It’s so early. With just three training camp practices in the books for the Dallas Cowboys, we must be cautious about drawing conclusions. It is always easy to become overly optimistic. Having established those caveats, let’s take a rosy view anyway. One of the issues for the team last season was a lack of talent at the wide receiver position. Even with such limited data at hand, it already seems clear that this is most assuredly not a “wide receiver by committee” situation for 2023.
We all know that CeeDee Lamb is WR1, and he has been looking like exactly that so far. The connection between him and Dak Prescott is alive and well. He has predicted this is going to be a strong year for him.
Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb is entering his fourth NFL season. "I know that I didn't put my best out there yet." Set career highs with 107 catches, 1,359 yards and nine TDs in 2022. "Once again, keep in mind, I did not have Dak for a full season. That's all I'm going to say."— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) July 28, 2023
And there are some other hints that he is going to be a better player, thanks to one of the big offseason trades by the Cowboys, CB Stephon Gilmore.
Another thing I see: CeeDee Lamb matched up against Stephon Gilmore the route, but that’s not the thing.— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) July 28, 2023
It’s what happened after.
Gilmore was coaching Lamb and, from what I could hear, he told him to “try this instead of that, trust me”.
What a trade this was. #Cowboys
That is great, but we knew what the team had in Lamb. Last season he had more than 700 yards receiving than number two Dalton Schultz. The goal for this year was to put more talent on the field with him so defenses could not focus on trying to take him out of plays.
A major step in that direction was the other big trade, for Brandin Cooks. His separation ability is the biggest thing he adds to the team, and early in camp, it looks like he and Gilmore are engaging in some iron sharpening iron. This is the kind of synergy that makes the value of the two trades bigger than the sum of the two parts. Now Dallas has two proven weapons to deploy for Prescott. Mike McCarthy must smile a lot when he’s contemplating his play calls for the season.
But the team will need more than a dynamic duo for the long, punishing NFL season. It is logical that they will continue to use a lot of 11 personnel, putting three WRs on the field for many passing situations. Last year, Michael Gallup was never completely right coming off his 2021 injury. Now with a full offseason to recover and condition, he is looking more like what the team needs. It is not conclusive yet, but any improvement should be beneficial this year. Last season he only produced 424 yards, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
Three good, or at least solid, wide receivers is necessary, but to have that many available for the entire grueling season requires quality depth. That makes WR4 and WR5 important positions to fill.
The news there is also encouraging. Second-year player Jalen Tolbert was nearly invisible in his rookie year, but he is having a strong camp so far. He could be insurance for Gallup not coming back the way we hope, but the best outcome would be for him to fill a role similar to Cedrick Wilson when he was with the Cowboys, able to come in and make positive contributions in more limited snaps than the three starters while serving as the “next man up.” It would justify the third-round pick the team invested to get him. And he is impressing some important people on the staff, not just with some good plays on the field.
Cowboys OC Brian Schottenheimer while talking about WR Jalen Tolbert: “Ask him to see his notebook one day. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. How he has prepared his mind, for a young player, you’re talking about a second-year player, I was blown away. I told him…— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) July 28, 2023
The other developments are a bit more speculative, but intriguing. Simi Fehoko started things on Wednesday by letting a ball ricochet off his hands into those of rookie CB Eric Scott, but on Thursday he had his own very good practice. His 2022 also saw negligible contributions, but he is a name to watch for the final 53. Not all players have an easy transition from college to the pros, and there is a history of wide receivers across the league blossoming in their third campaign. That’s where Fehoko is. Given you can never have too many good WRs, we should all be hoping he continues to play well.
KaVontae Turpin is another possibility in this arrangement. He missed the first two practices because he was having a child, but his return on Sunday brought a lot of praise for his work at wide receiver. We know that he has the skills as a punt returner, but his speed and quickness at reciever could be a real asset if he gets incorporated into the offense.
Of course, no training camp would be complete without the emergence of a UDFA darling WR, and early in camp, that looks to be Jalen Moreno-Cropper. The Fresno State product had plenty of people championing his chances, and he has hit the ground running in Oxnard. While the team may not be able to carry him on the 53-man roster, since KaVontae Turpin could eat up a spot as the return man, he is perfectly positioned to make the practice squad. He would be a ready reserve for the team, valuable insurance against injury.
In itself, the apparently strong group is great news for the offense. But there are other ramifications as well. With Schultz gone, the tight end job will fall mostly on second-year players Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot. Ferguson has already done some good work to stake out the TE1 job. It seems certain the team will carry three, something that is complicated by the injury to rookie Luke Schoonmaker who started camp on the NFI list. Sean McKeon would be the normal favorite to be TE3, but another UDFA may be a challenger.
Cowboys TE John Stephens with the second-team TD pic.twitter.com/WwlteTA6KK— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) July 27, 2023
John Stephens is a converted wide receiver signed from the University of Louisiana, and he could be one of the small school gems the Cowboys so love to find. He could use some more bulk to play the position, but as a receiving tight end, he already is showing very interesting potential.
Having a very strong WR room also takes some pressure off the tight end position to produce. That could have its own benefits. The only thing that matters is the overall offensive production, and giving Prescott a full menu of targets to work with is ideal. It’s early, but the signs are very, very good the team has done just that.