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Why the Cowboys Jalen Tolbert should have a better rookie season than Michael Gallup

A good player in a good situation usually means good things, and it should for this Cowboys rookie.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Rookie Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have some big questions on offense this season with the most notable being how the passing game will look without the services of Amari Cooper. While the team did re-invest in Michael Gallup, a knee injury last year will cause him to miss the first part of the season. Between no Cooper and being without Gallup in the beginning, that seems like a big loss.

The Cowboys are hoping to counter these losses with a new-look receiving group. The team’s prize draft pick from 2020, CeeDee Lamb, will take over as the definitive new no. 1 wide receiver on the team. They’ve also added free agent James Washington from the Pittsburgh Steelers and drafted South Alabama star Jalen Tolbert. The question now becomes just how good will this new group be.

Tolbert is the team’s third-round draft pick this year, but he should be able to make an immediate impact. This was a rich draft class of receivers, so even though he was selected later doesn’t mean he can’t step in and produce right away. In a lot of ways, the Tolbert pick is very similar to when the Cowboys took Gallup in the third round of 2018. Both were a part of a strong draft class of receivers and have NFL-ready skills. Similar to Gallup, Tolbert offers great size and uses his length extremely well. They both are good at positioning their body and high pointing the ball. We’ve seen some phenomenal catches from Gallup so far, and we could very well see the same type of plays from Tolbert. The rookie also has good speed and will be a deep threat in the Cowboys' passing attack.

Gallup has transformed into a good receiver in this league, but he didn’t light up the stat sheet his rookie season, and that leads some into believing we should temper our expectations from Tolbert. After all, there is a learning curve and there will be some rookie growing pains, but there are also reasons to believe that Tolbert can actually be more productive than Gallup was in his rookie year. To understand this better, we wanted to provide some game log splits to identify three different scenarios.

They include:

  1. Gallup’s rookie year before Cooper arrived
  2. Gallup’s rookie year after Cooper arrived
  3. Gallup’s last stretch of games when both Cooper and Lamb were on the team

Here is a breakdown of Gallup’s catches, yards, and touchdowns for those games.

We found these three scenarios interesting because it shows what Gallup has produced when he’s had virtually no help, some help, and quite a bit of help. Looking at Tolbert, we can actually use a couple of these scenarios to project his numbers for the upcoming season. First, let’s look at Gallup’s rookie season.

On the year, Gallup finished with 33 catches for 507 yards and two touchdowns. But what the graph shows is that Gallup became more involved down the stretch. Initially, the Cowboys' wide receiver position group was a hot mess that consisted of not only Gallup but Cole Beasley, Deonte Thompson, Allen Hurns, and Tavon Austin. Early on, the target distribution was all over the place as the team experimented with what they had in search of a viable passing game. Eventually, it was realized they didn’t have enough talent and traded for Amari Cooper. Upon his arrival, the target share narrowed down to just Cooper, Gallup, and Beasley.

This group could be similar to what the team has during the beginning of the season without Gallup. Lamb takes on the Cooper role, Dalton Schultz serves as the possession target that Beasley became relegated to, and Tolbert would have the role Gallup had as a rookie. Eventually, Gallup will return to the lineup and Tolbert then becomes the “third wheel.” At that point, Tolbert will benefit from easier coverages as Lamb and Gallup command tougher assignments from the defense. Piecing these two splits together provides a seasonal outlook like this:

These scenarios combined project a 54-catch, 726-yard, three-touchdown season.

Clearly, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison as there are a lot of factors that can sway things in either direction. While Tolbert and Gallup are similar-level talents coming out of college, there is no guarantee Tolbert will automatically be as good. Also, some of Gallup’s lack of involvement early in his rookie season could be attributed to his development and not solely related to the dreadful receiving group.

Then, on the other side of the coin, there is potential for things to be even greater. The 2018 offense finished 22nd in the league in yards gained during offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s final season with the team. Kellen Moore is the offensive coordinator now and the Cowboys offense has finished no. 1 in yards gained in two of his three seasons running the offense with the exception being in 2020 when Dak Prescott went down early in the year.

The trio of Lamb, Gallup, and Tolbert sounds very exciting and we can’t wait to see them all together. In the meantime, it’s not unreasonable to believe Tolbert can step in and be an immediate contributor, allowing the Cowboys' passing game to keep rolling. And don’t be surprised if, by the end of the year, he puts up a better statistical season than Gallup did in 2018.