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Football

Michael Gallup Can Still Be the Receiver the Cowboys Hoped For

Last year wasn't great. The year before stung, too. But the 27-year-old receiver may be a product of his circumstances more than his own performance.
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Michael Gallup may be the third name in Dallas' receiving corps, but he can still have an impact. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I know this can be difficult. But you really do, under certain circumstances, have to hand it to the Cowboys. Their last two seasons look eerily similar on paper: 12-win campaigns that were ended by the San Francisco 49ers, one victory shy of the conference championship game. But the offseason responses to those ultimately disappointing years were quite different. Two totally different offseasons! Yes, Dallas still has serious concerns on the offensive line and questions to be answered at running back. But above all else, the Cowboys should be commended for not getting mired in sunk-cost delusions. They have recognized their shortcomings and addressed them in a way that they had forsaken in previous years.

Trading late-round draft picks for cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks this spring brought the team two walk-in veteran starters. These transactions are justifiably put in the same bucket because they are very similar. There is one notable difference, though, in the rooms that Gilmore and Cooks walk into: Dallas doesn’t have another corner comparable to what receiver Michael Gallup can bring to the other side of the ball as a complementary weapon. 

I get the sense that for many, the Cooks trade signaled the end of expecting anything out of Gallup. The 27-year-old missed the first half of the 2021 season with a calf injury, then tore his ACL in Week 17. He returned in Week 4 last season but clearly was not the same player. Throw in the fact that the Cowboys had given him a full-market value, long-term deal at a time when he was still struggling to jog, much less run,, and you have created the perfect stew for fan resentment. 

The injuries and the contract and the acquisition of a player perceived as his “replacement” do matter. But let’s set aside the maelstrom for a moment and remember this: when Gallup has been right, he has shown he’s capable of being a dangerous player. If he returns to that form this season, the Cowboys could wind up in the conversation for having the best wide receiver trio in the NFL.

A third-round pick in 2018, Gallup posted a 66-reception, six-touchdown, 1,107-yard season in 2019 playing alongside Amari Cooper. After Dallas drafted CeeDee Lamb the following spring, Gallup’s targets were slightly reduced from just over eight per game in 2019 to 6.5 per game in 2020. His production, however, fell off of a cliff. Although he only slid back by one reception per game, his yardage fell from 79 to 52 yards per contest. What happened?

Dak Prescott’s injury, which turned out to be much more than a cramp, happened. Through the first five weeks of the 2020 season with Prescott healthy, Gallup averaged 70 receiving yards per game. The rest of the way, with Andy Dalton under center, Gallup fell to 45 yards per game on basically the same targets and receptions. It was clear to anyone watching that Gallup was hit the hardest by the loss of Prescott. To be sure, Gallup is not an elite receiver who can win all over the field. Particularly once Lamb was added to the offense, Gallup’s role was clear: win deep. Go-routes, posts, deep outs; in 2020, that was the bulk of his route tree. 

When working with Dalton, Gallup’s production on those routes was a disaster. After connecting on nearly 50 percent of all targeted deep routes with Prescott in 2019, Gallup and Dalton hit on 29 percent of them in 2020 (per Pro Football Focus). The average depth of target fell by more than five yards, and the average yards per completion by more than 13. The best receivers in the league might be quarterback- or scheme-proof. For role players like Gallup, that’s not the case. Dalton was trying to get through the day, and standing in the pocket or buying time to find Gallup deep was simply not going to happen often.

So due to a role change and a quarterback who was simply not fit to play to his strengths, the decrease in efficiency was already a topic heading into 2021. And then the injuries came. Gallup suffered a calf injury in the Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay, and he didn’t return until Week 10. His season ended in Week 16 with the ACL tear. But in the nine games he played that season, all with Prescott, the efficiency on deep targets returned to 2019 form. 

Gallup had experienced one of the more demoralizing things that can happen to an athlete: a serious injury right before he was set to hit free agency. I recall looking at free agency projections as the 2021 season wound down, before his injury. Most models had him slotted in the range of a four- or five-year deal worth about $12 million in average annual value. Post-injury, those same models projected a one-year prove-it contract worth $3 million. The good news for Gallup was that the Cowboys operated as if the injury never occurred. If Gallup had not suffered such a serious injury, and another team had offered a five-year contract worth $57 million and $23 million guaranteed, I think the masses would’ve been split on whether that was too rich for a player of his caliber. But then he did suffer the injury. And Dallas offered that deal anyway. I would love to know what other offers his agent was fielding, because it’s hard for me to imagine any other team was in the same universe as the one the Cowboys came to the table with. Complicating the perception of the move was that this was the same offseason Dallas traded away Amari Cooper for financial reasons and for a pittance, in what can only be regarded as one of the worst misreads of the market in franchise history.

Gallup was not ready to play until Week 4 last season, and truly, he didn’t look ready to play all season. Deep routes still accounted for the same share of his targets (about one-third), but the production and efficiency were the worst of his career. Worse than with Dalton. Gallup’s “average degrees of separation” dropped substantially, per the NFL’s NextGenStats. His route tree and targets are catered toward producing big plays. A receiver who relies on explosives is in trouble when he is no longer explosive.

These could be viewed as excuses for his decreased production; I consider it an explanation of nuance. It’s reductive to say that “Gallup was a WR3 who couldn’t step up when asked to be a WR2,” because in 2019 he trailed Cooper by just 82 yards for the team lead in receiving yards. His injuries combined with Prescott’s ailments have simply resulted in a difficult few years for a player who plays the way Gallup does. 

Now, of course, all parties are saying the right things about a return to form this season. But it makes sense. While players may be able to return from ACL injuries more quickly than ever before, that doesn’t mean they’re prepared to play to their full capabilities. Making matters a bit more pliable for Gallup is the addition of Cooks. Gallup plays almost all of his snaps lined up outside, while Lamb and Cooks have exhibited a comfort level both outside and in the slot. But one thing they all have in common is the ability to win deep. 

If Dallas gets the 2019 or 2020 (when Prescott was healthy) version of Gallup back, that would represent a bigger addition than Cooks does. We aren’t talking about a 32-year-old player hoping to regain the form of his 20s. The hope is that he has had time to fully recover from a major, but very common, injury. 

If that happens, given other adjustments including the increased role of running back Tony Pollard in place of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys could have as much explosiveness on offense as they’ve had at any point in Prescott’s career. Dallas made the right decision in trading for Cooks, because a team cannot have enough playmakers at the position. That said, I expect the arrival of Cooks to coincide with Gallup reminding everyone that he’s still a dangerous weapon. If that happens, perhaps the Cowboys can finally show up to a playoff game with the best skill-position talent, which wasn’t the case when they made each of their last two postseason exits.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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