- Salary cap manipulation: The Dallas Cowboys are currently $7 million over the salary cap next year, which means they will have to make some moves to free up the necessary space to improve the roster.
- Re-sign your own: Before they can even think about bringing in free agents, the Cowboys will have to figure out which of their own free agents are worth re-signing, such as Tony Pollard and Leighton Vander Esch.
- Mock draft: In this primer, the Cowboys opt to improve cornerback and receiver with their first two picks in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
The Dallas Cowboys went 12-5 again in the 2022 season, advancing to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2018. While that certainly isn’t their end goal, it was a step in the right direction; however, the 2023 offseason will be critical for the Cowboys as they try to find a way to get past the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC.
The Cowboys have already made several changes this offseason, including moving from Kellen Moore to Brian Schottenheimer at offensive coordinator. While that appears to be a clear downgrade on paper, head coach Mike McCarthy will be the team’s play caller. The good news is that Dallas was able to retain defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is widely viewed as one of the top coordinators in the league.
So what lies ahead for the Cowboys this offseason and what moves must they make to get back to the NFC Championship Game? Here is our 2023 offseason primer for the Dallas Cowboys:
Notable unrestricted free agents:
- TE Dalton Schultz
- LB Leighton Vander Esch
- S Donovan Wilson
- RB Tony Pollard
- OG Connor McGovern
- CB Anthony Brown
- QB Cooper Rush
- OT Terence Steele (RFA)
The Cowboys are projected to be $7 million over the cap going into free agency, which is a problem considering how many quality free agents are eligible to hit the open market in March. That list includes Schultz, who the Cowboys franchise tagged last offseason. That could be an option again this offseason with the price tag rising to $13.1 million.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys might consider using the franchise tag on Pollard, who was named a Pro Bowler in 2022 after finishing four in overall PFF grade among running backs. The franchise tag would pay Pollard just over $10 million for the 2023 season while the transition tender would pay $8.4 million. Considering how much the offense relied on Pollard’s playmaking last season, it seems unlikely that the Cowboys will let him leave this offseason.
The Cowboys re-signed Vander Esch to a one-year deal worth $2 million in 2022, which proved to be one of the biggest steals of the offseason. Vander Esch had his best season since 2018, grading as PFF's No. 23 ranked linebacker. While he still has some legitimate injury concerns, he is a quality linebacker who deserves a big pay bump. Look for the Cowboys to re-sign Vander Esch again this offseason for significantly more money this time.
Another player the Cowboys might want to retain is Wilson, who played over 1,100 snaps (including special teams) while lining up primarily in the box. He's a plus-run defender and one of the best blitzing safeties in the league. While he isn't expected to earn a huge contract, he's a player the team would like to retain if the price is right.
- RB Ezekiel Elliott
- OT Tyron Smith
- CB Jourdan Lewis
Moving on from Elliott seems obvious, but the Cowboys might not view it that way. Elliott averaged just 3.8 yards per carry this season and caught just 17 passes in the receiving game. The Cowboys could designate Elliott as a post-June 1 cut, saving them $10.9 million this season. Given that Dallas has so many free agents and little cap space, this seems like the right move. However, don’t be surprised if Dallas tries to keep Elliott in 2023 on a reduced contract.
The more difficult decision is what Dallas should do with Smith, who has played just 17 games over the last three regular seasons and will turn 33 years old next season. With Tyler Smith‘s emergence at left tackle, the Cowboys could decide to move on from Smith and save $13.6 million if designated as a post-June 1 cut. Nonetheless, with quality offensive tackles nearly impossible to find, Dallas might decide to hold onto him for one more year.
Another possible cap casualty is Lewis, who tore his ACL early in the 2022 season and has now performed at a replacement level over the last three years. As a result, the Cowboys could release Lewis and save $4.6 million and try to upgrade that position this offseason.
- Wide receiver
- Interior defensive line
The most pressing need for the Cowboys this offseason is wide receiver. CeeDee Lamb had a fantastic season, but he needs help. Michael Gallup will be a full year removed from his ACL tear, but his play has declined in each of the last three seasons. Recent third-round pick Jalen Tolbert was a healthy scratch for most of the season, so it’s unreasonable to rely on him for the 2023 season. Plus, Noah Brown and T.Y. Hilton are both scheduled to become free agents in March.
The Cowboys need to add one, if not two, quality receivers this offseason. However, because the 2023 draft class is relatively weak at that position, the team will need to explore the free-agent market and/or trades to get more receiver help.
Wide receiver is the only glaring need for the Cowboys entering the offseason; however, cornerback and interior defensive line could both use some added depth. Cowboys were thrilled with the play they got from rookie Daron Bland in 2022, but they were forced to play a few washed veterans such as Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie Alexander at the end of the season due to injuries.
The Cowboys are still hopeful that a pair of 2021 draft picks (Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright) can pan out, but look for them to add more talent to the position this offseason. Don’t be surprised if they use one of their top two picks on a cornerback in the 2023 NFL Draft as that is one of the strengths of this year’s class.
The interior defensive line could use some veteran help, as both Johnathan Hankins and Carlos Watkins were key contributors down the stretch. Both are free agents in March but could easily return on one-year deals. If not, look for the Cowboys to add a run-stopping defensive tackle in the third or fourth wave of free agency.
Free agent targets:
With such limited cap space, the Cowboys aren’t expected to be all that active in free agency outside of re-signing their own players. However, the one player who could get the front office excited is Beckham. Now that he is a full year removed from his knee injury, the Cowboys could explore signing him once again. While his health is still a major question mark, he would be a perfect fit in Mike McCarthy’s offense that runs a ton of slants and flat routes.
Another receiver who makes sense for the Cowboys is Cobb, who played with the team in 2019. Dallas needs to add a veteran receiver who knows McCarthy's offense and could be had relatively cheap this offseason. Cobb turns 33 years old this offseason but can still contribute as a No. 4 receiver in the right offense. It wouldn't be a sexy signing by any means, but it's the type of move that often happens when a team is implementing a new system.
Dallas is unlikely to get into any bidding wars on the defensive line, so you can rule them out of the Da’Ron Payne or Javon Hargrave sweepstakes. Instead, look for them to go value shopping for a run-stopper. A’Shawn Robinson could be a possible target, as he’s routinely graded out as a top-12 run defender. He’s projected to sign a one-year deal worth $2.5 million this offseason, which is certainly doable for the Cowboys.
2023 NFL Draft
- No. 26
- No. 58
- No. 90
- No. 129
- No. 163
- No. 170 (compensatory)
- No. 176 (compensatory)
- No. 204
- No. 212 (compensatory)
- No. 246
seven-round mock draft
Dallas takes Joey Porter Jr. — one of the longest and most aggressive cornerbacks in the draft — in Round 1. He would be a fantastic fit opposite of Trevon Diggs, and it would allow Daron Bland to play in the slot.
On Day 2, the Cowboys grab two starters in Jalin Hyatt and Steve Avila. Hyatt could be long gone by this point, but Dallas needs an infusion of speed in its offense, which Hyatt provides. Avila is a massive offensive guard who could instantly replace Connor McGovern should he leave in free agency.
The Cowboys add depth to running back, linebacker and cornerback early on Day 3 while selecting a backup quarterback in Max Duggan. Altogether, this would be a fantastic haul for a team that might just be one draft away from competing with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC.