It feels like only yesterday that the Dallas Cowboys released Dez Bryant as they moved on from the team’s all-time leader in touchdown catches. The transition back then was bumpy, to say the least, as they relied on a group of new receivers consisting of Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Deonte Thompson. It was so bad that it forced the hand of the Cowboys' front office to trade away a future first-round draft pick for Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper.
Four years later, the Cowboys have once again moved on from their veteran star as they pass the torch to third-year receiver CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys have re-signed Michael Gallup (who was a rookie the year Bryant was cut) and have drafted a new rookie in Jalen Tolbert to help secure a strong starting unit of receivers. They’ve also added free-agent James Washington from Pittsburgh to go along with returning players Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko to round out the depth chart. The Cowboys certainly have an assortment of options, but what should we expect from this cast of characters this upcoming season?
That is our focus today, but before we dig in, let’s take a quick look at how the playing time was distributed last season. Below is a calculated average of each receiver's snap counts based solely on the games they were active. Games, where they were injured or inactive for whatever reason, are not included because we’re really trying to get a good feel for how each player will be used when they suit up.
Nothing from that graphic is a surprise as the “big 3” held down the fort whenever they were on the field. Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown were key parts of the receiving group as one of them flashed with some big-play highlights while the other did the dirty work. Malik Turner saw most of his action on special teams, but got a few reps in garbage time. And last year’s rookie Fehoko was unusually quiet as he hardly saw the field due to being buried on the depth chart.
With the new changes in place, how will this year’s group shape out? Here are some predictions for seven different wide receivers for the Cowboys this season.
The selection of Lamb came as a surprise as nobody expected him to be available when the Cowboys were on the clock in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. After a strong rookie campaign, Lamb showed improvement in all categories last season (targets, receptions, yards, yards/receptions, first downs, and touchdowns). His emergence is one of the reasons the Cowboys moved on from Amari Cooper and his $20 million annual salary. In fact, owner Jerry Jones has already gone on record stating that he believes Lamb has the makings of a more complete No. 1 receiver than Cooper. With Cooper now in Cleveland, it’s Lamb’s show to run, and the question now becomes does he have what it takes to be an elite receiver in this league?
2022 stat prediction: 91 catches for 1,305 yards, and eight touchdowns
Would the rook dare take over the no. 2 spot in receiving production for the Cowboys this year? It stands a pretty good possibility thanks to the absence of Gallup as the veteran rehabs his knee injury. Initially, it was tempting to mirror the production of Gallup himself during his rookie season to project Tolbert’s numbers, but the Cowboys' passing game was all out of sorts that season. Instead, it’s easy to believe that he follows Terrance William’s rookie year when he served as Bryant’s sidekick. With great body positioning, nice suddenness out of his breaks, and pretty good speed, Tolbert has the skills to be an immediate contributor. Look for him to take advantage with some solid production while Gallup is out.
2022 stat prediction: 44 catches for 736 yards, and five touchdowns
Ever since the Cowboys scored him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Gallup has been a pleasant contributor to this offense. Before the arrival of Lamb, Gallup put together a 1,107-yard second-year season. Fewer targets and a couple of different injuries last year hurt his numbers, but that didn’t take away from the front office’s perception of what he can bring to the team’s passing attack. It might take him at least half the season to get himself healthy again, but when he’s back, expect him to continue to do Michael Gallup things.
2022 stat prediction: 38 catches for 554 yards, and three touchdowns
Strangely enough, Washington was a player many thought could land in Dallas in 2018 as he was taken 21 spots ahead of Gallup. He showed some improvement in Pittsburgh as he put together a strong second year with career highs in catches (44) and yards (735) but then became an afterthought when newcomers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool showed up alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster to severely cut into his playing time. It would be tempting to proclaim Washington can teeter near his career numbers considering he should get a golden opportunity with Gallup out, but it’s puzzling he wasn’t able to do a bit more with Smith-Schuster missing a lot of action last season. Despite JuJu’s absence, Washington finished fourth in WR team targets last season, falling behind Ray-Ray McCloud. He’ll make a big play or two for the Cowboys early, but don’t be surprised if he slowly fades as the season progresses.
2022 stat prediction: 24 catches for 285 yards, and two touchdowns
Every year we debate whether or not Brown will make the team, and every year he finds a way on the roster. If his workload last year on a team that was heavily stacked with WR talent doesn’t tell you what the team thinks of him, I don’t know what will. Brown is a very good blocker and a valuable member of special teams. BTB new kid on the block, Brandon Clements, recently wrote about how Brown is a swiss army knife for this Cowboys team and how we should just pencil him on on the roster, so that’s what I’m doing. Like his contract, we’re giving him a small raise in production for the upcoming season.
2022 stat prediction: 18 catches for 214 yards, and his first-ever NFL touchdown catch
[Enter your favorite pet cat WR here]
Every year, there is always a handful of UDFA receivers that garner our attention. This year should be no different. Whether you like a player from last year like T.J. Vasher or a guy from this year’s crop like Ty Fryfogle, there are plenty to choose from. My personal favorite is last year’s UDFA signing Brandon Smith from Iowa. Despite having a track background including both parents being track stars, Smith doesn’t have elite speed. He also struggles to create separation. But his length and jumping ability could help him stand out in camp when backup quarterbacks are throwing into coverage. If a few impressive catches pad his camp resume, he could earn one of the last roster spots and sneak in some garbage time action similarly to Malik Turner last season.
2022 stat prediction: 12 catches for 149 yards, and two touchdowns
The second-year receiver from Stanford enters the new season a little bit of a mystery as it’s hard to put our finger on why he wasn’t involved that much last year. Was his development not processing well enough or was the receiving group so rich in talent that the Cowboys just couldn’t find playing time for him? This year should open some doors early on either side as he has a year under his belt and there are fewer bodies vying for targets with Gallup out. Can he capitalize? This has a 2019-Devin Smith feel where he’ll come down with a couple of bombs and we’ll be thirsting for more only to ultimately see him be invisible again this season.
2022 stat prediction: Five catches for 113 yards, and one touchdown