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With Dak Prescott back, this Cowboys wide receiver could be left out in the cold

Does last year’s time with Dak Prescott give us clues about what the future holds?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The excitement of knowing Dak Prescott is going to be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys for the next several years is elevated even more when you look at all the weapons he has at his disposal. A healthier offensive line, one of the game’s top running backs, and a trio of talented wide receivers are all reasons to believe this offense is going to a force this year.

Even with a banged up offensive line, we got a taste of the offense’s potency with Prescott under center and the difference was quite significant.

Dak’s injury left us wondering just how good the offense could be. And even the time he was on the field doesn’t give us a great indicator of what the future holds as the circumstance aren’t likely to be the same this year.

For example, the defense struggled mightily in the early parts of the season giving up 34+ points in five straight games from Week 2 to Week 6. The group got better as the season progressed, only allowing opposing offenses to hit that mark twice over their remaining 10 games.

This put the Cowboys offense in many shootout game scripts, resulting in players trying to do too much. The offense was giving the ball away left and right as they averaged three turnovers a game during that five game span early on, and like the defense, that area also improved as they only turned the ball over 11 times over their final 10 games.

These are things we expect to get better for this Cowboys team going forward, but it’s still nice to know that this offense is capable of putting it into overdrive when needed. Having a receiving corps that features Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and last year’s first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb provided Prescott with a wealth of weapons.

This trinity of pass catchers is one of the most talented wide receiver groups in the league. With so much talent at the position, one couldn’t help wonder how the distribution of targets would be divvied out. Let’s break down the targets week-by-week and see who was getting the ball thrown to them. Note: Week 5 consists of two columns, one with Dak, and one without.

Another thing to note is that the percentages you see below each receiver only consists of the fraction of targets compared with the other two. If any receiver got at least a third of the target share between this trio, then that game is highlighted in green. This provides us with a quick visual as to who is getting looks throughout the season.

When you start to look closely at this target share, there are a couple things that stand out. The first thing is - Prescott loves Cooper. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise because the two have hit it off from the onset, and the precision route-running ability of Cooper was something the team was willing to surrender a first-round draft pick for. Clearly, these two are making it work.

The next thing that jumps out is that things balanced out considerably when Prescott wasn’t the quarterback. Summarizing this data into two groups (Dak vs. no Dak) provides these numbers:

Gallup’s involvement in the offense saw a jump in games without Prescott. When Dak was the quarterback, Cooper had over twice as many targets as Gallup, and even the rookie Lamb had 50% more looks than Gallup. Clearly, Gallup was the third receiving wheel in Dallas when Prescott was throwing the ball.

Oddly, Gallup emerged as the team’s top receiving target when Dak wasn’t the quarterback. There was an amazing amount of balance between the three as just six total targets separates the group during that span.

So, what does all this mean?

Well, it’s a small sample size, so we’re not going to read that much into it, but it could be setting the table for a very underutilized Michael Gallup. We know Prescott and Cooper have amazing chemistry. We also can’t help notice that Prescott was really digging the rookie Lamb as well. In the five games with Prescott, CeeDee out-targeted Gallup in four of those games, including an 80% target share with Dak in his last game of the year against the New York Giants.

There has been a lot of speculation as to what the Cowboys future plans are at wide receiver. Cooper’s contract wasn’t restructured (at least not yet) and that has some wondering if the front office is leaving themselves open to the idea of getting out of his contract sometime in the near future. In that scenario, some think that re-signing Gallup could be the alternate plan.

Gallup is a talented receiver, and he certainly won’t cost near as much as Cooper, but if those five games are indicative as to what the future, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to remove Prescott’s favorite target from this offense. Another thing threatening Gallup’s relevance in the offense is that Lamb was just a rookie, and it’s hard not thinking that kid is only going to get better. Not only will Lamb be cutting in to Gallup’s future targets, but he’ll probably steal some from Cooper as well.

Lamb’s clearly not going anywhere as his fifth-year option gives the team control over the next four years. That also just happens to be the same amount of control they have over Cooper in a contract that will offer a nice return of investment if he keeps doing what he’s been doing.

All this hints that Gallup’s future in Dallas might not be as fulfilling as we hoped. He’ll be a great WR3 for this offense in 2021, and hopefully the team can collect a Day 3 compensatory pick should he leave in free agency. It wouldn’t be the craziest thing to offer him an extension before the new season started, but for the front-office to consider using more cap resources on a receiver, they’d have to be getting a good deal. Using more of the team’s budget on the wide receiver position may not be ideal, but good players are good players, and you want to keep as many of them as you can.

A more thrifty approach could be to look later in the draft to see if some specifically skilled receiver could be found that would complement Cooper and Lamb. If Gallup’s share of the trio is only going to amount to 21.9%, it’s not going to require a star talent player to replace him. Maybe a player like Cedrick Wilson (sixth-round pick) could be the team’s WR3 answer?

Whatever the team decides, it must be driven by how it impacts Prescott and his ability to run the offense. As much as we all love what Gallup brings to this team, there are just too many other mouths to feed to fully utilize his skills, and that could leave him out in the cold going forward.