Every year teams construct their rosters with varying levels of confidence from position to position, even player to player. The 2023 Dallas Cowboys are no different, and this season they’re putting a lot of faith in specific guys to play key roles despite some legitimate concerns about their health or performance.
The confines of the salary cap, particularly when you’re paying a veteran quarterback, mean you can’t be as talented or as deep as you’d like all across the roster. You’re forced to take some risks at a few spots. Sometimes that means sticking with a guy who still has a lot of dead money on his contract or gambling on a low-priced free agent who comes with some baggage.
Who are the biggest gambles for this year’s Cowboys?
WR Michael Gallup
It’s been a rough couple of years for Gallup. An early-season calf injury cost him the first half of 2021 and then a Week 17 ACL injury carried over into 2022. Gallup, who had emerged as one of Dak Prescott’s favorite targets in clutch moments, was a shell of his former self and woefully ineffective on the field as he worked his way back from major knee surgery.
The Cowboys showed tremendous faith in Gallup’s recovery last year when they gave him a significant contract extension and dumped Amari Cooper. They doubled down on that choice this past offseason by restructuring Gallup’s deal to create cap space, pushing more dead money into the last years of the contract.
While trading for Brandin Cooks takes some of the pressure off Gallup compared to last year, he is still expected to at least be WR3. And with highly unproven options like Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko as the next men up, Dallas is counting on Gallup to be a stabilizing presence on the depth chart. The need for him to be a security blanket on critical downs may also increase with the loss of Dalton Schultz at tight end.
That’s a lot to lay at the feet of a guy who hasn’t been right since 2020. Gallup is still just 27 and there’s plenty of reason for optimism now that he’s further removed from the ACL injury. But if he doesn’t reward Dallas’ faith, Gallup’s continued decline could be a massive blow to the Cowboys’ offensive potency.
OTs Tyron Smith & Terence Steele
Dallas is taking a double risk on the offensive line. Smith has become chronically unavailable over the last few years and Steele is coming off a late-season ACL tear.
You’re probably as sick of hearing this as we are of saying it, but Smith hasn’t played a full season since 2015. After four years of missing at least three games from 2016-2019, things have gone off the rails with 31 missed games since 2020.
Still just 32 years old, Smith’s decreasing availability could turn around with better luck. But given how things have been trending for many years now, Dallas is taking a huge risk by counting on the veteran offensive tackle. That’s exactly what they’re doing in 2023 as Smith is expected to start somewhere on the line.
The Tyron issue wouldn’t be so bad if you were fully confident in Steele, but Dallas’ right tackle still has to prove he’s fully recovered. If the Cowboys come up short on both of these bets, the offensive line could crumble quickly with only a slew of unproven young prospects to help Zack Martin, Tyler Smith, and Tyler Biadasz. Even veteran free agent Chuma Edoga only has 13 starts under his belt since 2019; hardly a confidence booster.
At the very least, Tyler Smith can handle the critical left tackle spot regardless of how things shake out with Steele and the elder Smith. But with their eyes on a championship in 2023, Dallas’ goal could be torpedoed without a solvent offensive line. They at least need one of Tyron Smith and Terence Steele, if not both, to realize their full potential.
RB Tony Pollard
Returning on the franchise tag and replacing Ezekiel Elliott as the top RB, Pollard is facing the highest expectations ever in his NFL career. This comes after a major lower leg injury in Dallas’ playoff loss to the 49ers just five months ago.
While the team is obviously highly confident in Pollard’s recovery, given the franchise tag, we saw how that worked out last year with Gallup. Some guys need more time to come back from late-season injuries and particularly when they rely on speed. If Pollard can’t reach his top gear in 2023 or is playing with hesitance, it could severely neuter his game.
Those who claim that “running backs don’t matter” may not be worried about this. If that’s true, then some combination of Ronald Jones, Deuce Vaughn, and others could make up the bulk of the general production.
But there always come those moments in a season when you need more than the average; when a special talent needs to make that key play to swing a game. Pollard is that guy now at RB and the Cowboys may need him to be every bit of a franchise back if they’re going to be an elite NFC team.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
Dallas re-signed Vander Esch this offseason at a bargain of just $4 million per year. One reason he was that cheap was a bad history of injuries, which means the Cowboys are assuming that risk with their only experienced linebacker.
Unless Dallas brings back Anthony Barr or adds some other veteran talent before training camp, Vander Esch is the linebacker (not counting Micah Parsons) with significant playing time. Damone Clark has just 10 games under his belt from last year, DeMarvion Overshown is a rookie, and Jabril Cox has barely played the last two seasons.
That inexperience throughout the LB depth chart would be concerning even if Vander Esch was a paragon of reliability. But while he’s done much better the last two years than that awful stretch from 2019-2020, Vander Esch still missed three games last December with a shoulder injury. You just never know with him at this point, especially with that 2019 neck injury that will haunt him as long as he plays.
Some of the concerns at linebacker are mitigated by the way Dallas uses safety Jayron Kearse in a hybrid role, which is big both for occupying space on the field and providing veteran leadership. But Vander Esch is critical to the Cowboys’ run defense as a true interior linebacker; the clean-up man for a defensive line that still has to prove that it has improved.
While we have high hopes for Clark’s development and solid potential in Overshown and Cox, the idea that any of them could fill Vander Esch’s shoes this year leaves room for doubt. He’s a key cog on defense operating without any net that we can see; another major concern going forward.