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Cowboys free agency 2023: Grading the Cowboys’ roster moves to date

The Cowboys have been more active in this free agency season than previously.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys
Hey, the band’s back together!
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s big picture time! While things have been relatively quiet the past couple of days, the Dallas Cowboys generated a lot of buzz with one of the biggest trades of 2023 and some very nice re-signings. Things are not over, but the chance of another “splash” move are getting slim, with wide receiver looking to be the only likely possibility. This year’s free agent class is, to put it quite simply, weak sauce. A look at the CBS Sports top 100 free agent list shows almost no names that make the heart race, no matter what position you consider. And most of them are already signed or tagged. Unless they do go get a “name” wide receiver or do something rather unexpected, the meat of the offseason is pretty much a done deal.

Just to review, here are all the transactions to date:

Let’s grade each of these moves.

The trade

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

CB Stephon Gilmore

In terms of performance, Gilmore graded out as a top 10 cornerback in 2022 according to one source.

That is a great argument for his value on the field and still playing at a high level even though he is 32, or in his golden years in NFL terms. He eliminates one concern going into the draft, although that never precludes them from taking a corner high.

One reason this was so exciting for fans of Dallas is that it was so very atypical. He is entering the last year of the contract the Cowboys inherited, and given his age, looks very much like a one-year rental. That is a rather abrupt departure from the normal way of doing business for the team.

And that is all good. For too many years, the Cowboys have stubbornly stuck to “their way” of doing business. It has driven many to distraction. This has a real “win now” feel to it, and gives us hope that old Jones dogs can learn new tricks.

Grade: A+

The re-signings

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

RB Tony Pollard

He was the team’s most effective running back. He allowed them to make a long overdue, if unhappy, roster move. He brings hope that his dynamic style and abilities will be properly used by Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer. What’s not to like?

Well, here are the warts: He is coming off an injury in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The team used a franchise tag to keep him, and the free agent RB market has been very soft. They could likely have signed him for a much lower cost per year for two or three seasons. And he hints that the team is still looking to emphasize the run, of which many are definitely not a fan.

Grade: B-

NFL: Dallas Cowboys vs Los Angeles Chargers Joint Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

S Donovan Wilson

Wilson is a very good safety, but he has a less well-defined role that just increases his value to the team. He is the enforcer of the defense. His are the footsteps receivers hear when trying to catch a pass. He is a man runners do not want to face. He is a key part of the secondary, and bringing him back helps make the Cowboys secondary as good as any in recent memory. Or maybe almost three decades.

Grade: A

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

LB Leighton Vander Esch

The Cowboys declined to exercise his fifth-year option, and he wound up playing last year on a one-year “prove it” deal. He responded with arguably the best season of his career and was rewarded with a two-year, $11 million dollar contract. And like Wilson, his greatest value may not be his good play on the field. He is the quarterback of the defense, relaying Dan Quinn’s defensive calls to the players and getting them lined up. His value was best demonstrated in the games he missed last season, when the performance really fell off.

Grade: A

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

OT Terence Steele

Getting your starting right tackle back on a very team-friendly RFA tender is a big plus. He is especially good at run blocking, which the team values. But he is coming off a season-ending injury. The team continues to express confidence he will be ready to start the season, but we’ve seen that not play out well in the past, so it will be a concern until it isn’t. This was one move they were more or less forced into, and if he was healthy now, the grade would be higher.

Grade: B

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

QB Cooper Rush

How can you not love a guy that can guarantee you four wins in five starts?

Oh, it doesn’t work that way? Well, how about a backup quarterback who knows the team and the coaching staff that plans to use the same offensive scheme as they did when he performed surprisingly well in keeping his team afloat? That sounds pretty good, too.

And they got him at a great price. According to Over the Cap, he is 45th on the list of QB contracts. That is for a proven backup with a great success rate. He was arguably the best available in this year’s market.

Grade: B+

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

CB/ST C.J. Goodwin

It seems amazing that a 33-year-old player who has never been more than a special teams ace is now entering his eighth season in the NFL. He has found a home in Dallas after having spent at least a little time with five other teams. It is something of a feel good story.

Still, this one is pretty marginal. I love to see him finally getting to $5 million in career earnings. It just doesn’t move the needle much.

Grade: C

The release

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This one hurts. Zeke was iconic. He was key to the phenomenal year the team had with him and Dak Prescott as rookies. There was never any doubt he gave it his all, including while playing through some injuries during the past couple of years. By all accounts, he was an excellent and beloved teammate.

He just wasn’t the answer on the field anymore. For a variety of reasons, this was the only smart move the team could make with him.

That doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Grade: A

Overall, this looks like a very good to excellent job by the Cowboys front office. It is likely that the rest of free agency is going to be nibbling at the margins, like signing a long snapper soon. Also, the team has let Connor McGovern, Noah Brown, and Luke Gifford leave in free agency, and only McGovern is a debatable decision that still looks logical given the money he signed for with the Buffalo Bills. As a whole, this is an A- effort so far, and that is not likely to move much.

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