For quite some time, the offseason for the Dallas Cowboys has been, well, disappointing. The team would sit idly through much of free agency, treat every draft pick like a precious gem, and follow some unwritten but still firm rules. Some of this extended into the season as well, particularly in the most important part of success in the NFL, acquiring the talent for your roster.
Folks, welcome to 2023. This year feels very, very different. While we are in the false spring of OTAs, this NFL year has seen some nearly unprecedented moves by the staff involving both long-standing trends and recent conclusions. My podcast partner Roy White and I have been talking about this off and on for a while, and we wanted to take a closer look at what narratives about the Cowboys have undergone revision, and how much.
Here are the ones that we thought significant:
Narrative: “The Cowboys are too transparent with their personnel approach, giving too much to the media.”
This one was shattered. We didn’t catch even a whiff of the Stephon Gilmore deal until it was already done. Same story with Brandin Cooks, and that was even with the knowledge the Cowboys had attempted to deal for Cooks once before. Then, with a month to comb over every statement uttered by the Cowboys front office for hints about who they might take, Mazi Smith happened and almost no one saw it coming. It’s a good sign for fans, and a signal that Stephen, McClay and Co have finally plugged all the leaky holes inside the building.
In past years, we have seemingly always had some idea of what they wanted to do in the first round, although it did not always go according to their wishes as their board got wiped out. But this first round left us all a bit open-mouthed. As One Cool Customer illustrated with his look back at pre-draft predictions, very few saw Smith as an option for the team, particularly in the first, and the hit rate for both staff writers and readers was quite low overall for the entire draft class. And the two pre-draft trades really came out of nowhere.
Narrative: “The Cowboys don’t value interior defensive lineman in the draft.”
This has been one of the most consistent things for the team since Russell Maryland was taken in the first round all the way back in 1991. Since then, Dallas has mostly used day three picks to address this group. Smith absolutely blew this one up.
But maybe we should have noticed a shift over the past few years. The third round is still seen as a premium pick, and in 2020 and 2021 they used three third-rounders to take Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Chauncey Golston (although Golston was a defensive end to begin with), all currently 3T defenders.
However, the big nose tackle type was still largely an afterthought, with Quinton Bohanna taken in the sixth round in 2021 and John Ridgeway in the fifth last year before they lost him to a waiver claim after the cutdown. Smith does represent a major and unexpected development. It may have been influenced by the trade to acquire Johnathan Hankins during the 2022 season. His presence had a significant positive impact on the overall defensive performance, and the injury that kept him off the field for several games illustrated how badly he was needed.
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.
Narrative: “Draft picks are precious jewels to be hoarded for taking college talent.”
This was stated clearly in past years, particularly by Stephen Jones. The wording may have been different, but they really emphasized the primacy of drafting for building the roster.
Again, we actually saw hints this was shifting a bit with the Hankins trade, and the future path may have been drawn up for us with the trades for Gilmore and Cooks. This is not a full teardown of the approach, however, because all those involved day three picks, as did the trade during the draft to net them Eric Scott. This may be a more subtle shift. Day one and two picks are still going to be kept unless there is a real emergency situation. The Amari Cooper trade was the most recent example of how that can work. But this year, the top management seems to have reevaluated day three picks, and made the decision that using those to acquire proven veterans has a higher chance of success than rolling the dice on college talent that is still around in the late rounds. If Gilmore and Cooks have a successful year, this could become a new narrative for the Cowboys. Don’t overlook that there have only been fourteen trades for veteran players this offseason, and the Cowboys are tied for the most.
Narrative: “The Cowboys have learned their lesson about overpaying running backs.”
This is a new one, but it may be premature. We already gave them their due credit for releasing Ezekiel Elliott, but we also need to be honest in saying that said decision was a no-brainer. They then turned around and tagged Tony Pollard. If he doesn’t agree to a long-term extension (deadline July 17th) he’ll be tied for the sixth largest salary cap hit for RBs in 2023, and the team will once again be in the top 10 in the NFL in terms of cap spending at the RB position. We should hold off on saying their days of spending big at RB are over, but this offseason has been a positive step. Expect a resolution on this narrative this time next season. And the next narrative is closely tied to this one.
Narrative: “Mike McCarthy wants to lean on the run game and his defense more in 2023.”
This one is somewhat concerning. It is something of an extension of the approach before McCarthy was hired, with Elliott Exhibit A. Evidence suggests they’re trending that way considering the plethora of defensive additions they made through their offseason trades and the draft. Is 2023 really going to be the year, though, where the Cowboys zig when the rest of the league is zagging, emphasizing the run when everyone else goes pass-happy? We’ll have to see it to believe it. Further, it is an open question whether it can succeed. Dak Prescott is still going to be the biggest determinant of offensive effectiveness, and the Cooks acquisition and second-round selection of TE Luke Schoonmaker shows that has not been totally disregarded.
The jury is definitely out on this one, and only real games will lead to a verdict.
Narrative: “The Cowboys don’t pay big money for players outside their organization.”
This offseason was one of the most exciting for the Cowboys in many years. But this is one case where they stuck to their guns. The Cooks and Gilmore trades allowed them to acquire players with good pedigrees without having to bid for them in the free agent market. That allowed them to control their cap obligations. Outside of them, they only signed three low-cost free agents, OL Chuma Edoga, RB Ronald Jones, and LS Trent Sieg. They were very active in re-signing their own, and they hardly broke the bank there, with Donovan Wilson’s three-year, $21 million contract the biggest. They were more creative and flexible, but still stayed true to things.
This is another reason why trading late-round picks could be the way for the team in the future. They have some big negotiations coming up, and they can use all the cap space they can hold onto. Don’t expect this to change anytime soon.