With another NFL offseason upon us, it’s time to ask the annual question of the Dallas Cowboys‘ biggest roster needs from this year’s draft and free agency market. Based on their own contract situations, or just needs for improvement from previous talent, where should the Cowboys focus their energy and resources over the coming months?
Some positions are already in good shape for next year. For example. Dallas has to be pleased with the work of its current defensive ends and the promise of young guys like Sam Williams and Chauncey Golston for future development. It’s hard to see them making any big investments here in 2023 based on what they already have. At tight end, despite the expected departure of Dalton Schultz in free agency, there’s excitement around the duo of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot for next year.
Unfortunately, not every position is as well-stocked. Some need help even with everyone returning, and others will especially need attention based on expiring contracts and possible salary-cap casualties. Based on what we know and expect, here are the Cowboys’ top-five needs in this 2023 offseason.
1. Wide Receiver
There was a time when a starting duo of CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup would’ve given us all the confidence in the world. But while Lamb emerged as one of the NFL’s top receivers and true number one in 2022, Gallup didn’t have the comeback from his 2021 ACL injury that Dallas hoped for. The lack of a true second threat at receiver clearly neutered the offense, especially late in the season and in the playoff loss to San Francisco.
What’s worse, T.Y. Hilton and Noah Brown are about to become free agents. While both flashed some good things at times, it’s still a far cry from when the Cowboys offense boasted Lamb, Gallup, and Amari Cooper as its top three. Dallas may bring back one of them for depth but, especially until Gallup proves he’s all the way back, the need for a more potent third receiver is clear.
Ideally, one of the team’s recent draft picks at WR would be ready to take on more work. But with neither Jalen Tolbert nor Simi Fehoko inspiring faith yet, Dallas may need to go as high as its 1st-round pick to truly solve its WR problem now and for the next few years. Even if everyone was coming back from last year, the case is still made for a major talent infusion.
If not handled via the draft, this is the position where the Cowboys will likely make its biggest move in free agency. Odell Beckham Jr. is still out there, soon to be joined with many other new options. If they are going to let Schultz go at TE and gamble on youth there, Dallas can’t afford to take a casual attitude at WR.
Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr are both free agents and were the Cowboys’ two busiest linebackers in 2022. Micah Parsons played so much as a pass rusher that we barely think of him as a LB anymore, and that’s an important consideration for this offseason. If Vander Esch and Barr both leave, you only have Damone Clark and Jabril Cox left to pick up their considerable share of the defensive snaps.
While Clark looks ready to move into a more significant role, Cox barely played last year. Either re-signing Vander Esch or replacing him with an experienced middle linebacker is a key decision for Dallas. Leighton had a strong season and proved he’s worth a second contract. Now it’s a matter of how much he wants to make and what the Cowboys are willing to pay.
Any renewed relationship with Vander Esch comes with the asterisk of his well-documented health issues. He’s done well the last two years but, like Sean Lee before him, you have to be prepared for the bad times. Do you want Cox one injury away from major playing time, or do you want another solid veteran like Barr to help with depth?
3. Offensive Line
OT Terence Steele, G Connor McGovern, and OT Jason Peters are all free agents. Thankfully, Steele’s return is almost certain as just a restricted free agent. But that still leaves Dallas with two key potential losses for versatile depth.
Will OT Tyron Smith return? His contract presents the opportunity for $9.6 million in immediate salary cap relief. Considering how many games Tyron’s missed the last three years, the Cowboys may be ready to move on and spend those cap dollars on more reliable players.
There’s a clear ripple effect with how Dallas moves forward on Tyron. Is Tyler Smith playing left tackle or guard or in 2023? If he’s your new left tackle then that opens up a need at guard. Matt Farniok wasn’t great in that spot last year, particularly in pass protection. Unless the team intends to bring back McGovern, who’s been adequate but nothing special, then a fresh face feels likely.
Even with Tyler Smith and Terence Steele as a solid young duo of tackles for the next few years, a capable swing tackle is still a vital need. Maybe Matt Waletzko will be ready for that job in his second season, but obviously, Dallas has a lot of analysis and decision-making to do with the offensive line this offseason.
4. Running Back
Tony Pollard is probably getting the franchise tag but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. Until then, Dallas is left with just Ezekiel Elliott and Malik Davis at RB for next year. That simply isn’t enough, especially given Zeke’s clear decline over the course of last season.
Pollard’s return would take a lot of pressure off. Still, the question of whether or not Elliott returns on a pay cut or becomes a cap casualty is a big one. Davis seems like a solid backup option if Zeke leaves but Dallas may want to look for a bigger, stronger back for short-yardage situations.
A trio of Pollard, Elliott, and Davis is solid for next year. But to get there, Tony will have to be re-signed and Zeke will have to re-work his contract. Even for no real change from last season, that’s still of lot of work for the front office to get done.
Jourdan Lewis’ future is the key here. If Dallas is bringing him back, a top three of Lewis, Trevon Diggs, and DaRon Bland feels solid for next year. But with about $4.7 million in cap relief possible from Jourdan’s contract, will the Cowboys be considering a different route?
If nothing else, both Bland and Lewis are ideal for the slot role so you’d like to have a different option playing outside. With Bland emerging as a playmaker last year, it’s made Lewis somewhat expendable.
Finding a new CB2 to start across from Diggs could be seen as a key offseason goal. Anthony Brown is a free agent was never great at the job. Still, his absence was felt after a season-ending injury. The Cowboys may decide to focus on CB early in this year’s draft, both to strengthen the top three and as leverage for contract talks with Diggs in the near future
It’d be great if you could count on Kelvin Joseph or Nahshon Wright for a larger role in their third seasons but we just aren’t there yet. Joseph might not even make the team in 2023 at his current trajectory, falling down the CB depth chart and only working on special teams by the end of last year. Wright had some moments in his playing time but is still too raw to go up against starting-caliber receivers consistently.