Cowboys' 2023 Free Agents, Targets and Draft Needs After NFL Playoff Loss

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IJanuary 23, 2023

Cowboys' 2023 Free Agents, Targets and Draft Needs After NFL Playoff Loss

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    Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy
    Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthyMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    For several seasons now, the Dallas Cowboys have been a franchise capable of hanging on the playoff periphery but incapable of making a serious run. Dallas has experienced just one losing season in the past seven years, but it came into this postseason with a single playoff win to show for it.

    That win was an underwhelming 24-22 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at home.

    This Cowboys team has felt different, though. Led by Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, defensive superstar Micah Parsons and Super Bowl-winning coach Mike McCarthy, Dallas has been a squad that must be taken seriously. Its 31-14 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road in the wild-card round was much more impressive than its last postseason victory.

    Yet here we are. The Cowboys are out of the playoffs early once again after falling short in the divisional round with a 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium. The 49ers, and especially their top-ranked defense, proved to be a much tougher challenge than Tampa.

    While the core pieces appear to be in place for a Super Bowl run, it's back to the drawing board and the task of building a better team for 2023.

    Here, we'll dive into what the Cowboys must accomplish, starting in free agency—which is slated to kick off on March 15. Below, you'll find a look at Dallas' impending free agents, potential free-agent targets and draft needs heading into the offseason.

Free Agents

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    Cowboys RB Tony Pollard
    Cowboys RB Tony PollardMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    CB Anthony Brown

    WR Noah Brown

    Edge Dante Fowler Jr.

    LB Luke Gifford

    CB C.J. Goodwin

    DT Johnathan Hankins

    WR T.Y. Hilton

    K Brett Maher

    G Connor McGovern

    LS Jake McQuaide

    CB Trayvon Mullen

    LS Matt Overton

    OT Jason Peters

    RB Tony Pollard

    QB Cooper Rush

    TE Dalton Schultz

    LB Leighton Vander Esch

    DE Carlos Watkins

    S Donovan Wilson

    Restricted/Exclusive-Rights Free Agents

    RB Rico Dowdle

    OT Terence Steele

    Dallas will face many challenges in free agency this offseason, most of them financial. In the case of running back Tony Pollard and tight end Dalton Schultz, the challenge could be their desire to find more prominent roles in different offenses.

    Schultz, who played on the franchise tag this season, is one of Prescott's top targets. However, he has still had to share the load with Michael Gallup, Noah Brown and Lamb. With a new team, he could be more of a focal point.

    The same is true for Pollard, who splits time with Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas' backfield. Pollard tallied 1,007 rushing yards, 371 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season but suffered a fractured left fibula in the divisional-round loss, according to ESPN's Todd Archer.

    Schultz, Pollard, guard Connor McGovern, wideout T.Y. Hilton and tackle Jason Peters are among Dallas' most notable offensive impending free agents. The Cowboys may be inclined to value wideout Noah Brown as well, following his promising 555-yard campaign.

    Defensively, the Cowboys must address the futures of starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, starting defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins and cornerbacks C.J. Goodwin and Anthony Brown.

    While Brown landed on injured reserve with a torn Achilles, he was a reliable starter before that. He started all 12 games in which he appeared and allowed a completion rate of just 52.9 percent in coverage.

    Backup quarterback Cooper Rush, long snappers Matt Overton and Jake McQuaide and kicker Brett Maher round out Dallas' list of notable free agents—though after missing four extra points in the wild-card round, Maher may be viewed as expendable.

    Dallas has a lot to address and only $5.9 million in projected cap space with which to work. This may lead to more difficult roster decisions, like potentially pulling the plug on Elliott. While the longtime starter is under contract through 2026, releasing him with a post-June 1 designation would save $10.9 million off the 2023 cap.

    A year ago, Dallas traded starting wideout Amari Cooper in a similar cap-saving move.

Potential Free-Agent/Trade Targets

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    Colts pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue
    Colts pass-rusher Yannick NgakoueCooper Neill/Getty Images

    Given Dallas' situation with the salary cap and its own impending free agents, the Cowboys aren't likely to chase the biggest names in 2023 free agency.

    If the Cowboys can find some financial flexibility, though, addressing a couple of key areas would be logical. Finding a pass-rusher to replace Fowler should be near the top of the list, and players like Yannick Ngakoue of the Indianapolis Colts and Samson Ebukam of the San Francisco 49ers would be sensible mid-tier targets.

    Could the Cowboys bring back Robert Quinn? If the rival Philadelphia Eagles let him walk, it's entirely possible.

    Dallas should also consider adding a cornerback to replace Brown if he departs. Expect second- or third-tier free agents like Troy Hill and Greedy Williams to be the focus there—though a trade could enter the equation.

    One player to keep an eye on is former Cowboys and current Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones. Jones didn't play in 2022 following Achilles surgery, but he was a Pro Bowler for Dallas back in 2018.

    If the Cowboys were to acquire Jones, his 2023 cap hit of only $4 million—after dead-money payouts—would be quite reasonable.

    Expect the Cowboys to also try addressing their 22nd-ranked run defense. Bringing back Vander Esch would be logical, but targeting a top-tier linebacker like Tremaine Edmunds or Lavonte David would make a ton of sense if the Cowboys can create the cap space.

    A defensive lineman like Larry Ogunjobi or Akiem Hicks could also make sense, but don't expect Dallas to lure a top player like Daron Payne or Poona Ford because of the associated cost. Payne, for example, has a projected market value of $19.4 million annually.

    Realistically, Dallas will only address an area or two before turning to the draft to fill its remaining holes.

Draft Targets

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 28: General view of the Dallas Cowboys logo during the NFL Draft on April 28, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The draft is where Dallas will make most of their additions this offseason. The Cowboys have drafted well in recent years, with first-round picks Lamb, Parsons, Vander Esch and Tyler Smith all emerging as critical contributors.

    Dallas will have each of its draft picks in 2023, minus the sixth-rounder that was sent to the Las Vegas Raiders for Hankins.

    Who the Cowboys target in Round 1 will likely hinge on who they're able to retain in free agency. We can fully expect Dallas to draft for need for as long as their championship window remains cracked.

    Defensive lineman Siaki Ika, Georgia tight end Darnell Washington and Florida offensive lineman O'Cyrus Torrence would be logical Day 1 targets.

    If Schultz leaves, a tight end like Utah's Dalton Kincaid or Washington could become the pick.

    With Brown and Hilton set to depart, it wouldn't be a total surprise to see Dallas draft another first-round receiver to pair with Lamb—perhaps SMU's Rashee Rice, the 27th-ranked prospect on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's latest draft board.

    "His ability as a ball-winner on the outside would be welcome on any team," Derrik Klassen of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "For more creative teams, Rice's bully-ball YAC skills and alignment flexibility will make him a nifty weapon to move around the formation."

    On Days 2 and 3, expect the Cowboys to consider prospects like North Dakota State interior lineman Cody Mauch, Oregon State tight end Luke Musgrave, Boston College wideout Zay Flowers, Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe, Texas running back Roschon Johnson, LSU cornerback Mekhi Garner and Alabama defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe.

    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference. Cap, contract and market information via Spotrac. Draft information via Tankathon.