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Stephen Jones talks Tony Pollard and franchise tag, Terence Steele recovery, Tyron Smith returning and more

The Cowboys EVP spoke on Tuesday out in Indianapolis.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We have reached the week of the NFL Combine which means brain-trusts from every National Football League team are in Indianapolis evaluating draft prospects. With personnel from every club in attendance this week, it also serves as an opportunity to hear from notable people and that obviously includes the Dallas Cowboys.

Things got started on Monday when some Stephen Jones comments to ESPN made the rounds, and while there was hardly any breaking news, the fact that Stephen said the things he did on the record was notable. One of the headlining quotes was the implication that the Cowboys will extend quarterback Dak Prescott this offseason.

Stephen spoke again on Tuesday to a group of local reporters and there are some important takeaways.

It is starting to feel more and more likely that the Cowboys will place the franchise tag on Tony Pollard, plus he and Terence Steele will be ready for training camp

The Cowboys have used their franchise tag five offseasons in a row and Stephen Jones reiterated to ESPN that they are “not afraid of it” this year.

While Dallas tagged tight end Dalton Schultz last year, the most logical candidate to receive it this year is running back Tony Pollard. Stephen did not say that this was going to happen, but he did a lot of implying to suggest that it will.

Stephen noted that the team will “more than likely” use their tag and also spoke about how Pollard will be ready for training camp this year in terms of the recovery associated with his fractured fibula. That the team is talking about Pollard in a future tense suggests that they are planning on him being around.

Again, the Pollard news is hardly shocking, but if and when the Cowboys do place it on him they will be locking him in for 2023 at about $10M which is obviously a lot of money to pay a running back; however, there is no team that knows the perils of paying that position better than this one.

Speaking of!

Stephen Jones mentioned that Ezekiel Elliott is making a lot of money and noted the team is not afraid to draft a running back late in the first round

The writing has been on the wall for a few years now that the Cowboys could be looking to get out of the contract that they gave Ezekiel Elliott back in 2019 here in 2023. Time will tell if they ultimately do so given that Zeke is a front office favorite.

It was seven years ago when Dallas took Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and Stephen is talking like they are definitely considering making a change. He noted that Zeke is making a lot of money and also suggested that the team could consider taking another running back at the end of the first round this year where they are currently slotted.

Jones added that Zeke “knows” he is making a lot of money which lines up with reports from the offseason that they could talk to him about restructuring his contract; however, if the team is in fact going to place the franchise tag on Tony Pollard then they are already going to be pretty committed to the running back position. You have to have money for other spots.

What’s more is that the Cowboys need to have money for the future. They are clearly aware of that.

CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs are both in the team’s plans long-term

It should come as no surprise that the Cowboys want to keep their top two picks from the 2020 NFL Draft in CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs. As they were selected three years ago they are both eligible for contract extensions for the first time in their careers which means the Cowboys need to get to work.

Stephen noted that the team will likely pick up Lamb’s fifth-year option, but Diggs does not have one given that he was taken in the second round. Stephen noted that both players are in the team’s long-term plans, but we will see what progress they make there in the coming months.

The Cowboys spoke at length a year ago about preparing for this offseason and the extensions that are to come. They are only a year away from Micah Parsons being eligible for an extension which means they have to constantly be looking forward.

On this subject, Stephen again mentioned the idea of extending Dak Prescott (a move that would create significant salary cap space for this offseason). We mentioned this at the top, but again this does feel rather inevitable.

Prescott’s deal was designed for this move to be made in 2023. The Cowboys are well-known for adjusting the contracts of their cornerstone players and Prescott obviously falls into that category.

There is another one of those that the Cowboys are going to have to make a decision on as well.

Tyron Smith is expected back and the team may re-work his contract

Last season started off on a rough note along the offensive line as left tackle Tyron Smith was lost for significant time before it ever began. That led to Tyler Smith taking over at left tackle which certainly went better than expected, but it felt like the end of the Tyron era in many ways.

Of course Tyron returned and wound up playing right tackle in a move that none of us could have ever seen coming thanks to the Steele injury. The Cowboys spoke at the Senior Bowl about how they expected Tyron to return in 2023 and Stephen doubled down on that again on Tuesday.

Michael Gehlken notes here that Stephen “did not rule out” a re-working of Tyron’s contract which could be a bread crumb that this is in fact coming at some point in the offseason. If Tyron returns, the Cowboys could line him up at left tackle and play Tyler Smith at left guard like they originally envisioned, but we are a long way from those conversations.

The conversations that will need to happen first and foremost have to do with pending free agents. While Pollard may not even reach free agency due to the franchise tag, the team’s most-important free agent will.

Leighton Vander Esch “absolutely” did enough to justify being brought back

Since the fifth-year option became a thing for first-round picks as a part of the 2011 CBA the Cowboys have only not picked it up for two players (Taco Charlton never reached a point where they had to make a decision as he was cut at the beginning of his third season). Morris Claiborne and Leighton Vander Esch are the answer to this trivia question, but they share another common denominator as well.

Both Claiborne and Vander Esch returned to the Cowboys for a fifth season on a one-year deal. Vander Esch is coming off of that and had a tremendous season. Stephen noted on Tuesday that the linebacker “absolutely” did enough to warrant being brought back.

It is possible that other teams view LVE as someone worthy of paying a high price to. You can’t keep everybody and there is a world where he leaves for greener pastures. Vander Esch is another candidate to receive the franchise tag but that appears unlikely. There is one more name that could receive it and the Cowboys do seem keen on bringing him back.

It will be a “priority” to bring back safety Donovan Wilson

There was once a time where it felt like the Cowboys could not find a safety to save their life, and then we blinked and they had a handful who were very good. Welcome to the future.

Donovan Wilson has been a part of this new renaissance for the Cowboys and as a sixth-round pick from back in 2019 he is also set to hit free agency. Wilson is a candidate to receive the franchise tag but it is hard to see the Cowboys committing a serious amount of money to the safety position even if they have found success there as of late. Nevertheless, Stephen noted that it will be a priority to keep Wilson around with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker.

We have about two weeks to go until free agency begins in the NFL and it stands to reason that Wilson could be a hot name on the market for other teams across the league. You can’t keep everybody and it is possible that Wilson is a name that winds up leaving.

Time will tell what the Cowboys wind up doing with their players, but we do know that their coaching staff is already set.

It was apparently Mike McCarthy’s decision to move on from Kellen Moore and to call plays on offense

Moments after the NFC Championship Game ended it was reported that the Cowboys were moving on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore after five years of service with the team, four in that particular role.

In the coming weeks it was revealed that Brian Schottenheimer would succeed Moore as the team’s offensive coordinator and that head coach Mike McCarthy would call plays like he did for the majority of his time as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Many have speculated on the sequence of events and where they came from; according to Stephen it was McCarthy’s decision to move on from Moore and to assume play-calling duties.

This isn’t shocking, but like a lot of things it is the first time that a Cowboys official has gone public with the information. It makes sense that McCarthy would want to take over and given his history calling plays for him to take that over as well.

The Cowboys appear to be leaning into Mike McCarthy and his position as their head coach which, obviously, makes a lot of sense. This is his team and will go as he does, and however that ultimately works itself out, we are at the very least going to have the answer to that this time next year.

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