Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.
After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, it’s time to look at the wide receiver group.
Brandin Cooks’ impact has already been felt
The 2022 season cemented CeeDee Lamb’s status as a premier receiver in the NFL - he had 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns and placed 10th in the league in yards per route run - but it also hammered home the fact that Lamb is not enough on his own. That’s why the addition of veteran speedster Brandin Cooks was such a big deal.
Cooks is entering the 10th year of his career and coming off a season in which he put up 699 yards despite missing four games; it’s just the third time in his career he’s fallen short of 1,000 yards.
The most important aspect about Cooks, though, is his ability to stretch the field. This past year, playing in a horrible Texans offense, marked the first time in his career that Cooks averaged less than 11 yards in average depth of target. He’s also recorded 10+ receptions on passes over 20 yards downfield in six of his nine seasons played thus far.
Those deep ball skills have already been evident in the very little exposure he’s had with Dak Prescott.
Play of the day during today’s Cowboys minicamp: This deep ball TD from Dak Prescott to Brandin Cooks pic.twitter.com/tWno3nmC41— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 7, 2023
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott on WR Brandin Cooks’ speed: “It’s beautiful. Yeah, real speed. …For him to be able to do it every play, every route, the start of every route — the cornerbacks, defense, they don’t know what they’re getting. It all looks the same. I’m thankful he’s here.”— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) June 7, 2023
That’s not all, though, as Cooks’ impact is being felt in the locker room in addition to on the field.
Cowboys OC Brian Schottenheimer on WR Brandin Cooks: “Jalen Tolbert has had an incredible camp. If you talk to Jalen, what he’s gonna tell you is he has spent a ton of time with Brandin. Here’s a guy who has been there, done that, and he wants to encourage and invest in the…— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 8, 2023
Which Michael Gallup will we see in 2023?
It wasn’t that long ago that people were having serious debates over whether or not Michael Gallup qualified as a WR1. His 1,950 yards and 11 touchdowns during the 2019 and 2020 seasons were impressive, especially considering all of the different quarterbacks he caught passes from in 2020.
Then, injuries started to hit. Gallup suffered a calf injury in Week 1 of the 2021 season that kept him out for seven games. Gallup returned and started playing up to his standards again, but then he suffered a torn ACL in Week 17. He returned by Week 4 of the 2022 season, but it was apparent that Gallup was not himself.
The expectation, which has been echoed by Mike McCarthy through OTA’s, is that Gallup will be back to his usual self with a full year between his injury now. But the receiver also underwent scopes on both the knee and ankle of his other leg shortly after the season ended, casting doubt on just how healthy he actually is.
If Gallup can regain his form in 2023, it will be a big deal for the Cowboys. Lamb and Cooks are expected to be the top targets in this new offense, but a fully healthy Gallup would give Dallas one of the more impressive receiving corps in the NFL.
The battle for WR4 looks to be a good one
The Cowboys know who their top three wideouts are, even if there remains uncertainty about just how good Cooks can be and just how healthy Gallup is. But the all-important WR4 spot - previously filled by Cedrick Wilson and, last year, Noah Brown - looks to have a solid competition brewing.
The two biggest names are Simi Fehoko and Jalen Tolbert. Fehoko is the more seasoned player, joining the team in 2021 as a fifth-round pick out of Stanford. Standing at 6’4” and running a 4.43 40-yard dash, Fehoko offers a unique combination of size and speed. After effectively redshirting his rookie year, Fehoko was primed for a bigger role in 2022 - especially after having a dominant training camp performance - but he was added to the injured reserve after just five games.
Tolbert, on the other hand, entered last year with unrealistically high expectations. A third-round pick out of South Alabama, the Cowboys were immediately enamored with Tolbert. After showing flashes in training camp, Tolbert suddenly fell out of favor with the coaches and was a healthy scratch in Week 1. He didn’t make his NFL debut until Week 3, and was inactive the next two games afterwards. Tolbert finished on the inactive list for the last five games of the year, as well as both playoff games, and had just two catches on three targets.
Both Fehoko and Tolbert are looking for a fresh start in the new offense, and both have already taken advantage of the leadership of Cooks. Each has been singled out by McCarthy, as well as Brian Schottenheimer, as players making an impact early on. Their battle for the WR4 spot should be a case of iron sharpening iron.
Will there be another Dennis Houston this year?
Last year, Dennis Houston came out of nowhere as an undrafted rookie out of Western Illinois and made the roster, largely due to his instant chemistry with Dak Prescott. But after catching just two of his six targets over the first two games, Houston was bumped down to the practice squad for the remainder of the year.
Will there be another Houston this year? The answer really depends on how many receivers the Cowboys decide to keep on the roster. Houston is also a likely candidate to repeat his surprise performance and steal a roster spot.
Other fringe roster guys who could pull off such a feat include seventh-round rookie Jalen Brooks, undrafted rookies like Jalen Moreno-Cropper and David Durden, as well as second year player Dontario Drummond. The competition will be fierce for sure.
The difference in usage from Kellen Moore to Mike McCarthy
The Cowboys have a new offensive coordinator (Schottenheimer) and new play-caller (McCarthy), although they’re adamant that only about 30% of the offense is being changed or tweaked. Reading between the lines, it sounds as if most of these changes are coming in the running game, but the passing game is sure to see a few modifications as well.
McCarthy, hailing from the West Coast offense, has traditionally made extensive use of slant and flat routes for his receivers. Schottenheimer is a disciple of the Air Coryell school of offense, which utilizes a lot of shallow and deep crossers. All of these route patterns offer a strong contrast to Kellen Moore’s heavy use of hitch routes - the Cowboys had the fourth-most targets on hitch routes in the NFL last year.
Whereas Moore frequently called plays that featured receivers in a stationary position at the catch point, it seems likely that McCarthy and Schottenheimer will ask their receivers to make more catches in stride this year. That would seemingly benefit the speedier types on this roster, especially the likes of Cooks and Fehoko, and could shape the way this receiver room ultimately plays out in 2023.