cowboys aren’t in a position to spend big money at a premier WR free agent. But this is also not a WR market projected to have any elite talents available. So much like when they shrewdly added Randall Cobb in 2019 to round out the top three, Dallas will need to sign the right guy who fits their scheme and compliments Lamb and Gallup’s skill sets.

A true slot guy would make a lot of sense. However, Lamb has proven effective playing as a big slot receiver so that gives you some flexibility. That’s also a role that Turpin could potentially fill with some development. With Tolbert and Fehoko both more traditional outside receivers, the slot seems like a key role Dallas would want to target. It’s also a place where a crafty veteran can come in and quickly provide value.

OBJ possible?

This is one reason why Odell Beckham Jr. still makes sense for the Cowboys. After the two sides flirted with each other late last year, a deal wasn’t struck because Beckham apparently wasn’t physically ready to contribute. That shouldn’t be an issue for next season, though, and OBJ is still just 30 with plenty of talent. He also has the versatility to play in the slot or go outside, giving the team options on how they deploy personnel and try to confuse defenses. Beckham should be affordable as well given his age and having sat out all of last year.

If Dallas is willing to spend more at WR then they could pursue the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jakobi Meyers, and others with more youth and less baggage. But because this is a weak market overall, those players could end up getting way more in their deals than their talent truly deserves. Overpaying now for these guys can really bite you back down the road when the disparity between their impact and their cap hit can impede your offense.

We’ve mentioned Randall Cobb a couple of times already and it’s worth noting that he will also be among this year’s free agents. While he does turn 33 this August, Cobb’s had two solid years in Green Bay since reuniting with Aaron Rodgers. Given his history with McCarthy and a very good year working with Prescott in 2019, could Cobb returning to Dallas be an underrated possibility?

The Draft

Is any spot too high for the Cowboys to consider selecting a receiver in 2023? Given the situation we’ve discussed, a 1st-round talent would certainly be able to come in and find immediate targets in this offense. If you thought Dallas’ selecting Lamb in 2020 was a bit of a luxury move given Cooper and Gallup’s presences, that same scenario doesn’t really apply now.

Unfortunately, other positions on the roster also need that help and perhaps even more than at receiver. There are easy cases to be made at cornerback, linebacker, or the offensive line for the Cowboys’ top pick. The good news is that this gives Dallas plenty of room to choose “best player available” and not focus so much on position need, which is when they tend to make their worst draft mistakes.

If a guy like Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, UNC’s Josh Downs, or Boston College’s Zay Flowers is there at the 26th pick, Dallas certainly wouldn’t be faulted for taking them. They bring the slot ability that the offense needs and the potential to be high-volume targets. If you don’t love the small size of Down or Flowers, remember just how productive Cole Beasley was as one of Prescott’s favorite options.

No, it’s not ideal to spend another pick this high after taking Jalen Tolbert with a third just a year ago. But just like the team can’t keep waiting on Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright to be reliable options at cornerback, they can’t expect Tolbert to suddenly become something different than what he’s shown. The fact that he couldn’t work his way up the depth chart in 2022, given all the issues we cited above, is a major red flag.

That’s why a 1st-round pick at receiver makes sense. Even at the 26th pick, you’re not guaranteed immediate results. But you certainly improve the odds and we have several examples recently of how going into Day 2 to fill your needs comes with increased risk. Unless the new offensive brain trust is fully confident in what they can do that Kellen Moore couldn’t, or the solution doesn’t come from free agency, taking a receiver first in this draft could be key to success in 2023.

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