FRISCO, Texas -- Now the fun starts for the Dallas Cowboys.
They have 19 players set to become unrestricted free agents, including key contributors on both sides of the ball in Tony Pollard, Dalton Schultz, Donovan Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch. Fitting all those players together will be difficult and require some maneuvering because the team is about $7 million over the $225 million salary cap.
The Cowboys’ desire is always to keep their own free agents rather than spending big on the market. Here’s a look at what they should do to keep a roster that finished 12-5 strong and make the playoffs for the third straight year.
Stretch the budget to keep
S Donovan Wilson: The Cowboys' base defense essentially features three safeties. Wilson led the Cowboys in tackles and had the most sacks (5) by a defensive back in the NFL in 2022. He was a tone-setter on a defense that led the league in takeaways each of the past two seasons. He is the type of player the Cowboys want: drafted in the sixth round, developed into a starter. Now it’s time to sign him to a second contract, although the length of said deal might need to be watched.
LB Leighton Vander Esch: When he was lost to a trapezius strain late in the season, his absence was felt. He was their best tackler. He is good in coverage. He gets everybody lined up correctly. The Cowboys were able to keep him last season on a one-year deal, but that won’t be the case this year. He figures to have a stronger market after starting 30 of 34 games the past two years. He also has had a positive impact on star edge rusher/linebacker Micah Parsons during his first two seasons.
WR Noah Brown: In 2022, He had more catches (43), yards (455) and touchdowns (3) than he had in his first four seasons combined. He was asked to play a larger role than anticipated, and he mostly responded, while continuing to be a core special-teamer. He has signed one-year contracts in each of the past two years and figures to have a third if he wants to stay in 2023.
DE Dante Fowler Jr.: Hard to argue with six sacks in 343 snaps in 2022. He had some penalties that hurt, but he has a natural ability to get to the quarterback. That might earn him more from another team, but the Cowboys lauded their pass-rush depth in 2022. If they lose him, they’ll have to find a comparable talent to replace him.
CB C.J. Goodwin: He is the Cowboys’ best special-teamer. He can still run. He is excellent in the locker room. But he is 33 and this seems be the year-to-year point for players like Goodwin with minimum-salary-benefit contracts.
Take a chance
RB Tony Pollard: The franchise tag, which will cost $10.09 million, looms for Pollard. That would make sense for the Cowboys if they don't have a long-term deal in place by March 7, when the franchise tag window closes, but signing Pollard to a multiyear deal would make even more sense. Pollard showed he can be a featured back. He has speed to make things happen on his own, and he can get the tough yards. He also doesn’t have the wear on his body that most free agent backs have.
CB Anthony Brown: The Cowboys never really replaced him after he suffered a torn left Achilles in early December. Signing back on a one-year deal makes the most sense for both sides. The Cowboys know what the seven-year veteran can do, and Brown can complete his rehab with the only team he has known in order to build up his market for 2024. He is a better cornerback than most fans want to think.
DT Johnathan Hankins: Picked up in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders, Hankins was able to anchor the middle, although a biceps injury cost him the final month of the regular season before he returned in the playoffs. His size (6-foot-2, 320 pounds) is something the Cowboys need in the middle. He turns 31 in March, but would it be better to have somebody like him than a younger player who will have to figure out the NFL game? At this point, take a chance on Hankins.
Pay market price
QB Cooper Rush: He saved the Cowboys’ season after Prescott’s thumb injury. He did everything you want a backup quarterback to do, posting a 4-1 record to go with five touchdown passes and three interceptions (all versus the Philadelphia Eagles). Did he do it too well? Will somebody else pay more than the Cowboys want to pay their No. 2 quarterback?
DT Carlos Watkins: He is an underrated part of the defensive front. He can play both interior spots, but there seem to be a lot of guys who can fit that role. The best bet is to see what his market is and let him come back to the team to see if they can match such an offer.
LG Connor McGovern: He started 15 games and was solid. Nothing spectacular, but solid, which is OK. Not every pick on an offensive line can be a first-rounder. He can be a backup center. He can play some fullback. He is tough. His market might surprise folks, considering the dearth of linemen available.
LB Luke Gifford: Late in the season, coach Mike McCarthy said he felt Gifford could be a regular on defense if needed. He’s been mostly a special-teamer, so maybe a fresh start somewhere else gives him a better opportunity to play more on defense.
LS Matt Overton: He did a nice job after signing in October. In other words, his name was never really mentioned, which is a good thing for a snapper. At this point, the Cowboys go year to year with their long-snappers, so it’s either keep him or ...
LS Jake McQuaide: His 2022 season ended early with a torn triceps. His long background with special teams coordinator John Fassel gives him the edge.
OT Jason Peters: He had a big impact on Tyler Smith’s development as a rookie, but he is 41. He didn’t seem like a guy ready to retire, and he played well enough in spots. He is best as a fill-in player; not somebody to count on week after week at this point of his career. Another year at a reasonable contract to be the swing tackle makes sense for everything he brings. If not, see if Matt Waletzko or Josh Ball can fill that role.
WR T.Y. Hilton: Added in December, the veteran made a big impact on and off the field. He showed he still has his speed despite his age (33). But two questions: Does he want to continue to play, and how much will it cost to keep him? The emphasis will be on the latter.
LB Anthony Barr: He did a fine job after signing in training camp, but they drafted Damone Clark (despite a neck injury) last year with an eye on the future. His time is now. And it might be time to see of Jabril Cox can have a defensive role too.
TE Dalton Schultz: He played last season on the $10.9 million franchise tag, and the belief is the cost to keep him will be too high. The Cowboys drafted Jake Ferguson and added Peyton Hendershot as an undrafted free agent in 2022, and they like Sean McKeon. Plus, this is considered a strong tight end class. As much as Schultz has been Prescott’s security blanket, they have to consider the cost.
K Brett Maher: This decision already seems to be made by the team because of how the season ended, but maybe they shouldn’t be so cavalier about the kicker spot. Maher set the franchise single-season marks for points (137) and field goals of 50-plus yards (nine). It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a competition at the spot, but he did a lot of good in 2022 before the poor ending.