Even with linebacker being one of the Cowboys most glaring roster needs, Leighton Vander Esch may not factor into any of the team’s plans moving forward.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
It would be fairly surprising to see the Cowboys allow linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to finish the two-year contract he signed last offseason.
For one, Dallas needs to improve its linebacker corps and a defense that has been vulnerable to the run over the past few seasons. Secondly, Vander Esch has struggled to stay healthy. He was limited to five games in 2023 by a neck injury.
Vander Esch was productive when healthy—he logged 30 tackles and a defensive touchdown in his five appearances—but Dallas simply can’t count on him to stay on the field. Given his history of neck injuries, Vander Esch may also have to consider stepping away from football.
“The nature of his potential injury here causes me to really think longer term and beyond what it means for next week or beyond what it means for next month,” franchise owner Jerry Jones told 105.3 The Fan (h/t ESPN’s Todd Archer).
Releasing Vander Esch would trigger a dead-cap hit of $2.3 million but also save $2.1 million in 2024 cap space.
The Cowboys could surround CeeDee Lamb with some new playmakers out wide next season.
In two years with the Browns, Cooper has averaged 55 catches for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. All better numbers than he had with Dallas.
In those same two years Gallup has a total of 842 yards on 73 catches and six touchdowns.
We can’t undo the trade but we can cut out losses. Gallup has to be gone.
Keep On Cooking
In his first year in Dallas, Brandin Cooks hauled in 54 catches for 657 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Cowboys need to move heaven and earth to keep Cooks in Dallas next year. Both he and CeeDee Lamb were the most reliable receivers in 2023.
Jalen Brooks showed flashes of future promise in his limited rookie season. Brooks caught all six passes thrown in his direction and four were for first downs.
It’s time for the younger receivers to step up in 2024.
Top LBs at the 2024 Senior Bowl: Payton Wilson, Cedric Gray Top the List - Owain Jones, Pro Football Network
The Cowboys have had a close eye on Senior Bowl prospects for some time, with plenty of standouts to bolster their defense this season.
Senior Bowl LB Rankings
The 2024 linebacker class needs someone to step up. Currently, a cluster of players is viewed as late Day 2 to early Day 3 prospects, with no one separating themselves from the pack.
Who will take their opportunity at the 2024 Senior Bowl?
1) Payton Wilson, NC State
There is very little left for Payton Wilson to prove on the football field. He is exactly what teams want in a modern linebacker. Wilson has the size, instincts, and awareness, but he also possesses the mobility. He can cover on passing downs and crash downhill to stop the run.
The biggest thing for Wilson in the pre-draft process is his medicals. The NC State linebacker has rarely been healthy, having already suffered two torn ACLs and a season-ending shoulder injury in 2021. He will be one of the first linebackers drafted in the 2024 NFL Draft if designated a clean bill of health.
2) Cedric Gray, North Carolina
One of the most impressive aspects of Cedric Gray’s game is his strength. It allows him to shed blocks and wrap up tackles in the run game. Meanwhile, his burst gives him adequate short-area quickness.
Gray does have athletic sticking points that he will need to clean up, which he will get an opportunity to showcase at the Senior Bowl. They mostly show up in coverage, where his lack of twitch can lead him astray. While he can recognize and anticipate, he can get caught flat-footed.
3) Ty’Ron Hopper, Missouri
The key to Ty’Ron Hopper’s game is speed. An absolute blazer, it is comfortably the Missouri linebacker’s most substantial asset. That speed gives him immense range. Paired with his toughness, he’s a menace coming downhill to defend the run. His endless motor sees him chase down runners, and his overall change of direction ability means he can go sideline-to-sideline swiftly.
The teams that advanced past Wild Card weekend and to the Super Bowl had a much more dynamic run game than the Cowboys found for most of the season.
3. Letting go of Ezekiel Elliott (and not bringing him back at reduced price)
I think we have to look at the decision the Dallas Cowboys made to let go of running back Ezekiel Elliott. Maybe it was time for Zeke to go. Maybe that ship has permanently sailed.
We all understood the financial ramifications of keeping Zeke last year, especially when the Cowboys had to franchise tag Tony Pollard to keep him around. The decision to tag Pollard forced the Cowboys’ hand when it came to Ezekiel Elliott, meaning they simply couldn’t commit that much of the salary cap pie to two players at running back.
But even though Elliott is not the 2015 version of himself anymore, I think what he and Pollard were able to do together in 2022 was much better than what we saw from the Dallas running game overall in 2023. The Cowboys went from being a top-10 rushing attatck with the second-most rushing TDs in the league (24) to being middle-of-the-pack, 14th in yards and 15th in rushing touchdowns, in 2023.
As tough as it would have been financially speaking, the Cowboys probably should have done more to get Elliott back at a reduced price in 2023. He ended up signing with the New England Patriots in a very dry running back market for just $3 million on a one-year deal.
It would have been worth that amount to see Zeke back in Dallas for at least one more ride.
2024 Senior Bowl: How to watch, time, TV, top storylines for NFL Draft event featuring Michael Penix Jr., more - Josh Edwards, CBS Sports
Senior Bowl practices get underway today in Mobile.
How to watch and what to know
Date: Saturday, Feb. 3 | Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Hancock Whitney Stadium (Mobile, Alabama)
A year ago, the annual college football showcase pitting NFL hopefuls featured over 100 prospects who were drafted from the game. A week of practices and interviews leading up to the game draw over 900 NFL personnel from all 32 teams.
The Reese’s Senior Bowl has always accepted juniors who met graduation requirements but the game is now an option for all underclassmen prospects who have declared for the NFL Draft regardless of whether or not they have completed degree requirements.
There are roughly a dozen junior prospects that have been invited and accepted an invitation to the 2024 NFL Draft, including Oregon center Jackson Powers-Johnson, Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II, Kansas edge rusher Austin Booker, Miami safety Kamren Kinchens and BYU offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia. Murphy is CBSSports.com’s highest rated junior participant.
Top prospects in this year’s game
UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu is CBSSports.com’s top rated prospect in this week’s game. After registering 10+ sacks for the second consecutive season, Latu arrives in Mobile as a potential Top-10 overall selection. Other prospects ranked in the Top-50 overall include:
Oregon State offensive tackle Taliese Fuaga
Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell
Penn State cornerback Kalen King
Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw
Missouri cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine
Houston offensive tackle Patrick Paul
Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
Oregon quarterback Bo Nix
Washington offensive lineman Troy Fautanu
Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton
Oklahoma offensive tackle Tyler Guyton
Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr.
TCU cornerback Josh Newton
Tyron Smith named as Cowboys free agent they can least afford to lose - Matthew Holleran, Blogging the Boys
How big of a need will offensive line be this offseason for Dallas?
While the Cowboys do have Tyler Smith as an in-house option at left tackle if they don’t retain Smith, letting him walk in free agency would not be a smart move. Pro Football Focus agreed with this sentiment as they named Smith Dallas’ free agent they can “least afford to lose” this spring.
Here’s what PFF had to say about why the Cowboys can ill afford to let Smith go.
Smith is on the back nine of his career and can be expected to miss a game or two in any given season, but he’s been a remarkable value for Dallas going on a decade at this point. The Cowboys shouldn’t let him take a snap in another uniform if he wants to keep playing.
Smith’s 847 snaps played in 2023 were his most since 2019, and his 3.6% pressure rate allowed was third-lowest among tackles across the league.
It’s hard to disagree that if Smith does intend to keep playing, the Cowboys must do whatever it takes to keep him in Dallas. When healthy, he’s still one of the best tackles in the league, and bringing him back would help eliminate Dallas’ need to select a tackle in the draft.
BTB ran a poll on this very subject recently and you guys agreed, Smith was voted the most important free agent to re-sign in a close race with Tyler Biadasz and Stephon Gilmore.
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