NFL free agency doesn’t start until March 15th, with a two-day “legal tampering” period leading up to it. While it is widely understood that back-channel contact with agents goes on before that, teams can do nothing official until the 1:00 pm ET start of the league year on that date. Except with their own free agents. Teams are allowed to negotiate with them and sign them to extensions of the contracts that will not expire until that moment. The Dallas Cowboys have long had a strong preference for their “own guys” and in many years, the biggest moves they make in free agency involve re-signing their own, like the DeMarcus Lawrence and Michael Gallup deals from last year. They not only consider bringing back their own free agents a vital part of the process, it is arguably the most important part for them.
Of course, those deals are slices of the same pie that is used to sign the entire free agent class, and no team is more conservative about serving those up than the Cowboys. This limits just how many players they can bring back. This year, they have a big group of players whose contracts expire this spring. There are 23 names currently on the list. Two others have been signed to reserve/futures contracts, C Alec Lindstrom and S Juanyeh Thomas, but those are minimum deals that are little more than small pieces of crust.
Many others on the list are of little interest, but there are some big contributors from last year. The Cowboys are just not going to be able to sign everyone they might like.
While it is just a projection, bet on them finding space to bring back three of their main free agents. All of these could become involved in a bidding war if they get to March 15th without a deal, so part of the team’s strategy should be working something out before then.
Here, with no guarantee of accuracy, are the top three.
RT Terence Steele
His injury late last year hurt the team down the stretch, which somewhat paradoxically increased his value. While the got Tyron Smith back in time to fill in, Smith is a better left tackle. Reports are that Smith wants to play another year, his thirteenth. But there is always the durability issue with him. He has not played a complete season since 2015, and only started 17 games over the past three years, or just one complete season’s worth.
It appears that Tyler Smith is the present and the future at left tackle, and they just can’t rely on Tyron to make it through a season as the right tackle.
That seems to make Steele the top priority to re-sign, because the offensive line is the foundation for anything you want to do on offense. And with him, Dallas has a huge advantage. Since he was originally signed to a three-year deal as a UDFA, he is a restricted free agent this year. That means the team can tender him, forcing any other team who wants to sign him away to give the Cowboys draft compensation. There are two levels of tender, but since a quality starting right tackle, which describes Steele, is so valuable Dallas should make his a first-round tender, which means that if another team does sign Steele away, they must give the Cowboys a first-round pick. That is generally sufficient deterrent to prevent another team from doing so.
Further, the tender is cheap. Last year, the compensation for a player re-signed on a first-round tender was the greater of 110% of their prior year’s base salary or $5.562 million, per NFL.com. That will go up, but it is still a bargain for a right tackle with three years’ starting experience.
This one seems a no-brainer.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
Just like Steele, Vander Esch missed games at the end of last season, although he did return for the playoffs. And just like Steele, his absence affected the entire defense, and once he came back for the playoffs there was a clear improvement. He was the signal-caller for the defense, and also responsible for getting everyone into position.
While there is a strong argument to not let another team steal him away, which means being willing to outbid any outside offer, his situation may be complicated by his history with Dallas. He was a first-round pick who made a big splash as a rookie, but seemed to decline the latter part of his rookie deal. The decline was so much that the Cowboys passed on picking up his fifth-year option. Instead, they signed him to a one-year “prove it” deal paying only $2 million after his injury caused him to miss some roster bonuses.
Now his price tag is going back up, possibly by a significant amount. And there are likely to be more teams interested in him than last year, when he was coming off a bad season.
Countering that is the consideration that he may have flourished because he was playing in the second year of the Dan Quinn defense. He may just be a near-perfect fit for that scheme, and not so valuable to other teams.
Still, expect Quinn to be pounding the table to bring back his defensive quarterback. And Quinn carries a lot of weight in the building.
CB Anthony Brown
When Anthony Brown was injured, it had a clearly negative effect on the secondary. The emergence of rookie DaRon Bland helped ameliorate things, but with Jourdan Lewis also injured, the team really missed Brown.
Like Steele, there is a caveat about his recovery, but nothing indicates that either is not going to be 100% for this year. If they bring him back, and Lewis is also ready to go, they have both a strong trio of starters with Trevon Diggs, and quality depth.
Dallas has a better grasp of his health than any other team. That injury may depress his market a bit for the rest of the league, but the Cowboys need to be prepared to pony up to keep Brown.
You may be wondering about a few names that are not on this list. If Dallas finds the wherewithal to sign another one of the free agents that may have a good market, it will come from this group. However, there is one that should not be brought back at all.
RB Tony Pollard
He was easily the most effective running back the team had. Many are projecting the team to put a franchise tag on him. Well, they shouldn’t.
Don’t take my word. Dan Rogers made an excellent argument why not, and why the team needs to move on from Ezekiel Elliott as well. It is detailed and lays out how successfully other teams have addressed the position without investing either high draft picks or big free agent dollars. Your really need to click the link and read it if you haven’t already, but here is the key part of his argument, with all the data and rationale you really need.
Running backs don’t matter.
Admittedly, this is a bit like politics or religion, where some just have a fixed position and nothing will get them to move. But Dan is correct. The Cowboys can find the running back(s) they need in free agency, the later rounds of the draft, or as a UDFA. It is financially irresponsible to invest the resources needed to bring Pollard back, especially since he is seen as a top-20 free agent in the league, regardless of position.
Now if only Dallas didn’t have a history of grossly overpaying running backs...
TE Dalton Schultz
Maybe this is falling prey to a bit of recency bias. Schultz had become a security blanket for Dak Prescott, he was the second leading receiver last season, and the team thought enough of him to use the franchise tag on him in 2022.
But in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, who have again become a nemesis for the Cowboys like the villain in a series of slasher flicks returning from a supposed death, Schultz just did not seem to try on two consecutive plays while Dallas still had a slim chance of coming back at the end. That may have soured the organization on him the way they soured on a perceived lack of effort at times from Amari Cooper the year before. And the tag was used last year because the team was not willing to commit to a longer term deal, despite the short-term cap advantages the latter would have provided.
Additionally, the team seems pretty high on the futures of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, giving them not one but two possible replacements for Schultz. Prepare for them to move on.
LG Connor McGovern
All the noise about Pollard and Schultz may have caused you to forget McGovern, but the man with 29 career starts in three years is one who will probably get overpaid somewhere else. “Overpaid” in the sense of how some team always seems to get way ahead of the market, and McGovern’s résumé makes him a good candidate. There is no doubt he is a legitimate NFL starter, which is why he will certainly have a job this fall. It’s just that he will look way too pricey for the Cowboys front office.
They have had some really good luck with offensive linemen in the draft. Tyler Smith and Tyler Biadasz are both starters, and McGovern himself makes a case for who they have added. Even former UDFA Steele argues for their ability to upgrade at the position without having to spend in free agency. That’s the route the go, investing a day one or day two pick in a guard or someone they think can convert from tackle the way they had planned with Tyler Smith before Tyron Smith’s injury.
S Donovan Wilson
If the Cowboys should do four of these deals, Wilson is the one to add. It was a close call between him and Brown, but the front office may be paying too much attention to 2021, when they found not one but three capable safeties late in free agency, all bargains, with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker playing big roles last year. They may think they can hit another diamond in the dirt and replace Wilson.
That is a mistake. Wilson has become the enforcer of the Dallas defense. He rocks players with his hits. That attitude alone is valuable in the locker room. You seldom can find a rookie that can replace it.
Expect him to go. but no one will be happy.
There are some others who are not going to be in the top tier or two of free agency. They may be great pickups later in the process if they don’t have a deal. Some are even either-or cases. Stay tuned for a look at them later this week.