We’re just a couple of weeks away from the start of the NFL’s 2023 free agency period. To help get Cowboys Nation ready for the annual football bazaar, let’s take a look at exactly who is scheduled to hit the open market from Dallas’ roster. We’ll break down some of the different free agent categories and also look at how the Cowboys may potentially handle their business with these players.
March 15th is the official start of NFL free agency this year. There will be a 48-hour period before that where teams are allowed to negotiate with players who have expiring contracts without being guilty of tampering. Some deals may be announced during that period, but nothing is official until 4:00 pm EST on the 15th.
What could happen before that key date? Trades and releases are possible at any point and often occur in the lead-up to free agency as teams look to clear their salary cap space. We’re also still to hear about the Cowboys and many other teams may choose to use their franchise tag, if they do at all.
Which Dallas players are on deck to become free agents in 2023? And what type of free agents will they be?
RELATED: Cowboys cap space | Cowboys salary cap 2023
Cowboys Unrestricted Free Agents
These are players with at least four years of accrued seasons in the NFL. They are the freest of free agents, not tied to their former team in any way.
- RB Tony Pollard
- TE Dalton Schultz
- S Donovan Wilson
- LB Leighton Vander Esch
- LB Anthony Barr
- LB Luke Gifford
- G/C Connor McGovern
- OT Jason Peters
- CB Anthony Brown
- CB C.J. Goodwin
- QB Cooper Rush
- WR T.Y. Hilton
- WR Noah Brown
- DE Dante Fowler Jr.
- DT Carlos Watkins
- DT Johnathan Hankins
- K Brett Maher
- LS Jake McQuaide
- LS Matt Overton
The only two reasonable candidates from this list who might get the Cowboys’ 2023 franchise tag are Tony Pollard or Dalton Schultz, and it looks like there is a real chance that’s what happens with Pollard. Because the sharp increase in one-year compensation for the player, Pollard and Schultz are the only guys who Dallas might be willing to pay $10-$13 million next season to retain their services. Pollard seems the most likely, costing just $10.1 million as opposed to $13.1 million for Schultz. The Cowboys also have a better in-house to replace Schultz with TE Jake Ferguson than they do at running back right now.
Other key free agents are starters from last year like S Donovan Wilson, LB Leighton Vander Esch, OL Connor McGovern, and CB Anthony Brown. Dallas will likely try to keep Vander Esch and Wilson but may let McGovern and Brown leave and hope for upgrades through internal development or bringing in some new talent.
Re-signing Wilson could be tricky with Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse already under contract as starters. While the Cowboys love their three-pronged safety rotation and Wilson was arguably the best performer last year, it could be too much money invested at one position to keep Donovan around. Dallas may instead let Wilson walk, look for a solid compensatory pick in return, and then hope either Israel Mukuamu or Markquese Bell can step up into his role.
There are other important roles represented by this list such as backup quarterback, swing tackle, and special teams duties. Not only is Dallas currently without a long snapper on the 2023 roster, but CB C.J. Goodwin has been Jim Fassel’s ace on kick coverage and a gadget player on trick plays. Dallas has already signed K Tristan Vizcaino to at least compete for Maher’s old job, but they’ll likely bring in a few more candidates there as well. Maher himself could be one of them.
Cowboys Restricted Free Agents
These are players with only three accrued seasons to their names. Their teams have the option to apply an RFA tender, paying the player a certain amount for 2023 and protecting their rights unless another team is willing to give up a draft pick to sign them away. The tenders for 2023 are $6 million for 1st-round pick compensation, $4.3 million for a 2nd-round pick, and $2.6 million for either the original draft pick (whichever round that player was drafted in) or right of first refusal for undrafted players.
The Cowboys only have two restricted free agents in 2023:
- OT Terence Steele
- RB Rico Dowdle
Steele is one of Dallas’ most-important free agents this offseason. He emerged as a stud right tackle last year and is still just 25 years old. Even using the 1st-round RFA tender would still be a bargain price for Terence’s services next year. But given that Steele’s coming off major knee surgeries, the Cowboys may forego the RFA tender and instead use this opportunity to sign him to a multi-year deal before his price potentially goes way up as an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
Rico Dowdle has had an unfortunate run with injuries during his three years in Dallas. At times he’s flashed enough offensive potential that we could be considering him for an expanded role, especially given Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott’s uncertain futures. But now he’s missed most of the last two seasons on injured reserve. The Cowboys might give him the veteran minimum to come back and compete for a job, but he doesn’t warrant anything beyond that.
Exclusive right free agents
The other free agent classification we see at times is an exclusive rights free agent. These are players with only one or two years of NFL service. All their former team has to do is offer them any kind of contract, even the CBA-required minimum, and they are unable to negotiate or sign with any other team. It takes all of the “free” out of free agency for that player. This season, the Cowboys do not have anyone who falls under the EFRA designation.
One note; players who are released do not fall under the RFA or EFRA criteria. It’s only when their previous contract has expired. For example, let’s say Dallas decided to cut CB Kelvin Joseph this offseason. He only has two accrued NFL seasons but, because he was cut before his rookie deal expired, he would simply be an unrestricted free agent.
That sets the stage for what’s ahead this offseason, at least in terms of what the Dallas Cowboys are currently set to contribute to the free agent market. We’ll find out over the next two weeks if they franchise one of their impending free agents, or if players like OT Tyron Smith, RB Ezekiel Elliott, and others join them as salary cap casualties. It should be a busy spring and summer for the Cowboys front office, and especially with their expressed goal of taking the next step toward Super Bowl contention.