It’s over. Once again, the Dallas Cowboys ended things not with a bang but a whimper as problems that had plagued them all season surfaced against the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round. There are a ton of postmortems about the game.
This is not one of those. What is done is done. Now, as with every team except the eventual winner of the Super Bowl, it is time to start trying to figure out how to get better and go farther in the coming season. While many will immediately focus on the NFL Draft, the Cowboys’ main tool for roster building, they will not pick until the 26th spot. It doesn’t come until April 27th. College prospect analyses are about to flood this and every other NFL site, but there is another crucial element of tying to improve the talent. That is free agency. Dallas has never put as much into that phase as many other teams, but one thing they do use extensively is deciding which of their own free agents to try and re-sign. This year it is a long list of names to consider.
Here are all of the Dallas Cowboys players set to hit free agency.— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) January 23, 2023
Who are the five most important ones to bring back in your opinion? pic.twitter.com/s2HzOmh1RN
That is a very good question, so let’s see about coming up with some answers. One important constraint is cap space, and the Cowboys are already slightly over the cap for the coming season. That is going to drive other important decisions to free up more space, but that is grist for another post.
The must have
RT Terence Steele
One of the issues that cropped up late in the season and affected performance down the stretch was the loss of starting right tackle Terence Steele to injured reserve. Assuming he will make a full recovery, they have to bring Steele back. He went from UDFA to quality NFL starter. This is going to be expensive, because good offensive tackles are like gold in the league. He’s earned a big payday on his second contract.
Now to see if the ownership understands this. They have so many other players that would be rather important in the fall. We are about to hear a lot about pie and other nonsense that really come down to an unfortunate focus on the bottom line for Stephen Jones. Paying starters like Steele is seen by Jones as a cost and not the investment in future success they really are. Expect a lot of unnecessary drama and gamesmanship on this one.
Keep them if you can
These are players that the team should have as priority re-signings. But as much as we (meaning I) gripe and moan about Jones’ parsimonious approach, the cap has to be used wisely to get the job done. While it can be manipulated to create a lot of money, that will eventually affect future seasons. As much as it would benefit the team to keep all these players, that is probably not possible, especially when their agents start fielding offers from other teams.
CB Anthony Brown
Some might disagree with this, as Brown takes a lot of criticism. But his loss really hurt the team. Again, if he is healthy the defense needs him back.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
The team declined his fifth-year option, instead signing him to a one-year deal for 2022. He responded with his best season ever, and when he missed games at the end of the regular season, it was obvious that his contributions as the quarterback of the defense were even more significant than his 90 tackles, second on the team. He is a force multiplier. This one might be complicated by that fifth-year declination, however. That alone might drive his cost up.
S Donovan Wilson
He led the team in tackles and was an enforcer on the field with bone-rattling hits. He is almost a must have, but the emergence of Israel Mukuamu might incorrectly tempt the team to think they might get by without him.
RB Tony Pollard
His loss with a broken fibula may have contributed significantly to the defeat in the divisional round. He was the most dynamic running back on the team all season, and it is an open question whether the team will move on from Ezekiel Elliott, whose only consistent contribution to the team was converting short-yardage situations. Pollard is expected to return from his injury in three months, which means he will effectively have a full offseason of work. But he is probably going to get serous interest from outside. If there is one position the team has consistently been willing to overpay, it is running back. That is not really a good thing.
The team needs all four of these, but it is doubtful they will retain all. More money might beckon for them elsewhere and there are only so many bidding wars Dallas will consider engaging.
Time to move on
TE Dalton Schultz
He would be too expensive. His contributions on the field were evident as the second leading receiver for the team, but he was already overpriced playing on the tag. And in the final minutes of the loss on Sunday, he made a couple of glaring mistakes, first not fighting hard to keep moving forward as he went out of bounds when the Cowboys needed the clock to stop, and then failing to get his second foot down for a completion, just looking lackadaisical. The play of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot gives the team hope it already has a replacement for him, and they will probably add another TE somewhere in the draft.
K Brett Maher
No explanation needed after he missed five extra points in the two playoff games.
The players listed above are the more important ones, but there are a group of players that should not be overly costly to bring back and could be valuable. Some of these will be back. How many will depend on the available space.
DL Dante Fowler or DT Johnathan Hankins
Fowler had a very good season, but is not a must have because of the performance of players like Osa Odighizuwa and Hankins.
Hankins turned out to be a great midseason trade. The line was much better against the run when he was on the field, and he provided some real push in the passing game, notching a sack against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wildcard game. It looks like an either/or choice between him and Fowler, and neither seem a bad way to go. Both are not likely to be expensive either as the are in the latter stages of their careers and would be good candidates for a relatively inexpensive one-year deal.
WRs Noah Brown and T.Y. Hilton
Brown was the third leading receiver for the team and may still have more to give as he had little experience as a WR before last season. Hilton did not see a lot of action after his late-season signing, but made some good contributions in that limited time. However, Hilton clearly has a shorter shelf life. He would be another candidate for a one-year deal, while Brown looks more eligible for a longer one.
LSs Jake McQuaide and Matt Overton
The team probably prefers McQuaide, but he could always opt to retire, and Overton was pretty much just as good. Long snappers play on the vet minimum, so either way is fine.
LB Anthony Barr
He was clearly not the player he once was, but was not often a liability and often made some very good plays. His veteran savvy makes him a possibility at the right cost.
OT Jason Peters
As a swing tackle, he could be a great re-signing. But he had injury and endurance issues when the team had to call on him. Not out of the question, but doubtful.
CB C.J. Goodwin
A perennial ST ace, he is a good shot for them to re-sign for John Fassel.
LB Luke Gifford
He is also primarily an ST piece, but has a bit of value as a depth linebacker. But don’t be surprised if they don’t bring him back.
DL Carlos Watkins
A fallback plan if they miss on both Fowler and Hankins. Otherwise, he probably won’t be back.
QB Cooper Rush
This is an interesting one. Rush was a hero for helping keep the season afloat while Dak Prescott was injured. That may wind up pricing him out of what Jones is comfortable paying. He will be in uniform somewhere this fall, but it seems doubtful it will be in Dallas.
RG Connor McGovern
One of the hardest calls to make. He obviously has starter experience, but expect the OL to be a priority in the draft. It all depends on what the staff thinks about his value. It could go either way, and if any other team makes a good offer, he is probably out of here.
RB Rico Dowdle
He has been plagued by injuries. Any chance he has is likely dependent on what they decide about Elliott and if they can retain Pollard. His best hope may be to make the offseason 90-man roster and wind up on the practice squad again.
The other names on the list look like other practice squad possibilities at best. They would probably start out on futures contracts if retained and would risk getting cut as the roster churns. That has already happened for C Alec Lindstrom.
Those are the first steps. Who makes the team again will then determine what holes the Cowboys need to fill with external free agents to set up for the draft.
Football never really ends.