The Dallas Cowboys have 19 unrestricted free agents they must decide on before free agency officially begins on March 15, 2023. The front office would probably love to re-sign most of their guys to build continuity. Unfortunately, only some players will be returning to the Lone Star state.
Instead, players will decide to sign elsewhere for reasons related to generational wealth, looking to join a roster with specific holes, or just looking for another opportunity in a new situation. Whatever the case, the Cowboys will lose some key pieces from their 2022 roster.
Here is where some of Dallas’ free agents could end up that would make sense as a fit. No figures. No contracts. Just destinations. Let’s get to it.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB - Cleveland Browns
Former first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch will be hitting free agency for the second time in consecutive seasons. Three days after the 2022 free agency period started, Vander Esch assessed his market and returned to Dallas to continue working with Dan Quinn.
Betting on himself, No. 55 signed a one-year deal for $2 million after Dallas declined to pick up his fifth-year option, and he proved to be the team’s best linebacker. Vander Esch finished the season with 90 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble in 14 games. Even though he missed time with injury, he proved to be a reliable linebacker defending the run when Johnathan Hankins arrived at defensive tackle.
Every team in the NFL could use an LVE, but what situation makes sense? With Quinn returning as defensive coordinator, Dallas is certainly an option, but one landing spot could be appealing.
The Cleveland Browns have Ben Bloom as their defensive line coach. Bloom was Vander Esch’s linebacker coach as a rookie with the Cowboys in 2018. Outside of 2021, No. 55’s rookie year was his best season as a pro, ending in 140 tackles and a Pro Bowl nomination.
Reuniting with someone who helped develop him could spark interest in Cleveland. The Browns were terrible on defense, specifically at the linebacker position, and Vander Esch’s leadership would be a welcomed addition.
Cooper Rush, QB/Dalton Schultz, TE - Los Angeles Chargers
If you asked which of these two players, Cooper Rush or Dalton Schultz, would be back in Dallas, it would be Rush. If they let him walk and he goes to L.A., he might bring Noah Brown. However, head coach Mike McCarthy knows the importance of having a capable backup quarterback to steady the ship in case of injury (i.e., Matt Flynn).
Rush went 4-1 as a starter when Prescott was injured, and he knows the offense. The Cowboys don’t usually let that type of security walk out the door. In the case of Prescott’s security blanket, Dalton Schultz, it might be time to move on.
Dallas drafted Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, who showed enough flashes to warrant more snaps on offense. Bringing Shultz back for a $13 million franchise tag would be a lot of capital when the two players behind him work just as well.
The Chargers make sense because it’s where former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is now employed. He got the best out of Rush and Schultz during their time in Dallas. When coordinators arrive in a new spot, they tend to sign some of their old players to help teach the scheme (i.e., Quinn bringing in Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal).
If they would like to save money, Los Angeles will have openings available with Chase Daniel being a free agent and an impending release of Gerald Everett. It’s a 60-40 split on Schultz being more likely to go and become Justin Herbert’s new security blanket.
Connor McGovern, G - New York Jets
This pick is to help the graphics department of the Jets. They had a center named Connor McGovern, who played all 17 games at center in New York last season. He is slated to be a free agent, so why not plug in the same name at a younger age?
All joking aside, the Jets must rebuild their offensive line in any way possible. Outside of Alijah Vera-Tucker and Laken Tomlinson, they have questions to answer at three other positions. McGovern played 15 games with the Cowboys, primarily as their starting left guard, but showed he could play center in a pinch for two games when Tyler Biadasz went down.
Position flex along the offensive line is a valuable thing, especially for a struggling offensive line. McGovern was not the best lineman for the Cowboys, but he certainly played his best, given 2021 was his first season as a full-time starter.
The Cowboys talked about how McGovern could get snaps at center, but only used him in spot duty and training camp. They also spoke the same way about Connor Williams the year before. Williams left Miami Dolphins and became their full-time center, becoming one of the highest-graded at his position. The Jets could see McGovern the same way.
Just like the argument for keeping Rush, McCarthy loves to have quality depth along the offensive line, and McGovern’s experience alone would be valuable to bring back. However, with a new offensive line coach and Dallas shifting toward the draft, it seems like McGovern will be replaced with a rookie at left guard as the Cowboys look to reset the position.
Dante Fowler Jr., DE - Carolina Panthers
This one is a deep dive. Dante Fowler signed with the Cowboys because of his connection with Quinn during his time with the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately for Fowler, Dallas drafted a promising rookie in Sam Williams, who will fill that role as a rotational defensive end, developing into a starter.
Connecting the dots once again, where are some of Fowler’s former coaches around the league? His best season came with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, where he recorded 58 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits. That season, Fowler’s defensive line coach was Eric Henderson, who still works with the Rams. Another name on the staff was an up-and-coming safeties coach, Ejjiro Evero.
Evero was with the Denver Broncos in 2022 as their defensive coordinator, and when it looked like he didn’t want to return, he was granted the chance to seek another opportunity. It landed him in Carolina with the Panthers as their new DC. Familiarity with Fowler certainly creates a tether to the Panthers but also fills a team need.
Opposite of defensive end Brian Burns, Carolina has struggled to rush the passer at the position. Fowler proved to be a quality rusher in Dallas, getting to the quarterback six times. He will be 29 entering the season and should still have tread on the tires, given he was a rotational piece in 2022.
Potential NFC East Rival Signings:
Every year, the division rivals seemingly sign a former Cowboy, and a few names on this list could fall behind enemy lines.
- Noah Brown, WR - The Giants need veteran depth at wide receiver, and with Brown coming off a career season, New York would appreciate having a big-bodied receiver who can block.
- Anthony Barr, LB - Outside of receiver, the Giants need linebackers. They are reportedly in the market for the position in free agency, and Barr would make sense to replace Jaylon Smith as the annual ex-Cowboy on the roster.
- Luke Gifford, LB - If Mike McCarthy appreciates Gifford’s game as a special teams player, then so will Ron Rivera. It seems like fate that during the Week 10 post-game press conference, Rivera talks about Gifford becoming a core team member.
- Brett Maher, K - Maher spent time with the then-Washington Football Team in 2020 as a reserve kicker, so he’s familiar with the organization. This could be a training camp signing for a kicking competition where the media talks about everything Cowboys and nothing to do with Washington.
- Carlos Watkins, DT - The Eagles will need depth, with four defensive tackles hitting free agency. Watkins is no Fletcher Cox or Javon Hargrave, but he can certainly be Philly’s serviceable stopgap starter for a potential draft pick they select out from under the Cowboys.
- Rico Dowdle, RB - The Eagles will sign former Cowboys almost every year. At one point, Miles Austin was an Eagle post-Cowboys. Dowdle had the potential to be 2022’s Malik Davis but couldn’t stay healthy to compete. He showed flashes as a good kick returner and could be a depth piece at running back for a team potentially losing Miles Sanders.