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Crystal ball: Cowboys late-round picks may be early predictor for 2023 free agents

The Cowboys stance on the salary cap is well known, which makes drafting replacement players more important.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The NFL Draft is a week away, and the focus for the Dallas Cowboys remains using their top-100 picks to replace marquee players that left this offseason. Cap casualties like Amari Cooper and La’el Collins help narrow down the choices for the 24th overall pick, where offensive line and receiver are the favorites, but later-round picks can be harder to predict.

The Cowboys have four picks in the fifth round, where current receiver Simi Fehoko represents the only pick from this round still on the roster. Not only do the Cowboys need to hit on an impact starter with their first pick, but this draft cycle would be a great time to add better depth in the later rounds.

Though it’s far too early to know what contracts could be restructured or come off the books entirely, the basis of the Cowboys free agency approach likely isn’t changing soon. A look ahead at next year’s class of free agents may be valuable as early as next weekend, when the Cowboys are making their final picks looking for depth to replace players that could be on their way out.

Teams also value prospects they’re familiar with as the draft goes on, with pre-draft visitors listed alongside some of the bigger name free agents the Cowboys will be negotiating with around this time next year.

Tight End

2023 Free agents: Dalton Schultz, Jeremy Sprinkle, Sean McKeon

Pre-draft visits: Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State), Jalen Wydermyer (Texas A&M), Cade Otton (Washington), Jelani Woods (Virginia)

The Cowboys have Dalton Schultz on the franchise tag this season, giving them time to work out a new long-term deal with their starter. Schultz could use help as early as this year, beyond McKeon and the veteran Sprinkle who returns on a one-year deal for 2022.

Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert and Virginia’s Jelani Woods are the prospects that can make an immediate impact. Ruckert’s pro comparison according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein is actually Schultz, while Woods is one of the best pure athletes in the draft.

If the Cowboys aren’t sold on drafting a tight end high, they should be able to target Otton and Wydermyer on day three.

Defensive Tackle

2023 Free agents: Carlos Watkins, Trysten Hill

Pre-draft visits: Jordan Davis (Georgia), Demarvin Leal (Texas A&M), Perrion Winfrey (Oklahoma), Logan Hall (Houston)

This isn’t a position the Cowboys have prioritized in some time, but they have a number of promising players already on rookie contracts. Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston can provide an inside pass rush while Quinton Bohanna will get another year with Carlos Watkins at the 1-tech spot.

The Cowboys pre-draft visitors at DT gives off some cautious optimism that defensive tackle might be a position they look to upgrade early in the draft. Jordan Davis may not even make it to their first pick, after anchoring a national championship defense for Georgia. Texas A&M’s Demarvin Leal and Houston’s Logan Hall are potential second-round candidates with high upside for their pass rush.

They should look to come away from this draft with at least one player capable of taking snaps on the interior. Doing so would help them move on from Trysten Hill when his contract comes up, but otherwise the team doesn’t have too much cap space tied up in their future here.

Linebacker

2023 Free agents: Leighton Vander Esch, Luke Gifford

Pre-draft visits: Devin Lloyd (Utah), Quay Walker (Georgia), Devin Harper (Oklahoma State), James Houston (Jackson State)

There was a point in Leighton Vander Esch’s career when extending him following his rookie contract was a no-brainer, but that faded quickly after a strong 2018 season. The Cowboys did bring back Vander Esch for 2022, if only to keep their options more open in the draft and a veteran presence at the position.

Micah Parsons is the cornerstone player here, and the Cowboys are hopeful Jabril Cox can flourish at the other linebacker spot. At least for this season, they’ll also have “safety” Jayron Kearse, who functions as a linebacker down in the box for some defensive formations.

Similar to their visitors list at tight end, where the Cowboys have at least one locked-in starter, the linebackers brought to The Star cover a wide range of projections.

Devin Lloyd or Georgia’s Nakobe Dean should be the first linebacker drafted. The Cowboys doing their due diligence on Dean’s teammate Walker also makes sense, an ascending prospect with pro-ready speed and range. The options on their 30 list drop off heavily after Lloyd and Walker, with Harper and Houston both being day three or UDFA options.

Dan Quinn’s scheme asks a lot from the linebacker position, but it doesn’t feel like the Cowboys are in great position to draft one high if they pass on Lloyd or Dean at 24.

Running Back

2023 Free agents: Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle, Sewo Olonilua, Ryan Nall

Pre-draft visits: Malik Davis (Florida)

Remember the days when the Cowboys roster was always heavy at running back, with a fullback for good measure? They are long gone, and the future of the position is in serious flux. Other than Jaquan Hardy, every running back not named Ezekiel Elliott will be playing on an expiring deal this season. Next offseason also offers a potential out for the Cowboys to move on from Elliott, which would make re-signing Tony Pollard a top priority.

Since the Cowboys are still trying to sell a win-now approach and have their starter here for 2022, it’s no surprise to see just one running back on their visits list. Malik Davis rushed for 526 yards in seven games as a freshman at Florida, but never recreated this production after a knee injury.

The skill position the Cowboys are firmly in the market for is receiver, and if they want to keep up with trends on offense they’ll consider taking a flyer on a receiver that can also line up in the backfield to sneak more depth at running back.


The Cowboys have the early round success rate to make next week a positive in an otherwise turbulent offseason, but they owe their cap situation and lack of roster depth to free agency and draft misses in the later rounds. Asking any team to fix all of this with one draft class is an impossible task, but the Cowboys are set up nicely to get the 2022 roster back to where it was a year ago - with upgrades at receiver, offensive line, and defensive end.

If Dallas checks these boxes early as expected, their focus in rounds four through seven could shift to following the cap crunch they’ll be dealing with next offseason.