The Dallas Cowboys grew up this offseason, putting themselves in a much better position to contend thanks to a savvy 2023 offseason that has them in a much better spot than they were when they began training camp in Oxnard, California last year.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones made some smart moves this offseason, trading late-round picks for quality veterans who can plug key roster roles. He did so in the deals to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Both are already making an impact on their new Cowboys teammates in their roles as the team's No. 2 receiver and No. 2 cornerback, arguably their two biggest positions of need on both sides of the ball entering the offseason. These moves were made on top of retaining just about all of their key defensive players from a unit that allowed the fifth-fewest points (20.1 points per game) in the NFL in 2022. Dallas also finally crowned Tony Pollard as their deserving, lead running back following the release of the fading Ezekiel Elliott.
Then, Dallas had a safe, down the fairway 2023 NFL Draft by filling in remaining needs at defensive tackle, tight end, linebacker, defensive end and running back. While their pick of Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith wasn't the greatest value add at that spot, it's a selection that should aid two-time first-team All-Pro Micah Parsons' full-embrace of the defensive end position in the upcoming season. Their biggest value picks -- third-round Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, fourth-round San Jose State defensive end Viliami Fehoko Jr., and sixth-round Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn -- could all contribute as nice depth pieces in 2023 and factor into the Cowboys' longer-term plans.
The best part about all of the Cowboys' wheeling and dealing in 2023 is that it has made them a much better squad than the 2022 iteration of the Silver and Blue despite not spending much money or draft resources to do so. Here's a look at some of the crucial spots on the Dallas depth chart that are still open for the taking entering training camp.
One Dak Prescott's top targets, tight end Dalton Schultz, is no longer a Dallas Cowboy. He's still a Texan, a Houston Texan that is, after signing a one-year, $6.3 million deal in free agency. In the Mike McCarthy era, Schultz became one of five tight ends with 2,000 or more receiving yards (2,000) and 15 or more receiving touchdowns (17) since 2020 along with the Chiefs' Travis Kelce, the Ravens' Mark Andrews, the 49ers' George Kittle, and the Vikings' T.J. Hockenson. His departure isn't nothing. The contenders to compete for Schultz's vacated snaps and targets are both young -- none will be older than 25 at the start of the 2023 season -- and inexperienced.
"Dalton's production certainly jumps out at you, and it's a very young room," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said June 8, the last day of the team's minicamp sessions. "If you ever have a chance to be around them all day, they would get you excited, the way they approach the game. ... Dalton's success reflects the culture of that room, and it's been cool to see these guys take this opportunity. If we can stay healthy, I have no concerns. That's a position of strength because of the versatility of the guys, both on offense and special teams."
The list of competitors includes 2022 fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson -- who totaled 19 catches for 174 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 22 targets -- second-year undrafted tight end Peyton Hendershot -- who totaled 11 catches for 103 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns on 16 targets -- third-year undrafted tight end Sean McKeon -- who has totaled six catches for 38 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown on nine targets in three seasons -- and 2023 second-round pick Luke Schoonmaker out of Michigan. McCarthy went out of his way to not tip his hand toward any one of the four in his last media session prior to training camp in Oxnard.
"Well, I'll say this, I don't think you can ever have enough tight ends," McCarthy said. "I say this all the time with tight end and linebacker body types are critical to the design of the football team. I think we have a vision of what you want your team to look like. It's a position of great flexibility, definitely translates to being primary players on special teams. So yes, they will all have roles because it's a long year. We got to be creative and specific in how we use each and every one of them. You know that's part of our schematic outlook that we put the work in as a staff. Yeah, so I see all those guys contributing."
The MMA-style cage fight for snaps and targets as a Cowboys tight end in 2023 begins on July 26.
Pick Six Newsletter
Crafted By The Best NFL Experts
Get the day's big stories + fun stuff you love like mock drafts, picks and power rankings.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
The first two spots on the Cowboys cornerback depth chart are secured under lock and key by two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs and five-time Pro Bowl cornerback and 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
After that, the No. 3 spot for the slot cornerback role is up for grabs between longtime Dallas starter Jourdan Lewis, who is coming off a season-ending foot injury he suffered in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions, and 2022 fifth-round pick DaRon Bland, whose five interceptions as a rookie were tied for the second-most in the entire NFL last season. Lewis' goal is to be ready to play again at some point during camp, according to ESPN, so Bland will have the opportunity to get a head start on the six-year veteran. Lewis versus Bland will be one of the more entertaining battles to watch throughout training camp.
A little deeper on the cornerback depth chart is the battle to be one of the top backups at each of the outside cornerback slots between 2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph, 2021 third-round pick Nahshon Wright, and 2023 sixth-round pick Eric Scott Jr. out of Southern Mississippi. The rookie, standing at six feet tall while weighing 197 pounds, caught defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's eye at minicamp. He could be a darkhorse to get rotational snaps in the upcoming regular season. Scott will be one to watch this preseason.
"What we are generally looking for, with a player coming in, when you're in line and you're kind of counting reps ... I think when you see a guy wanting the moment to go compete, and knowing that like, you know, 'I'm bawling my fists up and say, I ain't leaving here', that's what I'm looking for specifically for the rookies that have that kind of attitude to say, 'I'm here, I am not going to worry' and that kind of mindset and attitude is really what it takes. Learning to do that early on, that's a big deal knowing the amount of work that goes into saying, 'I'm down for this challenge, you can count on me to get it done.' I've seen that from Eric so far."
Like the cornerback position, the first few spots on the depth chart are etched in stone between two-time Pro Bowl receiver CeeDee Lamb, offseason trade acquisition Brandin Cooks, and 27-year-old wideout Michael Gallup, who " " entering his second season removed from a season-ending torn ACL in Week 17 of the 2021 season against the Arizona Cardinals. The fourth receiver spot on the depth chart behind that trio is up for grabs, but 2022 third-round pick Jalen Tolbert feels like the favorite here ahead 2021 fifth-round pick SImi Fehoko and Pro Bowl returner KaVontae Turpin. Both offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and wide receivers coach Robert Prince have emphasized how much of a positive impact Cooks has had on Tolbert's growth entering his second season.
"I'm a big fan of Brandin, and the speed is evident, but just watch the way he works in practice," Schottenheimer said on June 8. "Jalen Tolbert has had an incredible minicamp, and if you talk to Jalen, what Jalen is gonna tell you is he spent a ton of time with Brandin. So, here's a guy that's been there and done that and what Brandin wants to do, in addition to coming in and learning a system, is he wants to encourage and invest in the younger guys. So, those guys spend a lot of time together. I see them before practice in the weight room working together. So, what Brandin brings us is way more than just speed. It's really fun to watch him run, whether it's deep routes or short routes, it really doesn't matter. But what I love is the competitor in the way he is encouraging that entire room of receivers. It's been awesome."
Prince noted how much more natural Tolbert's movements have appeared now that he is going into his second season of professional football, displaying a deeper level of comfort in his knowledge of the Cowboys' scheme.
"JT has really attacked this offseason," Prince said on June 8. "He's done a tremendous job. When the players have been allowed to come in the building, he's been in the building. He's also had a chance to talk to CeeDee [Lamb], and he's really been on Brandin's [Cooks] hip learning from him. You can see the improvement. He's not out there thinking as much. He's playing with more speed and greater physicality."
Turpin earned Pro Bowl honors as the NFC return man, and his offensive role last year was more for gadget plays like reverses or short screens, playing only 62 offensive snaps in the regular season. However, now that he has had an entire offseason to recharge and learn the offensive plays, Prince would like Turpin have a larger offensive role in 2023.
"Turp was playing 'Fan Controlled Football' 18 months ago, then he played in the USFL [won MVP], and then he hit the ground running with us," Prince said. "That's a lot of football to be playing. He got a chance to get some time off and definitely spent more time learning the offense. Hopefully we'll be able to get him more involved this year."
The Cowboys allowed Brett Maher to hit free agency after he missed to conclude the 2022 season, and he remains on the open market. Currently, Dallas has two kickers on its roster: soon-to-be 27-year-old journeyman Tristan Vizcaino (played for four teams in three seasons -- the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, and New England Patriots) and 28-year-old former USFL Birmingham Stallions kicker Brandon Aubrey.
Vizcaino is a solid field goal licker -- he's made 11 of his 12 career attempts -- but the longest make of his career is 47 yards. His range may have a ceiling. At least that's what his past coaching staffs seem to indicate, as Vizcaino has never attempted a field goal of 50 or more yards in his 10 games played. That leaves room for doubt about the strength of his leg, and that's before taking a look at his extra-point woes (15-for-20 for a rate of 75%). Among 30 kickers to attempt at least 20 extra points in 2022, none of them had a conversion rate lower than 84%.
That's why the. He was almost perfect across the board, making 14 of his 15 field goals and draining all 35 of his extra points. He doesn't have the same NFL experience as Vizcaino, making this battle one that truly could go either way.
A key component of the new offense head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer are installing is maintaining the use of multiple running backs even though franchise-tagged rusher Tony Pollard has been declared "the lead back." Contenders for playtime behind Pollard include second-year, undrafted running back Malik Davis, 2023 sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn, and fourth-year, undrafted running back Rico Dowdle.
"Yeah, we want to be multiple," Schottenheimer said when asked about running back usage in the new Dallas offense. "We talk about getting a guy like Deuce [Vaughn], one of the coolest stories I've ever seen and I've been around in a lot of draft rooms and war rooms. It's one of the coolest things I've ever seen. The raw emotion from Deuce and his dad [Assistant Director of College Scouting Chris Vaughn], it was awesome. A player like that gives you flexibility. A player like [undrafted North Dakota State full back] Hunter [Luepke] gives you versatility. There's so many things you can do. If you watch Hunter's tape, he actually played tight end, running back, and fullback. Those guys did a great job. All of the rookies did a great job [in minicamp]."
McCarthy touted the efforts of both Davis, who totaled 161 rushing yards and a touchdown on 38 carries last season, and Dowdle, who totaled seven carries for 24 rushing yards in 2020.
"When I look at Malik [Davis], when he got opportunities last year, boy he was really productive," McCarthy said. "I just think like for any young running back, it's important to be a great pass-protector and what can he do in the passing game. We're not in pads until July 31st, so that's when you really get to see these guys and get a feel for your team in that environment. He has done an excellent job. Great in the classroom. You can see his confidence and his understanding. We've been excessive in our blitz pick-up, things we've focused on more than in the past. I think the running backs have been challenged more than they have in the past, but they've handled it really well. I'm really pleased with the running back group and Malik."
Dowdle didn't play at all in 2021 after undergoing hip surgery, and he dealt with a knee injury throughout the 2022 season. He also served as a factor in the return game when he was healthy in 2020, returning four kickoffs for 152 yards, averaging 38 yards a return. Dallis Flowers of the Indianapolis Colts led all qualified kickoff returners in yards per return while averaging 31.1 yards a pop in 2022, just under seven fewer than Dowdle in his limited work.
"Let's not forget what Rico did when he played," McCarthy said. "Both he and Malik are similar backs in that when they got their opportunities, they produced. He had a hip injury and is now fully recovered. That'll be a very competitive room. He has much better clarity and understanding on the protection part. We've asked them to do more as coaches. Tony [Pollard] is obviously the leader in that room, and they've done an excellent job. Rico seems very confident in there going through adjustments. He's a viable receiver [too]."