FRISCO, Texas -- Last spring, Michael Gallup could only watch practice.
As the rest of the Dallas Cowboys went through organized team activities, the receiver was off to the side, rehabbing the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Wearing a harness attached to a bungee cord held by director of rehabilitation Britt Brown, Gallup would shuffle back and forth and side to side, strengthening his knee. He could run, but not at full speed and without any stop-and-start cutting.
"It's different," Gallup said. "I feel springy again."
With the Cowboys opening their organized team activities this week at The Star, all eyes are again on Gallup, but for different reasons. The question isn't when he will return. The question is whether he'll return to the level that led the Cowboys to sign him to a five-year, $57.5 million contract last offseason despite the ACL surgery.
He holds a key to the success of the unit that will now have coach Mike McCarthy calling plays and Brian Schottenheimer as the coordinator.
No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, and this offseason, the Cowboys acquired Brandin Cooks, who has six 1,000-yard seasons with four different organizations, but if Gallup can find his form, then opposing defenses will have an even more difficult time slowing quarterback Dak Prescott.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott was released and tight end Dalton Schultz, a security blanket for Prescott the past three seasons, left in free agency for the Houston Texans.
Last season, McCarthy felt like Gallup ran too many go routes that did not make him a big enough piece of the offense. This season, McCarthy mentioned adding more to Gallup's plate rather than having him exclusively play the X receiver role.
"Michael's very important," McCarthy said. "I think that the biggest thing with Michael -- and I know he wants it too -- he just wants to have a healthy season. He's been through these injuries here and he looks good. I mean this is really the first time in my time here he's had a full offseason program. Yeah, he's very important."
Gallup never felt right in 2022. He missed the first three games of the season while still recovering from the surgery. In the 11 games he played, he had two or fewer catches six times. He had more than 49 yards receiving in a game just twice. In his previous three seasons, he had 29 games with at least 50 yards receiving.
In addition to dealing with the inherent pressures of that $57.5 million contract and receiver Amari Cooper being traded away, there was a mental barrier Gallup had to break through just as much as a physical one, since he knew his body was not reacting the way it had in the past.
"I was thinking it, but I didn't want to say it. If you say it, you believe it," Gallup said. "It's just like that. I really didn't want to say it. I had those thoughts, but you gotta block them out."
He finished with 39 catches for 424 yards and four touchdowns, good for fourth on the team.
"It was definitely frustrating, just on my part," Gallup said. "Nothing to do with the team or anything like that, but just me coming back. I mean that was tough. I never had a big injury like that. It was different. I had to work a little bit harder. I had to do some things that I've never had to do. I could normally just walk out on the field and play. Couldn't do that."
Now he is springy, even if his 2023 offseason started off a little slower than he wanted because of arthroscopic surgery to his other knee. He has been back on the field, running routes and catching passes from Prescott. On Thursday, he caught back-to-back passes in a 2-minute drill and nearly had a touchdown but for a Stephon Gilmore breakup.
Prescott sees a difference.
"Just for him to get into this offseason, get his body right and now just starting to come back into who Michael Gallup is and feel himself, I think what you just saw is a couple of plays right there of doing that consecutively," Prescott said. "But that's a guy that I've got a lot of trust in. I know who he is, and more importantly, how he works and comes to work each and every day to get better. He's getting his feet under him and he's going to be better."
Gallup is three years removed from his only 1,000-yard season, so questions are lingering about his health and ability to be that guy again.
"I'm very confident I'll be that guy, for sure," Gallup said. "Very confident. It just feels different. It's kind of like in the air. I ain't going to lie to you. I'm smiling every time I walk in that facility."