One thing the Dallas Cowboys have done consistently for the past several years is go bargain shopping in free agency. While it is often frustrating, the ownership shows no sign of changing. As is typical of many organizations, they focus on their successes, like the safeties they found in 2021, and not the failures, like James Washington last year. Expect them to continue the trend this year.
Just as with the first couple of waves of free agency, Dallas also likes to sign its own. Part of it is knowing the player and the player knowing the organization and the scheme. That calculation is a bit different this year, as the offensive staff has been revamped and Mike McCarthy is taking over the play-calling and presumably the game-planning. Familiarity with the defense is still valuable with Dan Quinn coming back again.
We took a look earlier at some high priority free agents of their own the Cowboys should try and sign. Now, here are some guys the team may want to bring back if they are willing to take vet minimum or similar deals, and especially if they don’t get much interest on the free market after free agency begins on March 15th.
One interesting thing is that there are several positions where the team has more than one player like this entering free agency. They seem to be either/or choices they might be able to make. Or if one signs elsewhere, the other could still be a good option.
Here are the players to keep an eye on.
LS Jake McQuaide/Matt Overton
This is the one position that seems almost automatic, just like these two were on the field. McQuaide originally came to the team to replace long time stalwart L.P. Ladouceur, and was basically perfect. When he was hurt early in the 2022 season, they brought in Overton, who didn’t miss a beat. If McQuaide is fully recovered, he is probably the choice as a John Fassel guy. But they can’t really make a mistake. And long snappers play for the vet minimum, so this is a fixed cost.
WR Noah Brown/T.Y. Hilton
Bringing one of them back would be an insurance move, which is a very legitimate strategy in free agency. Plug an obvious hole prior to the draft, and do it with a contract you can shed easily in case you get better options.
Brown was the third leading receiver for the Cowboys, behind WR CeeDee Lamb and TE Dalton Schultz. He played 69.5% of the offensive snaps. His workload was heavy because Michael Gallup did not recover as well from his 2021 injury as hoped. For most of the season, Brown was WR2 by default.
He really isn’t a WR2, and did not take the attention away from Lamb one should. He is probably a WR4 at best, able to fill in if needed and spell one of the other wideouts. Brown also brings value as a special teams player. He could be one who they look to sign before free agency starts. The team has held on to him for a long time, so it is possible Fassel is in his corner. He may have had other supporters on the staff, but the big turnover on offense may have eliminated some.
Hilton was only with the team a short time and saw limited usage while active, only playing 5.1% of the total snaps for the season. But in those snaps, he flashed some of the talent that has made him dangerous over the years, and what the team was likely looking for. It is unknown what the current offensive staff might think about his potential. If Brown gets signed, they probably won’t bring both back. But should Brown find greener pastures, Hilton might get another shot, presuming he doesn’t also land elsewhere.
DE Dante Fowler
Fowler played 29.9% of the defensive reps as a rotational piece for Quinn. His contributions were a bit overlooked and he had a good year. The Cowboys still have DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Sam Williams, and Chauncey Golston under contract. Bringing back Fowler, who was on a very reasonable deal last year, would basically give them a complete group of EDGE rushers, especially when you add in Micah Parsons. They would have no need to use draft capital on the position. Re-signing Fowler makes a ton of sense if his price tag doesn’t get driven up by some other team coming after him.
DT Johnathan Hankins/Carlos Watkins
This is a tough one, because in a perfect world they’d both be back. Hankins could be the big body NT type the team has lacked for so long. Watkins, like Fowler, was one of the solid rotational pieces on the line. This is one place the team should look at investing some mid-round draft capital. They might pass on both of these two, but really should try to get back at least one. Hankins is the one if forced to choose.
LB Anthony Barr
He had some good games, and was never a big liability on the field. If the team doesn’t bring back Leighton Vander Esch, there is a good chance they try and re-sign Barr. If by some chance he is still on the market after the draft, and they are not completely satisfied with what they have at LB at that point, he might also be attractive. His possible future with the team is very dependent on the situation.
OT Jason Peters
This is one that may already be in the works.
The Cowboys believe Tyron Smith and Jason Peters will return in 2023— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) February 1, 2023
If they have both Tyron Smith and Tyler Smith back, and Terence Steele returns from his injury, Peters would strictly be a backup, which is exactly what he needs to be. That would give them quality starters and two depth pieces. If there are issues with Steele, then Peters is more valuable. We’ll see if Mr. Hill has this right.
ST C.J. Goodwin/Luke Gifford
Goodwin has been a given for the roster for several years. Gifford has hung on in a similar role. Fassel is going to get at least one of these, but there may not be room for both. If the Cowboys draft either a highly regarded cornerback or linebacker, that could take the slot for one of them. And as you may have noticed, there are a lot of other places the team might want to use its cap space. But there is a good chance both will be on the roster going into camp, with final decisions on them deferred to the cut-downs.
RB Rico Dowdle
I’m one of those who think the team should move on from both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. If you want to know why, check out the excellent work of Dan Rogers on the subject. Dowdle is a known quantity for the team, but has injury history. If he is seen as a good risk on that front, he would be a good one to re-sign.
QB Cooper Rush
He is included strictly for the purpose of being comprehensive in this list, but he is likely gone. His performance filling in for Dak Prescott was well-nigh heroic. However, his success was largely dependent on the defensive contributions during those games.
Still, he has clearly proven he is a quality backup, and the Cowboys are unlikely to meet the price tag he will command in a league that is always hungry for those. He would pretty much have to strike out in free agency for Dallas to get him back. But stranger things have happened.
Those are the names on the current free agent list for the Cowboys that have value if everything is right. But it is important to keep in mind that one objective of the front office is to get through free agency using as small a total piece of the salary cap pie as possible. That alone is likely to limit the number of these veterans we do see back.