The Cowboys had quite the important annual Thanksgiving game last week, going head-to-head with the Giants, a fellow seven-win NFC East team. Dallas emerged with a 28-20 victory, but it was not without its anxious moments. The Cowboys trailed at halftime, Tony Pollard wasn’t as generational as he has been recently (although Ezekiel Elliott picked up his slack), a backdoor cover did in holiday home-team bettors once again, and the Cowboys lost the turnover battle, 2-0, thanks to a couple of Dak Prescott interceptions. The first was an ill-advised throw that Rodarius Williams jumped to secure his first career pick—and that’s also where the story of this week’s number to know begins. Because that pick was the second target of the day to the man who could very well be a huge difference-maker come playoff time.. The number you need to know for Week 12 is all about Michael Gallup and his 27.6 percent target share against the Giants.
The Cowboys have had an inconsistent passing attack in 2022, in large part because they were without their starting quarterback for almost half of the games. They also were without Gallup for the first three weeks as he recovered from an ACL tear, and it felt like even longer as they eased him back into action. The main constant through the air has been top receiver CeeDee Lamb, who has commanded the most targets on the team in nine of 11 games and is 143 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark. But while the focal point of the passing attack is as clear as day, the number two spot seems to change from week to week. Noah Brown and Dalton Schultz have each been second to Lamb on three occasions; Pollard has been second twice. And then there’s Gallup.
Gallup’s 27.6 percent target share—in other words, he was targeted on eight of Prescott’s 29 attempts—marked just the third time all season that a wide receiver other than Lamb earned at least a quarter of the team’s targets. Gallup also reached that number in Week 5, when Cooper Rush threw only 16 passes while the defense beat down the Rams. Noah Brown also broke 25 percent in Prescott’s first game back, in Week 7 against the Lions.
Gallup’s impact against the Giants was the biggest he has had all season, and it shows in a variety of ways. The target share is the easiest to see—without Amari Cooper, there was hope a healthy Gallup could deliver consistent number two target numbers, and what he did in Week 12 might have been the first step.
The chart above shows that the Thanksgiving Day game was the third time in the last four games that Lamb and Gallup accounted for at least 50 percent of the team’s targets. Plus, their combined 65.5 percent target share marked the highest number yet with Prescott under center. Even better than that is throwing to Gallup was more successful than it has been in 2022.
After an early incompletion and that odd interception, the Prescott-to-Gallup connection turned into an effective strategy. Gallup caught his next five targets, accumulating 63 yards and picking up four first downs. In so doing, he matched his reception and target (eight) totals from the last year’s Thanksgiving Day loss to the Raiders, when he piled up 106 receiving yards.
Gallup’s solid day is reflected in the receiving grade given to him by Pro Football Focus. The site gave him a grade of 78.0, by far the best he has had this season. But if you don’t care for the PFF grades, there are underlying statistics showing how efficient Gallup was. One of the most stable and predictive statistics for a wide receiver is the number of yards gained per route run, as that is affected both by the total yardage gained by the player as well as the number of targets he commands. Against the Giants Gallup produced a season-high (with Prescott under center), with 2.17 yards per route run.
Aside from the small-sample game against the Rams, this was easily Gallup’s most efficient game. For comparison’s sake, only 16 receivers in the NFL have had as many targets as Gallup and a season-long yards per route run above 2. That 2.17 number falls somewhere between Cooper and Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins in terms of production, and those two are among the game’s best receivers.
The key takeaway is that a healthy Gallup can be an effective and productive second receiver. Not only that, Prescott and the offense are capable of providing him that level of opportunity. The importance of having a great player in this role will only grow as the competition amps up in the playoffs. For instance, one glossed-over aspect of the shiny 40-3 win over Minnesota is Lamb managed only 45 yards, 27 of which came on a remarkable sideline catch at the end of the first half. Pollard filled in as the de facto second wideout, but another legitimate wide receiver taking the reins when the opponent has a lockdown corner like Patrick Peterson shadowing Lamb would be a boon for the offense.
Of course, if Gallup’s recent production isn’t enough to persuade the front office that it already has its number two receiver, there’s another candidate on the market. The Cowboys have been flirting with Odell Beckham Jr. for some time, and the 30-year-old receiver has reportedly scheduled a visit with the team next week. There’s legitimate concern because of his injury history, but over the course of his career, Beckham has been precisely as productive as Gallup was against the Giants. Beckham’s career average per route run is 2.13 yards—nearly identical to what we saw from Gallup last week. In the five seasons Beckham has played at least 10 games, he has commanded 22.3 percent of his team’s targets. That’s right between the 27.6 percent target share that Gallup received last week and the 19.4 percent he had over the previous four games. We can’t know for sure whether Beckham would perform better than Gallup, but their recent workloads have been similar. And remember: when he’s in his groove, Gallup has shown he can handle the responsibility of taking on a quarter or more of the team’s targets. Thanksgiving was just the latest reminder.