The wide receiver position dominated the talk of last offseason for the Dallas Cowboys, and just two weeks into a new cycle this hasn’t changed. What has changed is who will be calling the plays for Dak Prescott to get the ball to these receivers, as Mike McCarthy is now the Cowboys play-caller, replacing Kellen Moore as the team still searches for an offensive coordinator.
McCarthy’s influence has grown in each season as head coach of the Cowboys, and now with the pressure to call an offense that can take the team further in the playoffs, it won’t be long until fans find out if McCarthy can get the front office to use more than just the draft to upgrade at their positions of need.
With CeeDee Lamb as their only trusted option at receiver right now, the Cowboys have a new perspective on how to attack this position of need given the scheme they’ll now be running. The team felt they were suited reasonably well for Moore’s offense with Lamb flanked by a recovering Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, and rookie Jalen Tolbert.
If the Cowboys put less of a focus on big bodied receivers that can win the individual matchups required in Moore’s scheme and get more dynamic at the position, they first have to make free agency decisions on the expiring contracts of Brown and mid-season acquisition T.Y. Hilton.
Before taking a look at some draft prospects the Cowboys could target, here is how they could use free agency to improve at receiver.
You can’t take anything away from the career Noah Brown has built with the Cowboys. A mainstay on this roster since being drafted in the seventh round in 2017, Brown has proven his value to multiple coaching staffs and has been a reliable depth option. While it’s not Brown’s fault the Cowboys were asking much more of him this season, 2022 was his best opportunity at extended playing time, and the lasting memory of his season may be a dropped pass that led to a game-ending pick six in Jacksonville.
The Cowboys will already have plenty of team needs going into April’s draft, making Brown the type of player they prefer to lock up for flexibility elsewhere. McCarthy has turned plenty of later-round receivers into contributors though, so if Brown’s money is better spent elsewhere, it could be addition by subtraction if the Cowboys decide to move on. Dallas knows they must get better at stretching defenses and presenting a vertical threat, something Brown isn’t as known for compared to being an underneath possession receiver similar to what’s already on the roster.
The Cowboys added veteran T.Y. Hilton for the stretch run of the season, making his team debut in a Week 16 win vs. the Eagles. His most memorable play of the season was easily converting a third-and-30 go route in that game, the exact type of play McCarthy’s offense should be trying to create more of going forward.
The separation Hilton was able to create on the comeback routes that were a staple of this offense was noticeable compared to Gallup or anyone else. How much this says about a receiver who will turn 33 next season, or the lack of talent the Cowboys had around him, will be just one factor in deciding to re-sign Hilton.
There was certainly enough to like about the connection Prescott and Hilton made in just five games (playoffs included) to consider bringing back Hilton while also pushing to add younger talent at the position. As mentioned with Noah Brown, the depth chart at WR would look bleak heading into free agency and the draft without locking up at least one of these internal free agents on a team-friendly deal.
The elephant in the room
Jerry Jones’ comments on risk-taking and how his team-building approach compares to the Rams and rival Eagles drew plenty of eye rolls from Cowboys faithful, but it’s important to note just how far they’ve come under McCarthy.
The same offensive rankings that Kellen Moore’s new team the Chargers were boasting about on Twitter are ones Cowboys fans are much more used to hearing as justification for staying status quo on offense. Already the Cowboys have taken a risk by moving on from Moore in favor of McCarthy, and though they want Ezekiel Elliott back, the idea they need it to be at the right price is a far cry from the steadfast commitment Dallas had to running the ball with Elliott when McCarthy was first hired.
The Cowboys have shown an early hint of being dedicated to an all-in approach that leads to uncharacteristic spending in free agency. The Odell Beckham Jr. pipe dream fell apart when it was clear he wouldn’t be ready to help any team make a playoff push like he did for the Rams a year ago, but now every team can begin to think more long term with Beckham. Just how far into the future any given team is preparing for can determine how interested they are in Beckham, with the Cowboys toeing the line of wanting sustainable success under the pressure of winning now in Prescott’s prime.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones said Wednesday the Cowboys will revisit their discussions closer to the start of free agency in March.
“Oh, absolutely,” Jones said, via Nick Eatman of the team website. “We brought Odell Beckham Jr. in for a visit [and] decided he wasn’t ready to play. [But] that’s the way we left it with him. Get ready to play, and then let’s revisit. We obviously had an interest for a reason.”
The expectations for a healthy Beckham to make a splash in this offense on a greater level than James Washington or Hilton, last year’s outside signings, would be an immediate step in the right direction. Whether or not he passes that all-important health benchmark is best left to the Dallas training staff, but giving the Cowboys a clear number two target behind Lamb needs to be a priority.
Lamb and Beckham would present a unique challenge to defenses as a pair, with the run after the catch ability to turn McCarthy’s base calls into explosive plays as well as the long speed to open up the field. If just a few weeks of Beckham watch felt tiring this season, it’s time for a full offseason of it, though the pressure is turned up even more for the Cowboys to make this type of move at receiver now.
Other free agents
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jakobi Meyers, Darius Slayton, Allen Lazard, and Mecole Hardman are just some of the familiar names set to hit free agency at one of the Cowboys biggest positions of need.
Smith-Schuster is recovering from an injury suffered in the AFC Championship against the Bengals, but the Chiefs are optimistic they’ll have him as an option for Pat Mahomes on Super Bowl Sunday. After two down seasons at the end of his time in Pittsburgh, Kansas City’s electric offense has helped Smith-Schuster find his form again with 101 catches for 933 yards this season. Smith-Schuster has averaged 12 yards per catch over his career, a mark he got back to with the Chiefs this year and one that would match CeeDee Lamb and Noah Brown’s output for the 2022 Cowboys.
Depending on what the Cowboys get from Michael Gallup in his continued rehab next season, Smith-Schuster could elevate to WR2 status, or be a high-end third option that gives Lamb the flexibility to move from outside to the slot. Just as Dallas asked Prescott to elevate the receiving talent around him this season, Kansas City has seen that Mahomes is more than capable of just that, meaning outside bids for Smith-Schuster may be difficult to match.
Just because the Cowboys have a quarterback that can still make plays with a limited cast of pass catchers doesn’t mean they should force Prescott to play this way in McCarthy’s offense, where Smith-Schuster is a welcome fit as a plus route-runner with long speed.
Jakobi Meyers was the leading receiver for a Patriots passing attack that was far from inspiring this season, with serious changes expected in New England on this side of the ball. Whether or not that means choosing to build around Meyers, an undrafted free agent from 2019, or go a different direction remains to be seen. While teams will have to evaluate how much of Smith-Schuster’s production is a product of the Chiefs offense as a whole and Mahomes, the same can’t be said about the supporting cast for Meyers, who put up 804 yards and six touchdowns with for the Patriots this season.
Meyers may not give the Cowboys much of a boost in their need for speed on the outside, but he thrives on the type of underneath routes that McCarthy can call for him, and makes the type of contested catches that could make him a favorite target of Prescott.
The biggest offseason decision the rival New York Giants have to make on offense surrounds quarterback Daniel Jones, but they also have the expiring contract of receiver Darius Slayton to consider. The Giants saw Jones play some of his most consistent football under new coach Brian Daboll, regularly targeting Slayton. The fifth-round pick out of Auburn failed to eclipse 100 yards in any game though, and had four with two catches or less.
This inconsistency will be telling as it pertains to Slayton’s free agent market. If the Cowboys want to prove they’re changing their approach here, there’s certainly bigger fish to fry, but their recent history would say Slayton’s price tag could make them players here - hoping to squeeze every bit of upside out of Slayton the same way they tried with James Washington and Gallup this season.
Allen Lazard was signed by the Packers via the Jaguars practice squad in December of 2018, after the team had fired Mike McCarthy. It wasn’t until the next season that Lazard started in any games, playing in 15 of the Packers’ contests the last two years. Under an offense now run by Matt LaFleur, there is still some similarities to what Green Bay calls for Aaron Rodgers compared to McCarthy’s tenure. With so much uncertainty on Rodgers’ future with the team, Lazard could be the scheme-specific player looking for a new home as the Packers try to retool around Christian Watson.
Lazard is another possession receiver that would give the Cowboys solid depth and not create a drop off should Gallup or any other player miss time. He put up career-highs in targets, catches and yards this season.
Lastly, for now, there’s another valuable part of the Chiefs’ passing game in Mecole Hardman set to hit free agency. Just because the Chiefs previously let Tyreek Hill walk in free agency and made it back to the Super Bowl doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to lock up some long-term options for Mahomes at receiver, and whether or not that’s Hardman or Smith-Schuster could be determined against the Eagles.
Hardman can line up anywhere on the field and take short passes for big gains, and catch defenses by surprise with his ability to beat safeties down the field for game-changing plays. Just how committed the Cowboys are to their run game going forward is another huge question of the offseason, and making up for any potential dips in production here by adding more run-extensions into the pass game makes sense. The Cowboys don’t currently have many receivers that fit this mold, but Hardman would give Prescott this type of target with plenty of big game experience.