It’s been a busy few weeks for the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL as a whole during the initial waves of free agency. While Dallas has already been aggressive in its pursuit of new talent and retention of some key players, their work is far from over in terms of preparing for the 2023 season. With the draft still to come and plenty of other free agent options still available, what are the Cowboys’ biggest needs going into April?
Back in February, I gave my take on Dallas’ five biggest offseason needs. You can follow the link to see my analysis at that time. To save you a click, here were those top-five needs for the Cowboys to address:
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Line
- Running Back
We’ve seen a lot of activity on these fronts already this offseason. RB Tony Pollard was franchised, LB Leighton Vander Esch was re-signed, OTs Tyron Smith and Terence Steele were both retained, and Dallas pulled off trades for veteran WR Brandin Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore. Less headline-inducing moves such as the signings of RB Ronald Jones and G/T Chuma Edoga have also helped bolster these positions going forward.
While not originally considered key areas of need, Dallas has also retained S Donovan Wilson, DE Dante Fowler, backup QB Cooper Rush, and special teams ace C.J. Goodwin for next season. They also addressed an underrated need at long snapper with veteran Trent Sieg from the Raiders.
Of course, there have also been subtractions along the way. TE Dalton Schultz signed with Houston and G Connor McGovern left for Buffalo. Longtime backups like WR Noah Brown and LB Luke Gifford also found new teams in Houston and Tennessee, respectively.
So after all of this player movement, where does that leave the Cowboys’ roster heading into the next phases of the 2023 offseason? Here’s how I’d rank the position needs today:
As always, we have to throw out the disclaimer that Micah Parsons doesn’t really play LB in this defense. You might as well count him among the defensive ends regardless of what his official position says.
While re-signing Leighton Vander Esch was a great move, especially at a relative discount of just $4 million per season, there’s still the matter of Anthony Barr’s free agency to address. While second-year prospect Damone Clark does seem like a great find for a 5th-round pick, is it too much too soon for him to just slide right up the depth chart into Barr’s considerable role from last year?
Even if the team firmly believes in Clark’s potential and immediate ability to contribute, it’s hard to say the same at this point about backup Jabril Cox. He flashed some nice stuff as a rookie but was invisible last year as he recovered from 2021 ACL surgery and never really returned. Given the injury histories for Vander Esch and Clark, do you really want Cox that close to major playing time?
Finding another key rotation piece at linebacker, or perhaps upgrading the position from what Barr provided a year ago, is a critical element for Dallas going forward. They need to be prepared against injury but also strengthen their run support and coverage in the middle of the field. If nothing else, the depth chart is paper thin and has to be bolstered with a few more reliable talents.
We really have to look at these together because of how interwoven they’ve become by the current personnel. Where does Dallas intend to use Tyler Smith next year? Are they actually thinking of moving Terence Steele to guard? There are a lot of moving parts here.
Regardless of the actual plan, Dallas needs at least a few more solid pieces moving forward. We hope that Tyron Smith finally puts together a healthy season but we now have seven seasons of evidence to the contrary. Jason Peters was an important element last year and may not be adequately replaced by Chuma Edoga. As of yet, neither Josh Ball nor Matt Waletzko has shown that they can be trusted for any significant role.
Matt Farniok should replace Connor McGovern as a capable interior line backup with guard/center flexibility, but McGovern was a 15-game starter last year. Maybe Tyler Smith or even Steele take over at LG, but that means you’re trusting Tyron Smith to give you a long season at one of the tackle spots. Again, the ripple effects leaves questions and liabilities at multiple positions.
Even if you can get by with current personnel for one year, 2023 could be the last we see of both Tyron Smith and Terence Steele. Dallas could both improve the current depth and prepare for the future with a significant investment in the offensive line now.
3. Tight End
Do I have too much faith in Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot? Maybe, but so far it seems the Cowboys agree with me. They let Schultz walk and have yet to replace him, which seems to indicate they’re at least comfortable with Ferguson as the potential starter going forward.
I maintain the opinion that Schultz was an average talent who had premium production thanks to the offensive scheme and his quarterback. With Ferguson already flashing more potential as a rookie than Dalton did in his first season, why couldn’t the next mid-round TE come in and be a similar asset?
Of course, a Day 1 or Day 2 pick at tight end is still possible in next month’s draft. But even if Dallas doesn’t go that route, which would be fine by me, they still need at least one more player of consequence to fill out the depth chart. I think Sean McKeon is an intriguing prospect but at least one experienced veteran, particularly one with some blocking skills, is needed for the rotation and some critical short-yardage situations
4. Running Back
Releasing Ezekiel Elliott was more an emotional blow than a practical one. Dallas already mitigated some of the on-field loss with veteran Ronald Jones, plus bringing back Rico Dowdle for another attempt to stay healthy and contribute. But even at his diminished capacity, Zeke was still a major player whose absence shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Tony Pollard may deserve to be RB1 at this point but that doesn’t mean he can handle a bell cow workload. Maybe Dallas is happy with some combination of Jones, Dowdle, or Malik Davis handling the other touches but what if Pollard were to get injured? What if the offensive line doesn’t gel together as you hope? Pollard has the talent to make something out of nothing but you’d be asking a lot of others to perform in unideal circumstances.
While going back to the 1st-round well for a RB may seem hypocritical after what just happened with Zeke, doing it at the 26th pick is a big difference from fourth overall. I think they’ll wait until at least Day 2, but I expect Dallas to boost the talent level from the current options with one of their earlier picks this year.
5. Defensive Tackle
The young core of Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore, and Quinton Bohanna is still solid and Dallas just re-signed veteran Johnathan Hankins to a one-year deal. Hankins was arguably the second-best DT on the team last year, even after only joining in late October.
Stopping the run remains a weakness for Dan Quinn’s crew. We thought Bohanna was emerging as a run stuffer last year but the consistency just wasn’t there. Maybe he truly blossoms in his third season but the Cowboys couldn’t rely on that and wisely retained Hankins.
Even Odighizuwa and Gallimore aren’t the impact players you’d love to see in the middle of the line. They’re perfectly good players as former third-round picks but certainly not among the NFL elite. Dallas couldn’t be faulted if it used a significant pick to upgrade the position and add another playmaker to the defensive front.
6. Wide Receiver
Trading for Brandin Cooks went a long way to helping matters here. It reestablished a solid top three with CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, assuming that Gallup is finally all the way back from his 2021 injury. It also took some pressure off of Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko, plus gave Dallas some more flexibility with its early draft strategy.
Still, we just listed several concerns. What if Gallup is still not right? What if Tolbert and Fehoko are busts? And what if Cooks doesn’t integrate with the offense as we hope, or take a big backward step as he turns 30 in September?
The Cowboys would be entirely justified to invest more at the WR position. Even if the current options work out for 2023, you’re also approaching some big contract decisions with Lamb and may get a few years out of Cooks. At least one more reliable option, particularly one with a fresh rookie deal, could help now and later.
It’s a similar situation at CB to WR. Trading for Stephon Gilmore shored up the starting trio but still left some depth concerns. With Anthony Brown probably not getting re-signed, at least Dallas still has either Jourdan Lewis or DaRon Bland as a capable backup.
Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are the Tolbert and Fehoko of this position, and with even less excuse given their original draft picks. Thankfully, Dallas does have Israel Mukuamu as a potential depth option with his flexibility in the secondary.
Like Lamb, Trevon Diggs is also coming up on a new contract. The needs based on current talent are slightly less than WR, but Diggs’ future is even more of a predicament as the team has no 5th-year options on his deal. Therefore, Dallas is equally wise to consider bringing in another talent here.
Hopefully, Dallas knows more about Tristan Vizcaino than we do because right now all we see is a camp body walking into the job. Brett Maher may have imploded in the playoffs but he was one of the best kickers in football before January. At the very least, Vizcaino needs some competition to put pressure on his attempts in practice.
Tyler Biadasz has developed into a fine starter but the depth is questionable. Matt Farniok is inexperienced and Alec Lindstrom was just an undrafted free agent last year. With Biadasz also coming up on an expiring contract, the Cowboys could be considering both an upgraded backup and their leverage for contract talks with Biadasz next year.
Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush have the top of the depth chart covered and may be the only two QBs on the roster next year. But if Dallas, especially with Mike McCarthy’s influence, is serious about their QB development then adding a new prospect in the draft seems highly possible. Will Grier hasn’t earned anything so at least giving him some real competition for a roster spot would make sense.
11. Defensive End
With Dante Fowler re-signed and the potential development of Sam Williams and Chauncey Golston, this group already seemed locked in for next year. There especially isn’t much need here unless Micah Parsons is going to start playing as a more traditional 4-3 linebacker. Still, it never hurts to keep the pipeline strong. Dorance Armstrong’s contract expires next year so a need could arise sooner than later.
Bringing back Donovan Wilson preserved the trio with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker. It also left Israel Mukuamu and Marquese Bell as adequate backups with intriguing upside but no immediate need to play major snaps.
13. P, LS, KR/PR
The Cowboys covered themselves at LS with Trent Sieg, whose spent several years as Rich Bisaccia’s long snapper in Las Vegas. They also are set with their return specialist in KaVontae Turpin, though should have at least one good backup option ready on the roster.
Bryan Anger is still a solid punter, making the Pro Bowl just a year ago, but turns 35 in October. The Cowboys may want to have a Plan B ready in case Anger’s increasing starts accelerating any declining skills.