You can’t get the job done if you don’t have a plan and a blueprint. The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of holes they need to fill on the roster through a combination of free agency and the draft. Clearly both avenues for acquiring new personnel have limitations. There are only so many draft picks to be used, even with trade backs. And as anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention knows, Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones has an almost phobic aversion to using up cap space for free agents. The approach for the past several years has been to sign low cost free agents before the draft to “plug the holes” and then rely on the draft to go for higher quality talent.
Those limitations make it even more important that Dallas have a coherent plan at filling the various roster gaps they face this season. Not only must the needs be identified, they need to be prioritized. Here is a possible plan for the team, based on the current state of the roster as shown at Outlads.com, and broken down by position. Note that for free agency this treats signing their own and bringing in outside players as interchangeable.
This is probably good news for the Cowboys. Quarterback is the most important piece of any team’s roster, and they have their starter in Dak Prescott plus backup Cooper Rush that the coaching staff, at least, trusts. Given that Rush’s only start last year was a win for the team, they may have a point. They already have Will Grier and Ben DiNucci under contract to vie for the QB3 job. There is no reason to spend any resources besides a possible UDFA signing here, and that may be totally unnecessary.
Ezekiel Elliott isn’t going anywhere for 2022, so the starter is in place and hopefully will be more productive after an offseason to heal his PCL. Tony Pollard is RB2, with most fans clamoring for him to get a bigger role.
The Cowboys carried three RBs for most games, and they have a pretty well-stocked group to find that player. Rico Dowdle, Ito Smith, and JaQuan Hardy all have flashed at times since joining the team, and Sewo Olonilua and Ian Bunting give them options if they want a true fullback. Again, they probably don’t have to sign a free agent or use a draft pick to add to this group.
QB and RB are positions that have no real issues. Wide receiver is the opposite, and one of the biggest question marks. Two of the starters from last season are returning, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, and Jones has already started making a case for why Cooper may not be retained. Last season’s WR3 and WR4, Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, are both entering free agency, as are Noah Brown and Malik Turner, the other two receivers who were used during the season.
That leaves Simi Fehoko, TJ Vasher, Robert Foster, and Brandon Smith. That is just not a promising pool to fill out the roster. Looking at this situation, it seems remarkable that Jones is even toying with the idea of moving on from Cooper. The team needs to re-sign Gallup or Wilson, or possibly both if they are indeed serious about not keeping Cooper. Given that at least one of that trio is probably not going to be on the team, they also have to be looking hard at draft prospects. This is a position that demands heavy investment this offseason if they pull the trigger on releasing Cooper.
The bad news is that last year’s starter, Dalton Schultz, is a free agent and will likely command a high price for his services. It would likely take him accepting a team-friendly deal to return, and that is very unlikely. Blake Jarwin is coming back from injury, and he was projected to start or at least be a major contributor before he was hurt. Jeremy Sprinkle and Sean McKeon were the backups last year. Ourlads lists Nick Ralston as a tight end as well, although that may not be the way the staff views him. It is not improbable that the team will do a little bargain shopping for depth in free agency, and then see if someone falls to them late in the draft. But this is not as high a priority as many other positions.
Both starters, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, are back. The team also seems to have found its swing tackle in Terence Steele, and he might have potential to become a starter in the future. But both Smith and Collins had some injury issues last season, plus Collins was suspended for six games. It is hard to be fully confident in their availability. Smith is also getting on in football years. Josh Ball and Isaac Alarcon are currently under contract. Both are largely unknown quantities at this time. This could be a sleeper need in the draft with an eye to the future. There may also be another bargain signing before the draft for insurance.
Zack Martin, arguably the best player on the entire team, is back, but Connor Williams is a free agent. Connor McGovern would be the presumptive starter for now. That is not highly encouraging given his performance last year when the team benched Williams over holding calls. The other names on the roster are Braylon Jones, Aviante Collins, and Mitch Hyatt.
This could be a first-round target for the Cowboys, with Texas A&M prospect Kenyon Green being mocked to them at 24 by some. There are also some good day two possibilities. Expect this to be a place some significant draft capital is spent.
Tyler Bidasz is back for his third year. His performance was mostly adequate, but hardly impressive. Matt Farniok seems to be developing into a decent backup.
But should a player like Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum be there at 24, he could be seen as a chance for a significant upgrade. As with guard, the team may also want to pull the trigger in the mid rounds as well to try and get better here.
There is an odd complication here, arising from the absolutely stellar debut season of Micah Parsons. He is outstanding both as a pass rusher and in a more traditional linebacker role. The team could be forced to make him more a defensive end depending on need, keep him at linebacker if they are strong at end, or use him in the swing role that he filled so well in 2021.
Jones has not offered much clarity in lumping DeMarcus Lawrence in with Cooper as players whose cap hits might make them expendable. Lawrence is one of the best defenders they have. It would seem much more logical to restructure him rather than move on. Still, we have to wait and see what happens. His bookend, Randy Gregory, is a free agent. Given Gregory’s spotty history before last season, it is hard to say how expensive it would be to bring him back, but the team should certainly try. Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston are coming back. They both may be more depth players than starter. Dorance Armstrong is also a free agent, and he would probably be more affordable than Gregory.
Parsons is a piece of the puzzle, and there are multiple ways to put this together. Depending on how free agency plays out, the team may be looking to reinforce this unit early in the draft. But it is clear they need numbers to round this out.
Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa look like a strong pair, particularly on passing downs. Trysten Hill and Quinton Bohanna may be developing into good rotational pieces, with Bohanna offering some hope of filling the neglected 1-tech role on early downs. Austin Faolliu and Josiah Bronson probably will struggle to make it out of camp.
Brent Urban missed most of 2021 on IR, and he is now a free agent. His contributions, especially in the run game, were missed after he went out. He is a player the team should go hard after to re-sign. That is if they are smart. We will have to see.
Just like at DE, things are very dependent on what role Parsons has this year. And behind him, things are sparse. Jabril Cox missed all of last season on IR. There are high hopes for him, but nothing is certain. Other than those two, the team has Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard, and Devante Bond. Both Gifford and Bernard have been more special teams assets than anything else.
Add this to the positions where both free agency fills and draft picks should be in the mix. Unlike the other positions, the Dallas free agents, Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal, are not ones that seem viable targets to bring back.
The team has all three 2021 starters under contract with Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, plus promising second-year player Kelvin Joseph. Nashon Wright, Kyron Brown, and special teams ace C.J. Goodwin round out the room.
It could be a workable plan to roll with what they have. But Brown and Lewis both could be candidates for Jones to release for cap space. Still, if either is retained, the situation is not desperate. And you can never have too many good corners, so watch this as well in the draft.
Last season saw the Cowboys field the best group at the position in a long, long time. Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Demontae Kazee, and Donovan Wilson were instrumental in the great improvement of the defense under Dan Quinn.
Unfortunately, Kearse, Hooker, and Kazee are all now free agents. Kearse is being discussed as one of the biggest priorities the team should have for bringing back some of their own. His performance was crucial, and to a degree a bit under the radar, which might make it easier for a deal to be worked out that Jones would find palatable. Other than Wilson, the Cowboys have Darian Thompson, Israel Mukaumu, and Tyler Coyle. Something has to be done here, and Dallas has been notably reluctant to do much in the draft to address the position. They could and should fix this in free agency, primarily their own, and without breaking that somewhat mythical salary cap bank.
The Cowboys have no long snapper under contract, but since those pretty much all make the same in the league, they could easily re-sign Jake McQuaide, who is a John Fassel guy. Another Fassel favorite, Greg Zuerlein, remains under contract, but with the team bringing in Chris Naggar to provide some competition at kicker, many are hoping Zuerlein winds up being released for some easy cap space. And if Naggar is not the guy they are looking for, there are always options, like UDFA prospects. Hunter Niswander is the only punter under contract, and he did not do badly in his previous stint with the Cowboys. But Bryan Anger is certainly worth consideration for re-signing after he made second-team All Pro.
Summing it up
Here are three tiers (in no particular order within each) to rank the needs for the team to address through a combination of free agency and the draft:
PULL THE TRIGGER IF THE RIGHT PLAYER IS AVAILABLE
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT UNTIL UDFA SIGNINGS
It is not a good year to face both a tight cap situation and limited draft picks. It is what the team must deal with, however. Some of these positions will obviously not be as well addressed as others. But this is still a workable blueprint for how to handle constructing the 2022 roster.