The Dallas Cowboys have a total of 18 players who are all on expiring contracts and are set to become unrestricted free agents. Today, teams are eligible to start using the franchise tag if they choose to do so. Who should the Cowboys prioritize in the re-signing process? Who should receive the tag?
Let’s take a look at the top five Cowboys that must be resigned this off-season.
1. Running Back: Tony Pollard
Undoubtedly, the most vital piece to resign this year is running back Tony Pollard. For years, we saw how limited his snap count was and the opportunities he got. In 2022, when finally given an opportunity, Pollard (26) finally broke out recording his first 1000-yard season. On 193 carries, Pollard ran for 1007 yards and 9 touchdowns. He gained 722 yards after contact, which ranked fifth in the NFL. He was also named to the Pro-Bowl as well as being voted as the third-best running back by the NFLPA. Although he suffered a fractured left fibula, he is expected to make a full recovery before the start of training camp. A long-term deal is unlikely as the Cowboys plan to place the franchise tag on Pollard. Either way, an agreement must be made between both parties if Dallas plans to have any of the success it found last year in the run game for next season.
Projected deal: Franchise tag ($10,091,000)
2. Linebacker: Leighton Vander Esch
A tough decision is to be made about the former first-round pick, Leighton Vander Esch who is coming off a strong 2022 campaign. The concern is due to his injury history. After a stellar rookie year in 2018, Vander Esch (27) missed nearly half of the 2019 and 2020 seasons with neck and collarbone injuries. In 2021, Vander Esch saw improvements in his health but seemed to lack consistency. Last year, Vander Esch agreed to return on a team-friendly, 2 million dollar deal, and showed improvements in his play and once again, his health. Vander Esch only missed three games due to his collarbone, and neck injuries. Arguably the most important piece of the defense that needs to be resigned this off-season. His loss of presence was felt when he was out. The run defense seemed to struggle while he was out, having allowed a total of 376 rushing yards in the final three games. Vander Esch recorded 90 tackles and had a defensive grade of 72.8 according to Pro Football Focus. The Cowboys lack linebacker depth with Anthony Barr set to hit free agency as well. Bringing back the quarterback of the defense would only benefit the Cowboys moving forward.
Projected deal: 3 years ($10,000,000 – $15,000,000)
3. Safety: Donovan Wilson
Donovan Wilson (28), another player who was troubled with limited snaps early on in his career, is now set to earn himself a “decent” deal. The former sixth-round pick made his mark on this defense. Sharing snaps with both Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse, Wilson was able to record over 100 total tackles this season with 77 of them being solo stops. He played in every single game this year, having added five sacks, nine quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and one interception. His overall defender grade was ranked at 70.1 by PFF. His physicality is very much needed, especially for a defense that heavily depends on its safeties. Wilson brought the “boom” to this defense and is highly regarded as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. We saw his flexibility last season in the box, at free safety, and strong safety. Wilson is the “cherry on top” this defense needs. He is expected to have a strong market in free agency this year if he is not resigned by Dallas.
Projected deal: 2 years ($11,500,000)
4. Quarterback: Cooper Rush
Cooper Rush (29) isn’t a player who will single-handily win you football games but he is capable of being a serviceable quarterback in times of need. That was the case in 2022. Starting quarterback, Dak Prescott, suffered a thumb fracture to his throwing hand and missed five games. Cooper Rush stepped in as the starter helping contribute a 4-1 record while Prescott was out. It wasn’t “pretty” but he got the job done. It’s always good to keep a backup quarterback in the same system so that when the time comes, they are prepared to contribute in any way possible. In the five games that Rush started, he threw for 965 yards, 5 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and had a QBR of 58.7. His performance was serviceable enough to beat teams like the Bengals, Rams, Giants, and Commanders. Keeping Rush around would only benefit him to get even more familiar with a system he’s been in for the majority of his career. He has great chemistry with the locker room and coaching staff. Letting him walk would force Dallas to find a new backup in free agency or through the draft. So why restart at the position? Multiple teams in need of a quarterback are expected to be in the market for Rush as he has the potential to compete somewhere else if Dallas chooses to let him walk.
Projected deal: 2-3 years ($8,000,000)
5. Wide Receiver: T.Y. Hilton
CeeDee Lamb did an outstanding job stepping into the team’s WR1 role. Outside of Lamb, there wasn’t much help at the position. Noah Brown is expected to become an unrestricted free agent, Michael Gallup is still on his way to becoming fully healthy after an underwhelming year, Jalen Tolbert (R) was a disappointment his first year and Simi Fehoko did not see the field. Hilton (33) is a veteran wide receiver that the Cowboys should not overlook. Signed late into the year, he seemed to have created chemistry with Dak Prescott having played in only three games with limited snaps. Hilton caught seven passes for 121 yards while averaging 17.3 yards a catch. The connection between the two was immediately felt after Hilton hauled in a 52-yard pass on a memorable 3rd & 30 versus the Philidelphia Eagles. Dallas will look to add more weapons via free agency or the draft but bringing back a veteran who seemed to make the most of his limited opportunities isn’t a bad idea. The young receivers, including Lamb, could still learn a lot from an experienced veteran like Hilton. It wouldn’t hurt to bring back a trusted weapon for Dak Prescott, especially in a desperate cry for help.
Projected deal: 1 year ($3,000,000)
- Terence Steele (Restricted Free Agent)
- Johnathan Hankins
- Dalton Schultz
- Connor McGovern
- Dante Fowler Jr.
- Anthony Barr