With the franchise tag deadline passed and free agency but a week away, we are officially deep into the NFL offseason. Throughout the next few months, 31 teams will be trying as best they can to catch up with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. That means a whole bunch of roster moves are about to happen, in a pretty condensed period of time.
One of those teams chasing Kansas City (among others) is the Dallas Cowboys. This is a team that has seemed relatively close to getting over the top in recent years, but has proven unable to make it past the divisional round of the playoffs. Obviously, that has been unsatisfying to owner Jerry Jones. Alas, the Cowboys have also not necessarily been aggressive enough in making moves to put themselves in position to capitalize on the high-level talent on their roster.
With all that in mind, here are five moves the team needs to make this offseason, to ensure the 2023 campaign ends better than the 2022 one did.
Cut ties with Ezekiel Elliott
This needs to happen, and it needs to be a clean break. No pay cuts, no reduced role. It's not even really a decision the Cowboys have to make themselves; Elliott made it for them with his play.
He was pretty clearly outplayed by Tony Pollard in three consecutive seasons, and down the stretch of 2022, Elliott's final 50 carries combined to gain 100 yards. That is 2.0 yards per carry, folks. He ended the season with a career-low 3.8-yards-per-carry average, and among the group of 42 running backs with at least 100 totes last season, Elliott ranked 30th in yards after contact per attempt, 32nd in tackle-avoidance and 37th in explosive-rush rate.
At the moment, he is set to count against Dallas' books for $16,720,000 in 2023, according to OverTheCap.com. If the Cowboys cut him right away, they can save $4,860,000; if they designate him as a post-June 1 release, they can save $10,900,000 -- which would more than pay for the franchise tag they just used on Pollard. More than anything, though, releasing Elliott needs to happen so that there are no illusions about him still being a focal point of the offense, so that the coaching staff isn't tempted to use him over more effective players, or so that Jones can't demand that they do so. Thank Zeke for his time, and for the fantastic first few years of his career, and move on.
Add explosive pass-catcher(s) for Dak
Here's a look at the Cowboys' passing numbers broken down by to whom the ball was thrown, among their wide receivers and tight ends. Tell me if you see anything that stands out:
|Target||CeeDee Lamb||Not CeeDee Lamb|
Folks, that is what we in the business call Not Good.
The Cowboys came into last season with a depth chart of Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, Dennis Houston, Simi Fehoko, KaVontae Turpin, James Washington and Jalen Tolbert, behind Lamb at wide receiver, and Dalton Schultz, Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot and Sean McKeon at tight end.
Gallup predictably failed to recover his pre-injury form in his first season following an ACL tear. Houston, an undrafted free agent who outplayed third-round pick Tolbert during training camp, was unceremoniously cut early in the year. Fehoko was placed on injured reserve in October. Turpin made the Pro Bowl as a returner but did not contribute on offense. Washington broke his foot in training camp. And Tolbert was a healthy scratch for almost the entire season. Dallas flirted with Odell Beckham Jr. for weeks and eventually signed T.Y. Hilton, who immediately took on a significant role. The team's second-best wide receiver last season was clearly Brown, a career special-teamer whose 43 catches for 555 yards and three scores all topped what he had accumulated in his first four seasons combined. That is not the way to help your quarterback.
The free agent market for wideouts this offseason is practically barren, with Jakobi Meyers looking like the best option. The Cowboys could circle back around with Beckham, but he will be in his first year coming off his second ACL tear. That's not a solution. They should be aggressively monitoring the trade market for players like DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Brandin Cooks, Courtland Sutton and even placing calls on guys who almost surely aren't available like Stefon Diggs or young stars like D.J. Moore. There should be no stone left unturned on the trade market, and they should be looking at the group of wide receivers potentially available at the Nos. 26, 58, and 90 overall draft picks as well. This is a move that needs to happen. No more waiting around and trying to cobble things together by committee.
Schultz is likely to leave in free agency, and the Cowboys can probably feel okay about Ferguson and Hendershot replacing him based on their play as rookies last year. But they're also a team that loves to use multi-tight end sets, and an injury to one or both players would leave them perilously thin at the position. They need to add to the group, whether via free agency or the draft.
Fortify the cornerback room
The Cowboys have a star-caliber corner in Trevon Diggs. They appear to have found another starter-level player in 2022 fifth-round pick DaRon Bland, who as a rookie showed the ability to play in both the slot and on the perimeter. Season-ending injuries to both Jourdan Lewis (Lisfranc) and Anthony Brown (Achilles) torpedoed their cornerback depth, though, and they spent most of the second half of the year rotating through candidates for the third cornerback spot.
Their 2021 draft picks -- Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright -- were not up to the task. Neither were Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander or Trayvon Mullen. The best solution was using safety Israel Mukuamu in the slot, which they did against the Buccaneers in the first round of the playoffs. That's not a long-term solution. The Cowboys need to add bodies here, first and foremost, and they probably need to add a starter. I'd expect them to use one of their Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks on a corner — and they should.
Decide the plan for Tyler Smith and Tyron Smith
Dallas is still posturing that it will come into next season with Tyler Smith, Tyron Smith and Terence Steele all on the roster. Unless Steele's recovery from ACL surgery is not going as well as the team claims it is, that doesn't make all that much sense.
When Tyron Smith tore his hamstring in training camp last year, the Cowboys had to abandon their plan of having Tyler Smith begin his career at left guard, and move him outside to tackle. He handled himself quite well, to the point that when Tyron was ready to return from injury, the team flipped him over to right tackle -- a position he hadn't played since the rookie year of his Hall of Fame career -- to take over for Steele. Tyron ... did not play very well at right tackle. But he's a living legend of the game who has still played at an All-Pro level on the left side of the line pretty much whenever he's been healthy.
However, he's set to count for $17,605,000 against the cap this season, and unless he's playing left tackle, that's not really palatable. (The Cowboys are reportedly reworking Tyron's contract to keep him in Dallas for 2023). If he's playing left tackle and Steele's playing right tackle, then Tyler Smith -- who just showed he is probably your left tackle of the future -- is moving back inside to guard. And that's not a good plan, either. Cutting Tyron Smith to save either $9,595,000 right away or $13,600,000 in a post-June 1 move makes much more sense, unless Steele isn't going to be able to play and you want to use Tyron on the right side.
If Tyler Smith is your left tackle of the future, then there are really only two options for Tyron: a move to the right side, or a release. (It's long been rumored that he would rather retire than accept a trade.) Dallas needs to decide if Tyler is the left tackle, or if they want to delay their future by moving him inside so they can try to hold onto some of their past.
Retain or find a replacement for Donovan Wilson
Over the past two seasons under Dan Quinn, the Cowboys used all three of Wilson, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker on the field together for 432 snaps, or just south of 20% of the time. It was a big part of their defense, and at different times, all three players have contributed at an extremely high level.
Kearse dealt with injuries for much of last season, though, and Wilson -- with his ability to play both in the box and up high -- is clearly the most versatile of the trio. He's also the only one who is currently a free agent. Considering the Cowboys have invested less in the safety position over the last two decades or so than almost any team in the NFL, it seems like Wilson leaving is a real possibility.
If he leaves, Dallas can either turn to Mukuamu, change the structure of its defense, or go out and try to find someone who can replicate Wilson's skill set. They're not likely to break the bank in free agency for a replacement, or to spend a high pick on a safety. So, they'll have to identify someone either on a low-cost flier (which both Kearse and Hooker were in 2021) or with a late draft pick (which Wilson was four years ago). When you look at the results the Cowboys got from the position before they brought this trio of players together, you see that finding those types is easier said than done.