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Cover 5: Cowboys things to ponder in the lull between free agency and the draft

Random Cowboys thoughts during the slow time.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Oh, yeah, remember the change at playcaller?
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, ‘tis the time of year for hunts. While children are looking for brightly colored hidden eggs, NFL sportswriters are constantly searching for something new to bring you. This year is especially tough for those of us covering the Dallas Cowboys. In recent offseasons, we have at least had a certain amount of anger and frustration to inspire nearly incoherent rants thoughtful analysis about the team. That is not the case this year.

Today, my podcast partner Roy White and I have a motley assortment of things that we are thinking about for your perusal.

Has the thinking in the front office really changed?

Tom: It is strange to admit it, but the evidence clearly points that way. Two splash trades to get Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks addressed two big needs. Strategic re-signings of Leighton Vander Esch and Donovan Wilson could prevent regression on defense. And Chuma Edoga is, in my view a smart, economical hole-plugger to free them up for the draft. Just as important as any of those was the decision to release Ezekiel Elliott, a move that was necessary from both a performance and cap standpoint,

It all adds up to a real sense that the management has taken a “win now” stance. The roster before the draft looks better than it did after last year’s addition of rookies, and it should only get better with the team not having much in the way of real needs.

This is all great and long overdue. The only question now is whether this is a new direction, or a one-year kind of deal? I personally love the way they used late-round draft picks to add Gilmore and Cooks, and that would be great to see going forward. The Elliott thing was a bit painful, but it is the kind of detached, rational decision making you need in the NFL. The jury will have to be out on this until we see the next year or two unfold, but I’m a bit optimistic here.

Roy: On the surface, it appears that way. The two trades they made for Gilmore and Cooks were just the third and fourth pre-draft trades, respectively, that the team has made since 2009, and all four of those deals have come in the last five years (a sixth for Robert Quinn in ‘19; a fifth for Jamize Olawale plus a sixth in ‘18 were the others). The Cowboys definitely seem to have figured out how to effectively leverage their excess draft capital into acquiring win-now talent at heavily discounted pricing, and that’s a huge leg up on the competition.

Independent of those trades, though, the Cowboys’ free agency approach felt like business as usual - sign their own guys that they like and avoid the high-priced aisles - they just executed it to perfection. And while they deserve credit for making the move to release Zeke, it was as no-brainer a decision, from a football perspective, as there could be.

With the compensatory pick formula now seemingly at the forefront of every free agent decision they make, I believe the potential for these types of trades should continue going forward. Have they adjusted their FA approach, or signaled a willingness to devalue positions that they’ve previously put a lot of stock into? One out of three is still an improvement in my book, even if it isn’t a complete overhaul of approach.

Is there a significant move the Cowboys could still make before the draft?

Tom: I really don’t think so. According to Over the Cap, they only have about $13 million in cap space, and don’t have many options remaining to create more. They want to keep enough space for an emergency signing going into the season.

I think looking for another one is being a bit greedy. Between the two trades and the big re-signings, I’d argue they have made four very significant moves already, which is more than they usually do. Anything else will be a gap filler that doesn’t affect the cap, since right now it only applies to the top 51 contracts, and any low cost addition would just shove another player down the list, and have minimal impact.

Roy: It’s nearly impossible to imagine that they make a splash to the level of Gilmore or Cooks, and even improbable to think that they’ll make any additions between now and draft day (three weeks away, as of this posting) given the state of their roster.

Having said that, there’s no reason to think the Cowboys wouldn’t jump at an opportunity to get better if one presented itself, and there are still free agents available that could help solidify depth or compete for a starting position. Additionally, just this past week it was speculated that a former Cowboys WR could find his way back into silver and navy blue. (BTB contributor Jess Haynie went into further detail on that possibility.)

I still say it’s more likely than not they wait until after the draft to make any additions, but given the surprises they’ve delivered to us this offseason already, I can’t completely rule out the possibility.

What positions should be eliminated from first-round consideration?

Tom: This is a tough one. QB? It would make no sense to use that much draft capital with Dak Prescott now on the books for so much money after his restructuring.

Outside that and specialists, I don’t think any position should be off the table. If they see a real value in terms of talent, just about any other spot on the roster would be worth investing in. RB is one that, as a general rule, doesn’t make much sense, but at 26, Dallas’ first-round pick is a lot more like a second-rounder, and that kind of opens it up for just about anything. If someone they have as say a top 15 talent is there when they go on the clock, pull the trigger and make the roster stronger for the next four to five years.

Roy: QB is the obvious one for me. A selection at a spot where you could still get a player who gives you significant snaps, versus one who would only play if things went nuclear, would garner a low grade from me, regardless of the potential talent. I’d also say they’re probably good at LB, unless they find a unicorn who happens to be the best pass rusher in the draft.

I’ll still stand on my “Don’t take RBs in the first round” soapbox, but I would make an exception for Bijan Robinson.

If you want a great look at the positions and quality of prospects that might be available when the Cowboys make their selection, our own Dan Rogers wrote a terrific article exploring the talent distribution in the upcoming draft.

As noted we discussed this idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Would drafting a QB mean the pressure is on Dak Prescott?

Tom: How much more pressure can be put on him? He is going to take an undue share of the blame if the team does not meet expectations this year, no matter what.

Even if they should grab a QB in the first because what they see as a sure fire talent falls to them, I don’t think it changes the equation much, because it would still have a measure of insurance value. And in a couple or three years, they might be able to trade the asset for significant draft capital. If that extremely unlikely scenario would unfold, everyone will be trying to make it an Aaron Rodgers-Jordan Love situation. But Prescott has an entirely different disposition than Rodgers and I suspect he would handle it with much more aplomb. In any case, we really don’t have to worry about this.

Any QB taken after the first round is purely for developmental purposes and to try and upgrade QB2. I would like to see them take another flyer late in the draft. Taking a QB on Day 3 is always a justifiable move.

Roy: I don’t think so. The team has been adamant about wanting to get a new extension done with Dak and his people, and there’s not going to be the quality of quarterback available at any of their selections who would be considered a guy that walks into an NFL building and starts.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t consider taking one, for the exact reasons you laid out. It’s never a bad idea to have a developmental project waiting in the wings, even if that project doesn’t ever pan out. But I don’t expect there to be any additional pressure on Dak if a QB is selected.

What are our expectations of Mike McCarthy and the team this season?

Tom: This is one that has faded a bit into the background, but it is really something we should consider. McCarthy is the de facto offensive coordinator now. I am very much in a “wait and see” mindset on this. Will he be better at using his assets? Will the addition of Cooks and the promotion of Tony Pollard to RB1 make the offense more dynamic in any case? We don’t know.

I do think that, if the team stays healthy, the NFC championship game is the goal McCarthy must reach to be the head coach going forward. I don’t think he would get fired after this season and would have one last chance to keep his job, but he would be in the same position Jason Garrett was in his final season. If the Cowboys aren’t at least knocking on the door of the Super Bowl before the end of the 2024 season, there will be a new head coach in 2025.

Roy: After making it clear it was his decision to part ways with his offensive play-caller, Mike McCarthy is now in a position where I think he needs to prove that was the right call - and that means taking the team a step further into the postseason.

Yes, we all know about the drought, but after back-to-back 12-win seasons and incremental steps forward in January, McCarthy has set a fairly high bar. If he failed to eclipse either of those marks (say, an 11-win season and a first round exit), I don’t know how he keeps his job. It feels like a broken record, but in 2023, NFC Championship or bust seems like the appropriate measuring stick to determine whether or not progress was achieved.

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