Unlike past offseasons in recent memory, the Dallas Cowboys free agency period has been quite active. While they only signed their first external free agents on Tuesday, Dallas has made two big acquisitions via trade and re-signed several key players. They’ve also made some big decisions on franchise favorites that will give the team, particularly on offense, a different look going forward.
To recap this early flurry of activity, let’s get into some grading. Because moves are connected, it would make sense to break them down by position. Choosing to keep or add one player while losing another has to be looked at compositely; one may not have happened without the other. So we’ll run through the roster positions and evaluate, as of now, how the Cowboys have handled their business.
- Re-signed Cooper Rush for 2-years, $5 million
Cooper Rush isn’t the best backup QB in football. There are guys out there with more talent and/or experience. But the one thing he has that nobody else does is a six-year relationship with Dak Prescott that crosses over head coaches, offensive coordinators, and quarterbacks coaches. He’s been a fixture in the QB room since Prescott’s second season, minus that brief stint with the Giants, and has been a major contributor to the pre-game work.
Remember, Jason Garrett brought Cooper Rush with him when he left Dallas for New York. There’s a general thought out there that Rush wants to move into coaching one day and is already doing work in that regard as a mentor and aide to Prescott. There’s real value in that aspect of the QB2 role that goes beyond just what that player could do if he ever has to take the field.
But over the last two seasons, we’ve finally seen what Rush can do in that regard. He’s gone 5-1 as a starter between the 2021 game in Minnesota and his five-game stretch in early 2022. While nothing about his play is flashy, Cooper brings poise and basic stability to the offense and doesn’t present a gross liability. That’s a fine resume for a backup quarterback and especially for a team with the Cowboys’ lofty expectations.
Running Back: A
- Placed $10.9 million franchise tag on Tony Pollard
- Released Ezekiel Elliott as early June-1st cut
- Re-signed Rico Dowdle to 1-year deal
- Signed Ronald Jones to 1-year deal
Dallas deserves an “A” for not thinking with its heart and instead doing what had to be done with Ezekiel Elliott. While Zeke can still do good things for your team, there was no way to keep him and build a winner with a premium contract. The over $10 million in Cowboys 2023 cap space that Dallas will receive in June will help them to fund their rookie class’ contracts and perhaps make other late-offseason signings, such as we’ve seen with S Malik Hooker and OT Jason Peters in recent years.
Franchising RB Tony Pollard was a smart move. He’s been one of the best per-touch RBs in football for the last two years and could be even more dangerous depending on how much of the West Coast offense Mike McCarthy is installing in 2023. We’ll see if the tag is merely a placeholder for a long-term deal still to come, but retaining Pollard’s game-changing ability at just $10.1 million was not a bad deal.
The Rico Dowdle and Ronald Jones signings were both savvy moves with minimal cost. Dallas declined to put a restricted free agent tender on Dowdle after two years ruined by injuries, but the fourth-year back could still be a strong depth option both at RB and for his special teams work. Don’t forget that he beat out Malik Davis for the 53-man roster last year. As for Jones, he’s a former 2nd-round pick who’ll be 26 in August. He was a major contributor to Tampa Bay’s last Super Bowl championship team as picked up another ring last year in Kansas City, albeit buried on the depth chart. Jones provides a solid veteran insurance policy in case the Cowboys don’t come out of the draft with more RB talent.
Wide Receiver: B
- Traded w/ Houston Texans for Brandin Cooks
- Lost Noah Brown to Houston Texans
After all the angst over Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins, Dallas may have wound up with the best option for their needs. Cooks is still a top vertical threat among NFL receivers and gives the Cowboys’ offense what it sorely missed in 2022. To get him for just the 5th-round pick this year and a 6th in 2024 was a steal compared to what Arizona was asking for Hopkins. After being stuck in the chaos and misery of Houston’s offense the last few years, Cooks could even be better than folks realize.
This trade took a big red flag off the WR position ahead of the draft. You can live with the current depth chart next year, assuming Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert are not lost causes. The Cowboys could certainly hedge those bets with another veteran free agent or a Day 2 draft pick, but at least now Dallas doesn’t have to feel handcuffed in the draft.
Losing Noah Brown will hurt more than most fans realize given his utility work as a blocker and a core special teamer. Given his size, Simi Fehoko may be able to pick up some of that work. He may have to if he wants to get a third season in Dallas.
Tight End: A
- Lost Dalton Schultz to Houston Texans
I am a firm believer in devaluing the TE position. If Schultz taught us anything the last few years, it’s that an average talent can put up big numbers playing with Dak Prescott. Not paying Dalton to stay, even at the $9 million he got from the Texans, was a good move for Dallas’ overall cap management. There are only a few tight ends in the entire NFL who deserve game-changer money.
Jake Ferguson has already shown more as a rookie than Schultz did in 2018. That doesn’t preclude the Cowboys from adding more to the position, particularly a veteran to help Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot continue their development. But if Ferguson is the starter next year then there’s nothing that says he won’t provide similar results as Schultz did at a fraction of the cost.
Offensive Line: B
- Placed $4.3 million RFA tender on OT Terence Steele
- Kept OT Tyron Smith w/ restructured contract
- Signed G/T Chuma Edoga to 1-year deal
- Lost G/C Connor McGovern to Buffalo Bills
The only surprise of these moves, for me, was that Tyron Smith is still a Cowboy. The veteran seemed like a goner after another season marred by injury, but Smith was willing to convert much of his 2023 salary to incentives that reduced his overall cap hit. Tyron is betting on himself with this move and hopefully, still just 32 years old, he’s finally going to have the bounce-back season we’ve been waiting for. It’s risky on Dallas’ part, so hopefully they back it up with a Plan B.
Tyron’s return, which keeps Tyler Smith as the presumptive starter at left guard, mitigated the loss of Connor McGovern. Plus, Dallas added versatile Chuma Edoga as a depth piece both at guard and tackle. With Matt Farniok already in place for interior line depth, this is another area where Dallas has given itself solid coverage ahead of the draft.
Assuming he comes back as the same player from last year, Terence Steele is a bargain at just $4.3 million for your starting right tackle. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dallas tries to get ahead of his 2024 free agency with a contract extension now, but that wouldn’t happen until after most other offseason business has concluded.
Defensive End: A
- Re-signed Dante Fowler to 1-year deal
- Re-signed Takkarist McKinley to 1-year deal
There isn’t much to fuss about here. The group was already loaded with existing talent and Micah Parsons’ considerable work as a pass rusher. Bringing back Fowler, who chipped in six sacks as a strong rotation player, was a strong move toward preserving the defense’s potency. Takk McKinley will get another chance to work his way into a role but may need an injury or some other unforeseen issue to find an opportunity.
Unless the Cowboys intend to move Parsons back into a more traditional LB role, of which we have no indication at this time, then this position feels mostly done for now. Dallas will likely add some camp bodies in May but that’s the most I’d expect going forward.
Defensive Tackle: Incomplete
Nothing’s happened yet at DT and that’s not too surprising. Dallas has a solid nucleus with Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore, and Quinton Bohanna but need to fill out the group with at least one quality run stuffer and another strong rotation player. These aren’t the kind of moves you tend to see early in free agency. The Cowboys seems to be waiting for the next waves before they worry about bringing back Johnathan Hankins or Carlos Watkins, or replacing them with new free agents or through the draft.
- Re-signed Leighton Vander Esch for 2 years, $8 million
- Lost Luke Gifford to Tennessee Titans
Getting Vander Esch back was nice after his strong year and especially at a team-friendly contract. Now Dallas has to at least replace Anthony Barr or, if they can, upgrade the spot next to Leighton. Damone Clark is an exciting internal option but we need at least one more reliable player with starting potential in the mix. Jabril Cox will hopefully emerge this summer but you can’t count on that after last season. This is also a work in progress.
Luke Gifford rarely played on defense so his loss was more about special teams than anything. That’s one area at least where the athletic Cox can hopefully step up.
- Traded w/ Indianapolis Colts for Stephon Gilmore
If Dallas does nothing else at CB it will have been a great offseason. Gilmore is a huge upgrade from Anthony Brown as CB2 and should form an excellent top three with Trevon Diggs and either DaRon Bland or Jourdan Lewis. While he may turn 33 this September, Gilmore was still one of the top-rated corners in football in 2022 and getting him for just a 5th-round pick was a steal.
Some would have preferred that Dallas draft a corner early this year as the new starter. While that might have saved you money for the next four years, who’s to say that rookie would be ready to contribute right away? This was a win-now move for a team that’s desperately trying to do so.
The depth with Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, and Israel Mukuamu is great for this year’s camp and should yield a strong group overall. While you’d expect Joseph and Wright to be further along in their third seasons, Mukuamu seemed like the better player last year and could leapfrog them if he’s truly converting to corner.
- Re-signed Donovan Wilson for 3 years, $21 million
Keeping Wilson and preserving the three-pronged approach at safety with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker was an excellent continuity move. With Kearse spending a lot of time in a hybrid LB role on passing downs, all three guys were on the field for over half the total defensive snaps in 2022. And last year, Wilson was arguably the best of them. He’s an impactful playmaker who’s only getting better each year.
Again, with the three “starters” and Mukuamu and Markquese Bell for depth, the Cowboys could stand pat here and be just fine for next season. They won by keeping Wilson and not overpaying him.
Special Teams: C
- Signed K Tristan Vizcaino to 1-year deal
- Signed LS Trent Sieg
- Re-signed CB C.J. Goodwin
- Lost LS Jake McQuaide to Detroit Lions
Who knows if Vizcaino will actually be the kicker in 2023? He’s the only one under contract for now, but we can bet that at least one more leg will be brought to camp for a competition. For all we know, Brett Maher may still be on speed dial if new guys don’t work out.
Getting Trent Sieg as the new long snapper after a five-year run with the Raiders was a solid move. He’s been working with Rich Bisaccia, who we know and trust, during that time. Having a stable veteran in that role will be important as Dallas sorts out the kicking situation.
Retaining C.J. Goodwin is really a special teams move as he’s a non-factor on defense. Even at 33, Goodwin is still one of the best gunners in the business and leader for the unit. He could get forced out one day by a player with more versatile value in a primary position, but it hasn’t happened yet.