It’s time to move forward. While the playoffs are still going on elsewhere for other teams, the Dallas Cowboys have now joined the majority of the league in making plans and looking for ideas to improve in 2023. Despite the crushing disappointment of the postseason exit, there are some signs of hope. It is certainly arguable that the team had some good if incremental improvements over 2021. They won a playoff game and were neck-and-neck with the San Francisco 49ers until a fourth quarter when the offense inexplicably quit functioning. Their defense certainly played a good enough game to win. While it won’t go away, the inevitable talk about Mike McCarthy getting replaced can be disregarded, but we will be waiting to see if Dan Quinn or Kellen Moore depart, and we already know there will be a shake-up among the assistants.
It is therefore time to take stock and see what the priorities are for the Cowboys as they look to make the coming season more successful. However, that points to something that is actually rather troubling. If you look at the needs the team will have to address in free agency and the draft, the top three are pretty clear: wide receiver, cornerback, and offensive line. And when we looked the team over through the entire offseason in 2022, the top three needs were wide receiver, cornerback, and offensive line. It is at least arguable that those weaknesses were what kept the team from achieving more success last season, and will be huge inhibitors this fall if not addressed more successfully.
We discussed this whole idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Not all of the failings were necessarily mistakes on the staff’s part. It turned out that the cornerback room, and the entire secondary, were in better shape last season than we thought at the beginning. It was injuries to Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown that put a strain on things, and the strong rookie campaign of DaRon Bland helped keep things from really collapsing. Injuries create these kinds of situations for most teams every year. Dallas still has to shore up the secondary, especially if Brown leaves in free agency. They really cannot be faulted for this.
But they absolutely deserve some slings and arrows for wide receiver and offensive line.
The leading candidate for the worst decision made by the Cowboys last offseason is trading away Amari Cooper. He was the leading receiver for the Cleveland Browns while catching passes from Jacoby Brissett and a clearly rusty Deshaun Watson. It is painful to think about what he could have done with Dak Prescott throwing and CeeDee Lamb dividing the attention of the pass coverage. Instead of keeping a very talented player who was already under contract, they gave Michael Gallup, who was not even expected to be ready to play at the start of the season, a five-year, $57.5 million deal. It is safe to say he badly unperformed his contract last year. There is still a hope he will be better in the coming season, but hope is not a strategy. Free agency was an absolute bust at WR, with James Washington getting cut from the team before the season ended after never catching a pass.
The only other move the team made to shore up the depleted wide receiver room was drafting Jalen Tolbert in the third round. He made no contributions whatsoever on the offense last year. It is too early to label him a bust, but he is on the watch list. Now Noah Brown and late season addition T.Y. Hilton are both set to enter free agency, and it is a toss up as to whether either should be re-signed.
With Lamb the only proven receiver returning along with an iffy case in Gallup, wide receiver has to be a priority this offseason, possibly job one. The intelligent thing to do is use all available avenues. Go out and sign a quality free agent then use some draft capital to add more talent. Unless they can get them back dirt cheap, they should let both Brown and Hilton seek employment elsewhere and use the cap space to get a good free agent.
The major issue there is that pie that Stephen Jones covets like no other personnel manager in the league. He treats contracts like they are coming out of his own pocket, and he is not exactly a giving and generous guy. A properly introspective and open-minded GM (while Jerry Jones retains the title Stephen does the vast majority of the actual work) would critically evaluate his own performance and make the needed adjustments, there is no evidence that Stephen is capable. Expect the team to make another bargain-bin signing like Washington, with similar results. While Dallas is generally good at drafting, all picks are a gamble, and this year the Cowboys sit deep in the order at 26 (actually 27, but the Miami Dolphins forfeited their first-round pick.) Even worse, they only have six picks after trading their 2023 sixth-round spot for Johnathan Hankins. That turned out to be a good value, but Hankins is also a free agent. They are projected to gain three compensatory picks, but this is still not a lot of ammunition.
The issue on the offensive line last year was depth. They took Tyler Smith in the first round with the plan to use him at left guard, but had to move him back to his college position at left tackle when Tyron Smith was injured in training camp. It worked better than we imagined, and Tyler looks to be the future of the position. Tyron came back at the end of the season, so the Cowboys may have five good starters for 2023 if Terence Steele returns successfully from injury. But Tyron has suffered injury problems every season since 2016 and would be entering his thirteenth year this fall. That is more than the vast majority of players survive. Retirement or even a release by the team for cap considerations are definite possibilities.
Jason Peters was the only move they made in free agency, and only came after Tyron’s injury. He is also entering free agency and his performance in 2022 indicates that he is at best a swing tackle option that cannot be relied on to play an entire game. Once again, Stephen Jones’ stingy nature will probably preclude acquiring a good player to help the team at either tackle or the interior of the line. C/G is also a concern with Connor McGovern also entering free agency. McGovern was adequate or better as a starter, but an upgrade is certainly possible.
They really need to bring some quality college prospects via the draft, but have not shown a propensity for valuing interior offensive linemen. It might be that they will try and replicate what they did with Tyler Smith and look for a college tackle that can kick inside to guard if needed, but those are rare specimens. They also should not disregard finding some depth at center as the stretch of games when Tyler Biadasz was out demonstrated a lack of it.
It’s a lot to do with limited resources and, in the case of free agency, a lack of will. And it is almost identical to the challenges they faced last season and failed to properly address.
Deja vu is usually not fun.