• Pass on Dalton Schultz: Promising young players in addition to a tight cap should cause the Dallas Cowboys to allow Schultz to test the open market.
• Pay Donovan Wilson: Despite his size, Wilson is the tone-setter for the Cowboys' defense and his presence would be greatly missed if he signs elsewhere.
• Pay Leighton Vander Esch: The linebacker put together his best year in 2022 since his outstanding rookie season, proving to be a vital part of Dallas' defense.
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
With the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine in the books, free agency is just around the corner, which means the Dallas Cowboys don't have much time to sign their unrestricted free agents before they officially hit the open market at 4 p.m. EST on March 15.
The Cowboys already made their opening salvo to 2023 free agency, as they will franchise tag running back Tony Pollard before the Tuesday deadline. While paying $10 million-plus on a running back coming off a gruesome lower leg injury isn't ideal — though he should be fully healthy by May, a few months before training camp even begins — it's certainly more palatable than using a premium selection in the 2023 NFL Draft on the position.
Franchise-tagging Pollard will likely ease Dallas' urge to add talent to the running back position, meaning the Cowboys may wait until the third round of the draft or beyond to grab a running back. In an extremely deep running back class, selecting a back on late Day 2 or Day 3 represents much better value than the albeit alluring talent of a first- or second-round running back.
Nonetheless, with Pollard's fate already decided, we will turn our attention to the rest of the Cowboys' notable unrestricted free agents to determine if they should be re-signed or find employment elsewhere on the open market.
TE Dalton Schultz
Selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Schultz has been a well-rounded, reliable tight end who developed a great rapport with quarterback Dak Prescott. The Stanford product is an effective blocker by tight end standards and is extremely in tune with how to find open space in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
While Dallas often gets chided for its financial decisions, placing the franchise tag on Schultz proved to be a wise choice last year, as it provided a bridge for the Cowboys to find his potential replacements without further hurting an offense that already lost one of its best weapons in Amari Cooper. Unfortunately, given their cap situation (currently $7 million over the 2023 cap, per Over The Cap) in addition to the development of 2022 rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, the Cowboys would be wise to let another team pay the $14.5 million per year that PFF projects he will earn on the open market.
Still, don't be surprised if Dallas targets a tight end in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, especially if one has the skill set to be a major contributor in the passing game.
S Donovan Wilson
Even though Micah Parsons was the defense's best player while DeMarcus Lawrence was its leader, Wilson was the unit's tone-setter. Listed at just 6 feet and 204 pounds, Wilson plays way above his weight class, as he attacks ball carriers with the vigor of someone who is 50 pounds heavier, especially around the box.
Impressive play by Donovan Wilson to bounce off Quenton Nelson's block before searching through the trash to make the stop.
Wilson plays with ZERO fear – Nelson outweighs him by ~130 lbs(!!!!!) but DW has zero hesitation. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/oU4GuOY2zb
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 5, 2022
Wilson is coming off a career-high 74.6 run-defense grade while placing third on the team in total stops (40) in 2022. Furthermore, Wilson has improved mightily in coverage over his four-year career, as he no longer has to be schematically hidden when opposing teams drop back to pass.
Given defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's affinity for using three-safety personnel, Wilson's continued presence is important even with Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse already on the roster. Dallas' safety group was one of the team's biggest bright spots last year, so a projected two-year, $11 million deal shouldn't dissuade the Cowboys from keeping the group together.
If Dallas opts to pass on Wilson, it indicates significant trust in third-year defensive back Israel Mukuamu, who performed capably on his opportunities in 2022.
CB Anthony Brown
Brown has been an underrated contributor to the Cowboys' defense for quite some time, bringing a veteran presence and consistency to the team's cornerback room. Unfortunately, committing any money to a 29-year-old cornerback who is coming off a torn Achilles would not be wise. Given Brown's issues at the catch point, the fact that his impressive movement skills could be hampered in his return from the gruesome injury makes the idea of re-signing him even less palatable.
Brown's previous contributions are appreciated, but the Cowboys should look to acquire a replacement, which will likely come in a 2023 NFL Draft that is chock-full of enticing cornerback prospects.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
After struggling through the three previous seasons, Vander Esch proved to be an incredibly valuable member of the Cowboys' defense in 2022, producing his best PFF grade (73.1) since his outstanding rookie campaign (85.4 PFF grade). Despite missing two games and most of a third in 2022, Vander Esch still finished second on the team in tackles (72) and fourth in stops (33) while missing just seven tackles.
DAL has a bit of a miscommunication defending the trips bunch (Wilson/Mukuamu both go with 84) but Leighton Vander Esch put on his cape to defend 2 TB WRs before the PBU.
The fact that LVE picked up Godwin but then fell off to defend Julio is incredible awareness #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/hyuDPM8VpB
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 17, 2023
In addition to Vander Esch's value against the run, his improvement in coverage in Quinn's defense might've been even more impressive. His awareness in short-to-intermediate zone coverage helped him record a notable 76.7 coverage grade in 2022.
The issue with re-signing Vander Esch is his history of neck injuries, as he's reportedly one bad hit away from retirement due to the spinal stenosis that caused him to undergo surgery earlier in his career. The Boise State product's injury issues were a big reason the team declined his fifth-year option, and it's probably the primary reason the team may be afraid to hand him a multi-year contract.
While re-signing Vander Esch to the projected three-year, $20.25 million deal would be scary given that injury history, if Dallas' medical staff signs off on his long-term viability, then $6.75 million per year doesn't seem like too steep of a price for one of Dallas' most valuable defenders in 2022.
G Connor McGovern
The Cowboys allowed interior offensive lineman Connor Williams to enter free agency last year due to the team's belief in McGovern. However, while the latter proved to be the consistent weak link of the Cowboys' starting offensive line (53.5 PFF grade), the former turned out to be one of the best centers in football with the Miami Dolphins in 2022, signifying that Dallas' front office made the wrong choice last offseason.
Given McGovern's struggles in 2022, the Cowboys would be wise to let him test the open market just like Williams last year. With Matt Farniok looking to stake his claim as the team's primary backup interior offensive lineman, McGovern doesn't have a ton of utility for the Cowboys in 2023, as the idea of starting him at left guard once again isn't very enticing.
The Cowboys could either bring in another veteran to start at left guard or slide second-year offensive lineman Tyler Smith back to left guard with stalwart tackles Tyron Smith and Terence Steele back in the fold this upcoming season.
NT Johnathan Hankins
While nose tackles don't produce much individually, the good ones make life easier on the rest of the defense. Hankins didn't grade overly well in 2022, but his play was a stark upgrade over the team's other behemoth nose tackle, Quinton Bohanna. Hankins was better at eating blocks and occupying space, and his presence proved to be important for Dallas' overall run defense when he was healthy in 2022.
You know who continues to play well in the shadows with little acclaim? Johnathan Hankins. A lot of what he does goes unnoticed and isn't on the stat sheet, but he's brings more consistency and stability at NT than the #Cowboys are used to. pic.twitter.com/Ui097ehvXs
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 5, 2022
Now, the Cowboys would be wise to acquire another nose tackle who can rotate with Hankins to keep both fresh, and there are a few enticing options in both free agency and the draft.
QB Cooper Rush
Verdict: Pay (with a caveat)
While he didn't light up the box score while filling in for an injured Dak Prescott last season, Rush was exactly what Dallas needed from a backup quarterback, leading the team to an impressive 4-1 record without their star signal-caller. While Rush's five-week performance kept Dallas' playoff hopes alive last season, it may also put him out of the Cowboys' price range for a backup quarterback this offseason.
However, if a team doesn't give Rush an opportunity to compete for a starting gig, then he's highly likely to return to Dallas. And given the fact that Rush registered just three big-time throws compared to eight turnover-worthy plays, teams may not be enthused with the idea of him as a full-time starter, especially in a year with four quarterbacks projected to go in the first round in addition to proven commodities Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett scheduled to hit free agency.
Don't be surprised if the cowboys re-sign Rush to a one-year deal before drafting his replacement in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft (Hendon Hooker, anyone?).
EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
Fowler proved to be an effective rotational edge defender who provided notable pass-rush juice (73.0 pass-rush grade and a 14.6% pass-rush win rate) on a small snap count. However, with Parsons, Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Sam Williams already in tow, Fowler will likely seek employment from a team that can guarantee more playing time.
The Cowboys would be wise to find their Fowler replacement during the 2023 NFL Draft, as the edge defender position is filled with NFL-caliber talent.
LB Anthony Barr
Barr's veteran presence was a nice addition to the defense in 2022, but his play often hovered in the “average” territory, which is a shame given his stellar play in the past. Moreover, the Cowboys parted with defensive assistant George Edwards, who spent much of his career with Barr in Minnesota, making it even more unlikely that the UCLA product returns in 2023.
With Jabril Cox and Damone Clark already on the roster, the Cowboys have a couple of younger players ready to step up and take advantage of Barr's vacated role and snap count.
WR T.Y. Hilton
While Hilton's veteran presence would benefit Dallas' young receiving corps, the team should target a more talented receiver (Odell Beckham Jr., perhaps?) to complement CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Hilton proved there is still fuel in the tank down the stretch last season, and he made more than a couple of big plays for the Cowboys' offense over the last month of the season. In fact, Jerry and Stephen Jones already intimated that they wanted Hilton to return to the team in 2023.
Even if Dallas passes on paying Hilton, don't be surprised if he gets brought back midseason or at the end of training camp if Dallas isn't happy with the way its wide receiver room is developing, especially if the position gets hit with a rash of injuries.
OT Jason Peters
While we just predicted that Dallas would pass on Hilton's veteran presence, the front office should try to keep Peters in town. The 41-year-old played well given his age and lack of position stability, earning a 70.2 overall grade in 2022.
The future Hall of Famer has the position flexibility to capably play guard or tackle and can continue to mentor the ultra-talented Tyler Smith. Furthermore, given Tyron Smith‘s injury history and the fact that Terence Steele is returning from a torn ACL, the Cowboys would be wise to invest in proven depth that can provide capable play if need be.
If the Cowboys don't re-sign Peters, it just means the team has a ton of belief in young offensive tackles Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko.
WR Noah Brown
Brown made some strides as a route runner and pass catcher in 2022, accruing a career-high 594 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but not to the point where the Cowboys need to prioritize re-signing him. Brown's blocking prowess will be missed, but Dallas should go the cheaper route when filling in the depth behind their top three receivers on the depth chart.
LB Luke Gifford
Gifford is young and an impressive special teamer, so it wouldn't be surprising if special teams coordinator John Fassell stood on the table to get the team to re-sign one of his best contributors, as Gifford's 90.7 special teams grade ranked 10th in the NFL. However, much like Brown, the Cowboys would be wise to replace Gifford with a younger linebacker on a rookie contract. The 2023 NFL Draft is full of exciting linebacker prospects in the middle rounds, including Cincinnati's Ivan Pace Jr., and the Cowboys could add one with one of the compensatory picks they're scheduled to receive in the coming days.
Now, head coach Mike McCarthy has stated that he believes that Gifford is good enough to have a defensive role, so maybe the Cowboys bring him back with the idea that he will play more on defense next year. Still, with Cox and Clark already in tow, in addition to potentially re-signing Vander Esch, the Cowboys don't need to allocate any more dollars above the veteran minimum to the linebacker position this offseason.
DT Carlos Watkins
Even though he started the 2022 season on the practice squad, Watkins proved to be a valuable cog for Dallas' interior defensive line after being elevated to the active roster.
Tough to overstate how valuable Carlos Watkins has been over the 2nd-half of the season, especially since Hankins went down. Fantastic job controlling his block and staying square while moving laterally, which takes him right to the ball carrier once he cuts upfield. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/QG84jSYiO4
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 30, 2022
When Hankins missed time due to injury, Watkins helped fill his shoes and provide capable play. The veteran defensive tackle isn't great in any facet of defensive line play, but he is competent in most, showing the ability to occupy double teams and generate the occasional pressure.
Much like last year, The Cowboys would be wise to re-sign Watkins on a short-term deal to help set the floor for Dallas' interior defensive line play in 2023. If the Cowboys sign a more talented defensive tackle in free agency or select one in the draft, then they can just slide Watkins to the practice squad like last season.
K Brett Maher
Verdict: Pay (unless they plan to sign Robbie Gould)
Maher's maddening inconsistencies on extra points toward the end of last season are certainly concerning, but let's not forget that he was PFF's highest-graded kicker on field goals (90.8) from Weeks 1-15 in 2022. Now, the Cowboys definitely need to bring in competition — whether it's through free agency, a Day 3 pick or an undrafted free agent — but Maher did well enough for most of last season that he deserves to compete for the job in 2023.
Having said that, no one would be opposed to the Cowboys targeting Robbie Gould in free agency, as he would bring the stability to the kicking position that the Cowboys have craved since Dan Bailey.
CB/ST C.J. Goodwin
Goodwin has been a Cowboys specialist since 2018, but he is now 33 years old, so the Cowboys should look to Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright to fill his shoes moving forward. Using one of 53 roster spots on a special teams-only player is a luxury the Cowboys can't afford anymore given their injury issues at other positions, namely offensive line.