The Dallas Cowboys don’t do things in free agency. They build their roster from the NFL draft and re-sign their own guys. Nobody in the NFL had more homegrown talent on their initial 53-man roster than the Cowboys did heading into 2022. Not much will change heading into 2023, either.
Dallas hasn’t signed a single free agent who played outside of the organization in 2022. That’s an incredible feat through a whole week of free agency. But even though they’ve avoided the open market, Dallas found a way to add some high-end talent that wasn’t on the roster a season ago.
Overall Dallas Cowboys Free Agency Grade
How is it that Dallas can be so excruciatingly inactive in the free agency market while also making aggressive moves to improve their roster at two of the most important positions on the field?
Well, Dallas has looked around at their competition over the last few years who have added veteran talents on reasonable contracts for mid-to-late Day 3 picks and thought, “I want this for me now.” Dallas has enough cap space remaining for moves and will undoubtedly look to fill more needs as the free agency period progresses.
But they’ve crushed the “talent acquisition period” that is the free agency window.
Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks Perfectly Fit Cowboys Needs
The Dallas Cowboys needed a legitimate No. 2 CB in the building. Anthony Brown is a free agent coming off a torn Achilles, and Dallas has essentially whiffed on the position in recent drafts.
Now, Dallas gets to field two former All-Pro cornerbacks on the outside, and Stephon Gilmore is excited.
“One of us is going to get tested,” Gilmore told Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. “Just got to be able to make the plays when they come my way. … One of us is going to be making the play.”
Gilmore has always played in aggressive middle-of-the-field closed defenses. And while Dan Quinn has evolved his defensive scheme to better fit with the times, he still loves his Cover 1, especially playing his cornerbacks at depth. So aside from being a great talent fit, Gilmore also fits the scheme to a tee.
Speaking of fitting needs and scheme, say hello to Cowboys wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The former Saints, Patriots, Rams, and Texans pass catcher has been passed around the league like a bottle of Southern Comfort at an NC State frat party.
Incredibly, from 2015-2018, Cooks had four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for three different teams. He then went on to have two more with Houston in 2020 and 2021. In other words, the 29-year-old has proven he can produce anywhere.
And while his overall ability is a positive for the Cowboys, he provides one thing that was absolutely crucial and missing from the Cowboys’ passing attack in 2022: speed.
Speed has never been more important for NFL offenses. Teams have found sore spots over the middle of the field. It’s allowed quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa and Jimmy Garoppolo the ability to produce at a top-five level in efficiency. Threatening safeties vertically opens up a world of opportunities over the middle.
And that’s exactly where Dak Prescott wants to attack.
Cowboys Let Connor McGovern Walk
The Cowboys are in a unique position with their offensive line. Their best five a season ago would have consisted of Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Terence Steele, in that order from left to right.
Obviously, Dallas lost Tyron before the season started, and Tyler (Smith) was forced to left tackle, which went much better than most expected. But their best five heading into 2023 remains the same.
It’s more complicated than that because of the elder Smith’s injury history, which is as consistent and extensive as they come. But when healthy, the Cowboys have their starting group. Connor McGovern was a functional player at left guard, but Dallas didn’t need to get into a bidding war for him.
They’ll likely add an inexpensive veteran or two as depth pieces before the season starts.
Cowboys Re-Sign Donovan Smith and Leighton Vander Esch
Admittedly, Donovan Smith was not necessary to re-sign, but a luxury that Dallas could afford. Smith, Malik Hooker, and Jayron Kearse all played over 900 defensive snaps for the Cowboys in 2022, and that’s likely to carry over to 2023 as well.
Dallas doesn’t have a strong linebacking corps, but both Kearse and Smith are outstanding when coming downhill as part of the run fit. It allows Dallas to remain gap integral while having better players in coverage.
And because they have an underwhelming linebacking corps, retaining Thad Castle impersonator Leighton Vander Esch was the single move Dallas needed to make more than any this offseason from a retention perspective.
Vander Esch is coming off his best season since his breakout rookie year. While he’s continued to battle some minor injuries here and there, including neck injuries that were a concern of his coming out of Boise State, he has remained relatively healthy.
Cutting Ties With Ezekiel Elliott Hurts But Is Worth It
With $10.9 million in salary cap savings with a post-June 1 release designation, there was no other course of action here. The Cowboys made an overpay at the time of Ezekiel Elliott’s deal, and it’s haunted them since.
It’s not Zeke’s fault. Well, he did hold out in 2019, which was the tipping point for getting his deal done, but Dallas didn’t have to overpay him. It’s also important to note that while Elliott never lived up to his second contract, he had been the best running back in the league over his first three seasons, and injuries derailed his longevity.
He played banged up constantly. Elliott sacrificed his body for the team as a runner and pass protector down in and down out.
“Zeke’s impact and influence is seared into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way,” Jerry Jones said in a statement. “He has been a consummate professional and leader that set a tone in our locker room, on the practice field, and in the huddle. Zeke defined what a great teammate should be, and anyone that has ever played a team sport would be lucky to have a teammate like Zeke and be much better for it.
“His commitment and passion for winning is selfless, and the accountability he brings every day earned the respect of our coaches, his teammates, and our entire organization. He wore the Cowboys Star with pride and purpose every single time he put it on, and we’re a better franchise because of the example he set for veterans and rookies alike. That carried over into our community as well, with Zeke’s generosity and spirit about giving and caring for others.”
In the end, this game took a toll on Elliott’s body. It zapped the explosiveness that made him so special coming out of Ohio State. And even though it hurts to see a warrior like Elliott go, Dallas made the right move.