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FRISCO, TX — It feels like it was just yesterday when the Dallas Cowboys were trying desperately to sell themselves on the notion of WR-by-committee, to regrettable results. The post-Dez Bryant era was met with a list of personnel decisions that ultimately led to a hard reset in trading for Amari Cooper and then using a first-round pick on CeeDee Lamb.
And, just like that, the Cowboys were once again cooking with fish grease.
As they enter the 2024 season, they'll do so knowing they have a Hall of Fame talent in Lamb, sure, but also in trying to figure out what the depth chart will look like behind their latest megastar member of the 88 club.
Past: Ah, the infamous WR-by-committee approach, headlined by Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and Deonte Thompson (with Ryan Switzer, Allen Hurns, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir and K.D. Cannon providing rotational depth).
That experiment ultimately led Dallas to pivot away from it and send a first-round pick to the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for Cooper in 2018; going on to earn two additional Pro Bowl nods (four total in his career) in Dallas. Months before the trade, however, the Cowboys acquired Michael Gallup in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft — going on to sign him to a five-year extension.
They added Randall Cobb in 2019, but that stay was short-lived and preceded the acquisition of Lamb in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the superstar receiver unexpectedly falling to 17th-overall; and the trio of Cooper, Lamb and Gallup was off to the races.
Fast forward to 2024 and it's the CeeDee Lamb Show, with a myriad of question marks attached to those around him in the receivers' room.
Present: As mentioned, Lamb has ascended not only to the throne of WR1 in Dallas, but to the upper echelon at the position, regardless of team. I could argue that the only wideout who delivered a more impactful season for his respective club was Tyreek Hill, and so it's no surprise to see Lamb named a finalist for NFL Offensive Player of the Year — alongside his own QB.
Now a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Lamb finished the 2023 regular season with a career-high in yardage (1,749), receptions (135), receiving touchdowns (12), touches (149), touchdowns from scrimmage (14), yards per game (102.9), catch percentage (74.6%) and even rushing yards (114), rushing attempts (14), rushing success rate (85.7%), etc., etc..
Toss in some NFL and Cowboys' franchise records as well and I think you get the point.
But what about The Others? One word comes to mind here: inconsistency.
It took several weeks for Brandin Cooks to be truly integrated as a threat in the new-look offense, and though he certainly made an impact on several games once he got going, there was definitely plenty of meat left on that bone by the Cowboys. Michael Gallup flashed in special ways on more than one occasion, but also had his share of lesser outings that he'd love to forget.
The needle is pointing due north on Jalen Tolbert, who was light-years better than the rookie version of himself, but more targets in his direction, particularly when Gallup struggled, would've been welcomed — seeing as Tolbert nearly always rewarded Prescott for looking his way in 2023.
Seeing KaVontae Turpin unleashed in Year 2 was a welcome sight, but not unlike my critique involving Tolbert: more, please. The speedster wideout proved he can be effective on more than jet sweeps, so send him downfield a bit more?
Ultimately, Lamb became even better than advertised last season, but it was counterbalanced by the inconsistency of both play and targeting to others, especially in a year that saw the rushing attack take a step in the wrong direction.
Future: It's time for Lamb and the Cowboys to sit down for their first-ever contract negotiation, and there can be little doubt that he'll reset the market or come very near it in the near future; as I don't see a scenario in which he is not in Dallas on a second contract.
That turns my eyes to the remainder of the WR corps, and particularly Gallup, who is set to hit the Cowboys' salary cap for a hefty $45.55 million through the 2026 season, with $13.85 million of that landing in 2024 — if the contract is allowed to remain as-is.
That's a number that isn't commensurate with his current role in the offense and, as such, I'd think there will be dialogue on reducing it quite a bit by way of pay cut, restructuring (doesn't require negotiation) or the like that would flip the switch and add millions of savings to the team's cap number for 2024.
I'm not onboard with sending Gallup packing, because I believe his leadership, skill set and willingness to be a role player make him a glue guy for Prescott and McCarthy, but considering what will be needed to pay other players like Lamb (and Micah Parsons, plus others), it just makes sense to force the math to make more sense on Gallup.
Cooks finds himself entering a contract season following his acquisition via trade in 2023, and on a $10 million cap hit.
In seeing what Cooks can still be as well as what his mentorship has meant for Lamb, I'd be willing to lower his hit by offering him a two-year extension (could add roughly $5 million in cap savings) to also allow for him to be the bridge for players like Tolbert and Jalen Brooks, the latter being a 2023 training camp star who also hit the ground running in limited game reps.
And speaking of Brooks, what an exciting young talent he is: a seventh-round pick in 2023 that shows exceptional promise. His presence, along with Tolbert, present sensational depth at WR for the Cowboys and also makes for a much more realistic dialogue to come on Gallup.
Looking to push Brooks this offseason will be Jalen Cropper and David Durden — Durden returning from a redshirt rookie season spent on IR — along with Racey McMath and a second look at Martavis Bryant.
The team loved what they saw in the progression of Bryant in his short stint on the practice squad in 2023, while understanding his return to the NFL requires more reps and a longer ramp-up period; and McMath is another big-framed sub-4.4s wideout who can be viewed as a direct competitor to what Bryant brings to the table.
Won't that be fun in Oxnard? You bet your prized hog it will be.
There are plenty of items to keep an eye on as it relates to the group of wideouts in Dallas, but one thing is for certain, and that's the fact they are flush with talent at the position — for both now and for later.