The 2023 NFL Draft has come and gone, and the Cowboys now have a clearer picture of what their roster will look like for the season. The roster will still see some changes between now and the start of the preseason, but we can now take a moment to look over the entire roster and evaluate positions of strength and remaining areas for improvement.
No changes here, as the Cowboys not only didn’t draft a quarterback - as many anticipated they would - but they didn’t even sign anyone in undrafted free agency. Dak Prescott is the star here, and nothing is changing that. But it now appears a lock that we’ll once again see Cooper Rush battle Will Grier for the top backup spot. Rush looked great in that role last year, but the team traded for Grier two seasons ago and seemed to be excited about him last year before an injury caused him to miss most the preseason.
This will definitely be a position to watch. Tony Pollard is now the top dog after Ezekiel Elliott’s release, though he’s still recovering from a leg injury he suffered in the final playoff game. Behind him are Rico Dowdle and Malik Davis, two guys that have played primarily special teams thus far, as well as journeyman Ronald Jones.
In the sixth round, Dallas added Deuce Vaughn, an explosive but tiny running back who offers a similar skillset to Pollard. With Pollard only on the books for one year, and his franchise tag number already placing him as the eighth highest paid running back, could Vaughn be groomed this season to replace Pollard in 2024 at a fraction of the cost?
Dallas also brought in Hunter Luepke in undrafted free agency. Listed as a fullback at North Dakota State, Luepke actually tallied 274 carries and 24 touchdowns in college. He profiles as a solid short-yardage back - a role that Elliott filled in recent years - with the added ability to function as a lead blocker as a fullback. Luepke will likely be a practice squad call-up player for a few games this year, with the potential to spend more time on the active roster.
Overall, Dallas has quite a few pieces to work with in this running back room, which will also have a new coach in Jeff Blasko, who was reassigned from his role as the assistant offensive line coach. How each of these pieces actually fit together, though, is a bigger question.
The Cowboys did their real work at this position well before the draft when they traded for Brandin Cooks, so it shouldn’t have been that much of a shock to see them not address the position until their final pick of the draft. Dallas also has Jalen Tolbert still waiting in the wings after he effectively redshirted last year.
Jalen Brooks, the receiver they drafted with the 244th overall pick, is a bit of a project player. The three other guys they brought in through undrafted free agency - Jalen Moreno-Cropper, David Durden, and Jose Barbon - figure to be camp bodies with practice squad upside.
We pretty much know what to expect from this group. CeeDee Lamb is the star, Cooks is the savvy route runner, and Michael Gallup can be a factor once again if he is finally healthy. The Cowboys also might be able to get some mileage out of guys like Simi Fehoko, KaVontae Turpin, and Tolbert, though each of them has shown the ability to help on special teams at the very least.
Well, the Cowboys didn’t go tight end in the first round, but they used their next pick on the position to nab Luke Schoonmaker out of Michigan. While the pick has generated some backlash, the Schoonmaker selection tells us all exactly what Dallas plans to do at the tight end position.
From a play style standpoint, Schoonmaker is very similar to Jake Ferguson and even Dalton Schultz. Schoonmaker is a significantly better athlete, but he’s a similar type of player in terms of being able to function well as both a blocker and pass catcher. Taking Schoonmaker allows Dallas to continue operating heavily out of 12 personnel, with the ability to run or pass at will from that formation, without having to make a decision right now on who the top tight end will be on the depth chart.
Each of these guys will need to prove themselves once the season begins, but Dallas has themselves a solid collection of young talent in this tight end room.
The offensive line remains a question after the draft, if only because it’s still unclear who lines up where. Tyler Biadasz at center and Zack Martin at right guard seem like locks, but after that? Tyron Smith only ever played at right tackle in 2022, Tyler Smith has everyone excited about him playing left tackle now, and Terence Steele - who tore his ACL and MCL in Week 14 - has found himself in discussions about moving to left guard.
It’s all a bit dizzying, but the Cowboys do seem to have an understanding of who their best five are. Also in the mix are Chuma Edoga, Matt Waletzko, and Josh Ball, all of whom seem to offer versatility to play both inside and outside.
Dallas also drafted North Carolina tackle Asim Richards, another prospect that some cited with versatility to play multiple positions. Richards likely won’t push for a starting job, but should provide some nice depth for an offensive line that could look a ton of different ways by the time Week 1 kicks off.
Interior defensive line
The Cowboys broke their 32-year streak of not drafting a defensive tackle in the first round when they took Mazi Smith with the 26th overall pick. Smith was a dominant run stuffer at Michigan, an area that this defense struggled with in 2022.
The Cowboys were average at stopping the run last season, and they grabbed a nose tackle in the 1st round to improve their run defense.— SIS Football (@football_sis) May 9, 2023
Mazi Smith finished 2nd in the Big Ten in Run Defense Total Points when aligned as a DT (0-4i DL-tech) ⛔#DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/8xiLMtwISg
Between drafting Smith and re-signing Johnathan Hankins, whom they traded for during last season specifically to shore up their run defense, Dallas has to be feeling pretty good about beefing up their biggest weakness on Dan Quinn’s side of the ball.
That said, the Cowboys are also looking for better pass rush production in the interior of their defensive line. Osa Odighizuwa and Neville Gallimore have both flashed potential at various points in their careers, but have yet to really capitalize on it. There’s also Isaac Alarcón, who is switching to defensive tackle after playing on the offensive line the last three years, though he’s likely to be on the practice squad yet again due to the rules of the International Player Pathway Program.
Continuity was key on the edge for the Dallas defense, and for good reason. Micah Parsons has said he’s bulking up to play on the line of scrimmage even more, and DeMarcus Lawrence remains a core piece of this unit that also boasts a deep stable of pass rushers.
The Cowboys added Viliami Fehoko in the fourth round, a high motor edge rusher from San Jose State, who gives them even more depth on the edge. It’s unlikely that Fehoko sees much action this year, which is indicative of how good this group is.
There will be some uncertainty here, though not to a large extent. Leighton Vander Esch returned to the team after a very strong season, and Damone Clark figures to be in the mix after a promising NFL debut last year. Less is known about Jabril Cox, who has struggled to see the field in his first two seasons.
Taking DeMarvion Overshown as high as the third round suggests he might get in the mix on defense as well, though Overshown likely won’t be a full-time starter right away. Still, his selection suggests the Cowboys view their linebacker room as a fluid situation at the moment, making the offseason program essential for sorting out who will play where in 2023.
Like receiver, this position was addressed in the most meaningful way well before the draft. Adding Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, immediately upgraded the secondary. Trevon Diggs is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while DaRon Bland will presumably have a healthy competition with veteran Jourdan Lewis for the starting slot role.
The depth at corner is where most of the intrigue lies, though. Kelvin joseph and Nahshon Wright might be fighting for their jobs, especially after Dallas traded up to draft Eric Scott Jr. That’s without even mentioning the possibility of Israel Mukuamu seeing more work at corner after filling in as a slot defender in the playoffs last year. We know the top four at corner this year, but after that will be a tough competition.
Dallas did the smart thing and kept all intact at safety. Their trio of Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson is special, and they’ve got good depth in Mukuamu and Markquese Bell. It wouldn’t be controversial to say this is the team’s best position group on the entire team.
Nothing changed here, as Dallas didn’t add any special teamer in the draft or undrafted free agency. They could always add someone later on, especially at kicker to challenge Tristan Vizcaino. After all, plenty of established names, such as Mason Crosby and Robbie Gould, are still free agents.
Outside of the specialists, though, the Cowboys appear to be in a good spot on special teams yet again. Recent history tells us that many of their rookies will contribute on special teams, with Overshown, Fehoko, and Scott figuring to see a lot of playing time there. Vaughn could also get in the mix as a return man, though it would be hard to take reps away from Turpin at this point. The Cowboys have been stout on special teams the last three years and look to be set up to continue that.