NFC East 2023 free agency grades: Dallas Cowboys edition
How have the Dallas Cowboys done so far in free agency? We grade their offseason.
BY JIMMY KEMPSKI
Heading into the 2022 playoffs, it felt lot like the NFC representative in the Super Bowl would be either the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers, or the Dallas Cowboys, with the other four teams having little to no chance of advancing.
The Cowboys were eliminated by the 49ers in a close game for the second consecutive season, but they no doubt believe that they remain close to contention heading into 2023. Here we'll review what they did in free agency.
• CB Stephon Gilmore (trade)
: The Cowboys dealt a fifth-round pick to the Colts for the 32-year-old Gilmore, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, two-time All-Pro, and five-time Pro Bowler. His cap commitment in 2023 is roughly $10 million, a reasonable price. While not the same player he once was, Gilmore is still a very good starting cornerback, and should be a significant upgrade at the CB2 spot opposite Trevon Diggs. He'll make an already good Dallas defense better.
This was one of the best free agency moves in the entire league, in my opinion, as the Cowboys were able to fill a significant hole in their defense with a grownup, instead of hoping that 2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph matures and makes a leap. The trio of Diggs, Gilmore, and slot corner DaRon Bland looks like one of the best set of corners in the NFL, behind a very good pass rush.
• WR Brandin Cooks (trade)
: Before we cover the Cooks trade, we should probably start with the Cowboys' head-scratching trade of Amari Cooper last offseason. In 56 games (3.5 seasons) after the Cowboys traded a first-round pick for him at the 2018 trade deadline, Cooper was a productive receiver for Dallas, catching 292 passes for 3893 yards and 27 TDs.
In addition to the draft capital used to acquire Cooper, Dallas also paid him over $54 million during his Dallas tenure. In the end, while productive for 3.5 seasons, Cooper only lasted, you know, 3.5 seasons, and the return on investment wasn't much, as Dallas traded him to the Browns for a fifth-round pick, and a swap of picks in the sixth round.
| Dallas got||Cleveland got |
|155th overall pick ||Amari Cooper |
|193rd overall pick ||202nd overall pick |
As it turned out, the Cowboys' offense in 2022 was a significantly less potent, while Cooper had an under-the-radar really good season in Cleveland, catching 78 passes for 1160 yards and 9 TDs while playing in bad Browns offense. The Cowboys simply did not get enough in return for Cooper.
A year later, the Cowboys' traded a fifth-round pick in 2023 and a sixth-round pick in 2024 for Cooks, who is an older, less talented player than Cooper, and who comes with some personality concerns, given that he was stripped of his captaincy
in Houston last season and has now been traded four times in his career. And they gave up more to get him than they got in return for Cooper. Certainly, cap figures were part of the equation, but it's hard to argue to that the sum of these two trades were in the Cowboys' favor.
Having said all that, if one can ignore the Cooper trade a year ago and look at the Cooks trade in a vacuum, it's a reasonable enough acquisition, especially with the Texans paying some of Cooks' salary.
On the field, Cooks has racked up six 1000-yard seasons over his career, and he will give the Cowboys an explosive speed element at WR2 opposite CeeDee Lamb that they missed in 2022.
• RB Ronald Jones
: Jones was an efficient change of pace back for the Super Bowl-winning Bucs in 2020, when he rushed 192 times for 978 yards (5.1 YPC) and 7 TDs. His production in Tampa fell off in 2021 (101-428-4), and was non-existent for the Chiefs in 2022 (17-70-1). Jones will compete for a roster spot as a backup running back.
• OL Chuma Edoga
: The Cowboys were thin on offensive line depth in 2022, and in Edoga they add a low-end reserve with 26 career games played and 13 starts in four seasons with the Jets and Falcons. Edoga is an effective run blocker but a liability in pass pro. He did not make the Jets' roster out of 2021 training camp, and if I recall correctly, Eagles defensive linemen wrecked him during Eagles-Jets joint practices in 2021.
• LS Trent Sieg
: I won't pretend to know the degree to which Sieg throws the ball through his legs with speed and precision, but he's coming from the Raiders, who employ Daniel Carlson, a kicker who is threatening Justin Tucker's title as the best kicker in the NFL. So I assume he's doing something right.
• RB Tony Pollard (franchise tag)
: Pollard is playing on the franchise tag this season at roughly $10.1 million. In three of his first four seasons in Dallas, Pollard was Ezekiel Elliott's sidekick, despite pretty clearly being the more explosive player. He has a 5.1 yards per carry average over his four-year career. In 2022, the Cowboys increased their usage of Pollard, and he had a very good season, carrying 193 times for 1007 yards (5.2 YPC) and 9 TDs, while also adding 39 receptions for 371 yards and 3 TDs. With Elliott now out of the way (more on that in a minute), expect Pollard's usage to continue to rise.
Is $10.1 too much money? It's a figure that represents 4.4 percent of Dallas' cap, which in my opinion is congruent to Pollard's projected importance in the Cowboys' offense in 2023. He's a good player who can be effective on all three downs, and I imagine the Cowboys will get their money's worth out of him this season.
• S Donovan Wilson
: Wilson is part of a trio of Cowboys safeties along with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker who all get their share of snaps. Wilson is a good run defender and blitzer who tallied 101 tackles and 5 sacks in 2022. He also added a pair of forced fumbles and an INT. The Cowboys brought Wilson back on a three-year deal worth $24 million.
• DE Dante Fowler
: Fowler was a productive one-dimensional pass rush specialist for the Cowboys in 2022, producing 6 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in just 227 pass rush snaps.
• LB Leighton Vander Esch
: Vander Esch was a good player for the Cowboys early in his career, which stalled a bit as a result of neck injuries. In 2022, he had 90 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in 14 games after playing all 17 games in 2021.
• QB Cooper Rush
: After losing Dak Prescott to a thumb injury Week 1 against the Buccaneers, Rush won four consecutive starts as the Cowboys' starter before eventually running into the Eagles Week 6, when he was picked off 3 times in a road loss. Rush is a smart, ball control quarterback who knows his limitations and does not take many chances down the field, leaning on the Dallas defense to win games. It's easy to point to Rush's 4-1 record a year ago and deem him "a good backup," but it's also hard to come up with any ideal traits that he possesses as an NFL quarterback.
The Cowboys seem content to go into 2023 with Rush as their No. 2 once again, which in my opinion is a dicey decision despite their results with him a year ago.
• CB C.J. Goodwin
: Backup corner and core special teamer.
• DE Takk McKinley
: McKinley is a former first-round pick who had a couple promising seasons to start his career under Dan Quinn, but injuries slowed his progression, and he has since bounced around from team to team as a fringe roster guy. The Cowboys added him to their practice squad mid-season in 2022.
• RB Rico Dowdle
: Preseason workhorse.
• TE Dalton Schultz
: Schultz had the best season of his career in 2021, when he caught 78 passes for 808 yards and 8 TDs. He was aided by a Dallas offense that (at the time) employed a nice quartet of receivers in Lamb, Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cedric Wilson, not to mention Pollard coming out of the backfield as a receiver. As a result, Schultz got a lot of favorable matchups, and was almost completely uncovered or schemed up on over half of his 8 TDs.
The Cowboys subsequently franchise tagged Schultz, and in an offense that did not have the same firepower in 2022 that they did in 2021, Schultz's production suffered a bit, as he had 57 catches for 577 yards and 5 TDs. He signed with the Texans this offseason.
Schultz got wildly overhyped last offseason as some sort of top tight end. I don't think this is much of a loss. Schultz is a perfectly cromulent starting tight end, but he is also replaceable and second-year pro Jake Ferguson seems primed to step into a bigger role.
• RB Ezekiel Elliott
: Elliott was a great running back for the Cowboys for the first four years of his career, but after heavy usage early in his career his play predictably fell off a cliff. The decision to release Elliott as a cap casualty was an obvious one for the Cowboys, and in some ways it marks the end of an era in Dallas. Going forward, the Cowboys' rushing attack will go through Pollard.
One of my running bits in our annual dumpster fire series
was showing Zeke's Zelda-like life meter deteriorate each year. Here were his life meters each year since 2019:
I'm going to miss that bit. It will be weird seeing Zeke in another uniform.
• OG Connor McGovern
: McGovern was the Cowboys' starting LG in 2022 who also filled in at times at C. Just a guy. The Bills signed him to a three-year deal worth $23 million, which was an overpay, in my opinion. Still, the Cowboys are light on offensive line depth and could be looking to add some bodies in the draft.
• WR Noah Brown
: Brown is a big bodied receiver (6'2, 215) who had nice production in 2022 (43-555-3), but suffered from inopportune drops, notably against the Jaguars in overtime, when Dak Prescott was victimized by a walk-off pick-six. Brown got a one-year deal worth $2.6 million in Houston.
• LB Luke Gifford
: Gifford was a special teams standout for the Cowboys. He signed a two-year deal with the Titans.
• LS Jake McQuaide
: McQuaide was the Cowboys' long snapper the last two seasons. He'll now play for the Lions. Maybe it's not the worst idea for the Cowboys to just completely trash their field goal operation that was a disaster down the stretch last season.
The tale of the tape
|Players gained ||Players retained ||Players lost |
|CB Stephon Gilmore||RB Tony Pollard ||TE Dalton Schultz |
|WR Brandin Cooks ||S Donovan Wilson ||RB Ezekiel Elliott |
|RB Ronald Jones ||DE Dante Fowler ||OG Connor McGovern |
|OL Chuma Edoga ||LB Leighton Vander Esch ||WR Noah Brown |
|LS Trent Sieg ||QB Cooper Rush ||LB Luke Gifford |
| ||CB C.J. Goodwin ||LS Jake McQuaide |
| ||DE Takk McKinley || |
| ||RB Rico Dowdle || |
The Cowboys have had a really nice start to their offseason, as the trades for Gilmore and Cooks eliminated two obvious, glaring needs on their roster with proven vets who both should have some juice left in the tank. They were also able to retain their most important free agents, notably Pollard, Wilson, and Fowler, who were all positive contributors in 2022.
But unlike in previous offseasons, they did a much better job of properly rating their own players, opting to let Schultz, Elliott, McGovern, and Brown walk in free agency.
If I were to have one quibble, it would be that they didn't seek to upgrade their No. 2 quarterback situation, as there were plenty of decent options available and the backup quarterback market was very reasonable.
Overall, the Cowboys still have work to do to become more talented than either the Eagles or 49ers, but their start to free agency kind of felt like a drive down the middle of the fairway.