Team president Jerry Jones looked both disappointed and frustrated after witnessing his team bow out of the playoffs in poor fashion yet again. What lay in wait was a difficult decision in what to do with head coach Mike McCarthy. That decision is now known, and at least for next season, McCarthy is running the show. But the difficult decisions for Jones have yet to end as he now has to give judgement on a number of players. The choices he makes have direct consequences on the success of McCarthy and his future in Dallas beyond next season.
Let’s take a look at five difficult roster decisions that Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have to make this offseason that are not related to Dak Prescott.
This all started when Jones decided it was time to move on from Ezekiel Elliott. The decision was made with Tony Pollard poised to take the starting role. Unfortunately, Pollard struggled as an every down back and backup Rico Dowdle had his ups and downs as well. Additionally, the team’s run blocking was, for a large portion of the season. average at best.
Dallas ended the season averaging 27 rush attempts per game, 14th-most, but ranked 18th in yards per carry at 4.1 yards. The biggest issue that faced the team was explosive runs, where Pollard ranked 21st in plays of ten yards or more, and as a result Dallas had to lean on Dak Prescott and the passing game to make the offense productive.
Pollard is now set to become a free agent after betting on himself last season playing under the team’s franchise tag. The gamble may not have paid off for him though as it was clear he’s best suited to play a relief role as opposed to the every down back. He was limited as a runner on inside runs or playing with gap power, this then saw a reduction in how effective he could be at times on outside runs. The Cowboys must make a very shrewd decision whether to re-sign Pollard. Jones can look to the free agent market, or look to the draft to find their next guy.
The issue with this year’s running back draft class is that it’s not really stacked with top-tier talent. There are some names the team can look for early in the draft with either Michigan’s, Blake Corum, or Florida State’s Trey Benson, who fits more of the mold the Cowboys are looking for.
As for free agents, the market has some well known names which could include Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Gus Edwards and even Ezekiel Elliott himself. But free agent signings come at cost, and all the best running back players come with a heavy tread-wear, with some cases carrying a long injury history. In Jones’ favor is the fact the running game back market right now is heavily devalued.
Cowboys fans and coaches waited a long time for the Kansas Jayhawks product to pay off. He spent much of the first three years in Dallas being nothing more than a name that would flash heavily in Oxnard, only to be a non-factor in the regular season.
Armstrong made waves in 2021 after he made five starts for Dallas and recorded five sacks that year. But it was in 2022 when everyone finally saw what he could do when given a real chance. Not only was he a fantastic special team player, he ended the year second on the team in sacks (8.5) trailing only Micah Parsons. He was also second on the team in tackles for loss (10), and second on the team in total pressures. It was a defining season for Armstrong.
This season saw a lesser role taken by Armstrong as he played less snaps than the previous season. He still managed to record 7.5 sacks and his total tackle count went up from the year before. But the problem facing Armstrong is the role he plays as designated pass rusher and the amount of pass rushers available on the team. Sam Williams looks set to take a larger role, Viliami Fehoko Jr. is waiting for his chance, and of course there’s the option of looking at Dante Fowler Jr. who is also set to hit the free agent market.
Should the Cowboys decide to look at prospects on Day 2 of the draft or early Day 3, there’s a boat load of options. Guys like Marshawn Kneeland from Western Michigan, or Brandon Dorlus from Oregon could prove to be cheaper options that fill the void.
Johnathan Hankins has been a vital player on the Cowboys defense to help stop the run. The team is desperate for run-stopping players like Hankins and people’s feelings on Mazi Smith’s performance only adds to the urgency to keep him. His cap hit last season was a fraction over $1 million and he could look to be around the same benchmark given he’s nearly 32 and looking to sign one last contract. He ended the year on three sacks, which is the second-most in his career, but the injuries are a concern given his age.
The main source of opinion for Jerry on this move is down to the coaches and how they feel Mazi Smith’s development has been so far, or how they feel about other contingencies if they go ahead and stay with Smith as their starting nose tackle.
This is the big one. Smith had a one-year, almost prove-it type deal last year. The contract was drawn up based on playing time, meaning Smith got paid by the number of games he played, which served to help Dallas more than Smith. The inevitable happened and the once crown jewel of the Cowboys offensive line missed time again last season. This meant more line shuffling adding to issues of inconsistency and communication.
Smith has proven to be a Pro Bowl-level player when healthy and one of the best left tackles in the business. However, he’s now 33 years old and his injuries have mounted up in recent years. He has yet to play a full season since 2015 and in the last four seasons, he’s only started 30 games.
But that’s not the only issue facing Jerry when it comes to a decision on Smith. There is the idea that Smith may just choose to retire now that his contract is up. He could decide to play and open himself up to other franchises making a bid to maximize his last contract, but that hasn't been Smith’s way of doing things in the past.
Smith would need to take a team-friendly contract or Jerry will need to look at the draft for a replacement and continue the rebuild of the offensive line. The only other option would be to put Tyler Smith in at left tackle, something this team refused to do last season, opting for other players on the roster to fill the void.
Non-free agent bonus decision
This one may seem an odd option to have here, but this is down to two major factors, age and cap cost. Currently, Cooks is looking to cost the Cowboys $10 million against the cap next year, and as it stands the Cowboys are projected to be $11 million over the cap in 2024. Releasing an aging Cooks with a post-June 1 designation would save around $8 million in cap space, helping to reduce the deficit.
It’s true Cooks scored eight touchdowns last season and played a significant role during certain games. But as a support weapon next to CeeDee Lamb, he was at times underwhelming. The best example of this was during the Wild Card game where he failed to step up during Lamb’s first-half struggles, finishing the game with only 47 receiving yards.
There’s denying Cooks is a perfectly capable support weapon for Dak, but this is more of a lean toward other options on the roster like Jalen Tolbert or even Jalen Brooks. But there are options at wide receiver in a draft class that features plenty of variety at the position. This could prove an important decision that could affect the offense immensely, or the cap room that is in need of extra space.