Why OC Kellen Moore is confident in new pieces to Cowboys' receiver puzzle

FRISCO, Texas -- A year ago, people spoke of the Dallas Cowboys having the NFL's best wide receiver group in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb.

The trio ended up playing six games together because of injuries and time spent on the COVID-19 list.

This year, the Cowboys' wide receiver room looks a lot different.

Cooper has been traded to the Cleveland Browns. Cedrick Wilson, who benefited from the injuries and absences, signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent after reaching career highs in catches (45), yards (602) and touchdowns (six). Malik Turner is not expected back either. Even the coach, Adam Henry, is gone, replaced by Robert Prince.

The Cowboys retained Gallup on a five-year deal worth $57.5 million even as he works back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. They signed free agent James Washington to a one-year deal. They kept Noah Brown, too. And in next month’s draft they figure to add a receiver, perhaps in the early rounds.

As he spoke at the NFL combine in Indianapolis this month, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore didn’t know Cooper, or Wilson, would be gone. But he knew there would be changes.

“Whatever the puzzle pieces are, however they connect, I think we’re going to have a really good group,” Moore said. “I’ll feel really good about it.”

The Cowboys are banking on Lamb making the jump to a No. 1 receiver, Cooper’s role, after leading the team in receptions and yards and being added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. They are also counting on Gallup recovering quickly from February surgery and Washington delivering on his promise as a 2018 second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Obviously, when I get back out there you’ve got to take it up a notch,” Gallup said. “They put all their faith in me, so I need to put all my work into the team, got to be a leader vocally, got to be a leader physically out there on the field. Just let them know they can count on me. You’ve already seen what CeeDee can do. He’s going to bring the same energy, and that’s what we’re going to do moving forward.”

First, Gallup has to get the knee healthy. He is in the early part of rehab, working in the pool, riding the bike, standing on one leg. He hopes to start jogging soon but the goal for his return remains September, which means he could miss a game or two.

Once he is healthy, he needs to regain his big-play form. He had six catches of 20 yards or more upon his return from a calf injury last season. In his personal-best, 1,107-yard season in 2019, he had 18 catches of 20 yards or more.

He also wants to add versatility to his game by playing the slot more.

“Last year that was Coop and CeeDee’s role but somebody’s got to fill that void now,” Gallup said. “I’ve got to jump in there whenever my number’s called and be able to move around, be versatile. I’m definitely not opposed to it.”

Until Gallup returns, Washington will get a chance he believes he didn’t get much of during his four-year run with the Steelers.

“I feel like with everything that transpired in Pittsburgh, I didn’t get to show my full self,” Washington said. “We had a crowded room at receiver. But nothing against anyone else, I just felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone. I didn’t get to fully develop myself and make strides like I wanted to. I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity in Dallas so I can. They’re getting 110 percent of me.”

His best year with the Steelers came in 2019 when he caught 44 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He had a career-high five touchdown catches in 2020 but he caught 24 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns last year.

The Cowboys were high on Washington coming into the 2018 draft. He was among their visitors to The Star. He dreamed then he would be picked by Dallas, which is about a three-hour trip from his hometown of Stamford, Texas. He won a high school state championship at AT&T Stadium before a stellar career at Oklahoma State.

Now he hopes the familiar surroundings will mean more production.

“I want to grow my game to be who I was in college because I feel who I was in college is who I’m meant to be,” Washington said. “I want to be that down-the-field threat. I want to be that physical guy. I want to be involved in the run game. Basically, I want to do everything. I want to be involved, and I want to be a guy on this team.”