The Cowboys bye week offers a chance to look at all sorts of things, including players on expiring contracts.
Following a close call on primetime, the Dallas Cowboys escaped Los Angeles with a win to improve to 4-2. Heading into the bye, the team is just one game behind the best record in the NFC. Considering the disappointment in their two losses of the season, where they are currently in the standings isn’t a bad place to be as they enter their pseudo midpoint. While there are areas to address such as systematic adjustments to the offense including in the red zone, and poor discipline resulting in penalties, the team should feel good about where they are this week versus where they were after their loss against San Francisco.
2023 is a pivotal season for the Dallas Cowboys. Head coach Mike McCarthy has assumed play-calling duties, and it appears the team is using that responsibility to decide whether McCarthy is the right person to lead this team and the offense to meaningful football in the playoffs. Dak Prescott must also battle the stigma of not being equipped to lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. After this season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones could make sweeping changes to his coaching staff and the roster.
When the new league year begins in March of 2024, the Dallas Cowboys will have 14 free agents to decide on retaining. Some of these players are depth pieces from which the team has a similar player currently on their roster. There are five key players the team will need to seriously evaluate before deciding to either re-sign or release. Here is a way-too-early look at five Cowboys free agents of 2024.
Tyron Smith, left tackle
Since being drafted in 2011, Tyron Smith has been a stalwart for the Dallas Cowboys. Smith quickly emerged as one of the NFL’s best left tackles, providing a rare blend of power and athleticism for an offensive lineman. The once-famed second iteration of the Great Wall of Dallas saw Smith as the anchor for DeMarco Murray’s record-breaking 1,845 yards rushing in 2014. Smith is a decorated player who is likely bound for Canton. Unfortunately, he is in the twilight of his career.
Smith has struggled with injuries and has been unable to stay healthy for some time. He hasn’t played an entire season since 2015 with various injuries, often shuffling in and out of the lineup, and the team scrambling to find a ray of hope in the giant shadow cast by Smith’s frequent absences.
This year, the offensive line has yet to play up to the level we’ve come to expect from them. The team experimented with Tyler Smith at left tackle last year but also saw some encouraging returns on rookie Asim Richards in the preseason. It appears that Tyler Smith is the left tackle of the future, but the team will have to decide if that future starts in 2024.
Stephon Gilmore, cornerback
If the Cowboys chose to negotiate a new contract with Stephon Gilmore, it would make sense for several reasons. Gilmore has a reputation for being a cerebral and instinctive cornerback. The veteran leadership he can provide is invaluable to a Cowboys team with several young secondary players, such as DaRon Bland and Israel Mukuamu. Gilmore still has the ball skills and understanding of route concepts that made him an NFL Defensive Player of the Year. However, the foot speed and the ability to carry receivers across the field are waning.
At any rate, Gilmore could be a valuable insurance piece for the team in 2024. Regrettably, Trevon Diggs was lost for the season when he sustained a torn ACL earlier this season. ACLs are tricky injuries, and the timetable for Diggs’ return could take longer than expected. Gilmore, playing alongside DaRon Bland, has given Dallas a layer of stability they’d be lost without. The team signing Gilmore beyond this season would provide some assurance, otherwise they will be venturing into the unknown of searching for a boundary corner while Diggs recovers.
Jayron Kearse, safety
For a time, Jayron Kearse was a versatile, indispensable piece on Dan Quinn’s defense. Before Kearse’s and Quinn’s arrival, the Cowboys had a cavalier approach to the safety position and regularly invested minimal financial or draft capital to address the position. The philosophy was similar upon signing Kearse, except Kearse was anything but. He proved capable of defending the run and covering tight ends.
Following the 2021 season, the Cowboys signed Kearse to a two-year, $10M contract. Since then, Quinn has developed a knack for molding players to play a similar role to Kearse. Donovan Wilson is the most recent example who has flourished under Quinn, culminating in Wilson signing a new contract with the team earlier this spring. Quinn has also found another safety to work with similar skills in former undrafted free agent Markquese Bell, although Bell has been moved to linebacker. Retaining Kearse may come down to numbers and a belief that Quinn could find a suitable replacement.
Tony Pollard, running back
What the Cowboys choose to do with Tony Pollard could serve as the Cowboys turning over a new leaf in their roster construction strategies and allocating salary cap charges, or the opposite. The team signed former Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott to a substantial contract that totaled up to $90M. The contract served as a depreciating asset and albatross to a team that wasn’t getting enough from the tailback position, resulting in the team releasing Elliott after last season. For a few years, many opined that Tony Pollard was worthy of being the top runner in Dallas. Pollard was effective last season after he recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2022, a season that coincided with the final year of his contract.
The Cowboys front office placed the franchise tag on Pollard with no long-term commitment beyond this season. The team would unlikely make another hefty investment in a running back as they did with Elliott. Pollard could have had a better start this season, which could be attributed to the offensive line struggles complicating Pollard’s effectiveness as a runner.
The Cowboys don’t have any significant depth on the roster at running back to signal Pollard’s imminent exit from the team. Also, there are glimpses of his explosiveness, demonstrated by his 60-yard reception against Los Angeles. The Cowboys could try to sign Pollard to a long-term contract for modest terms, or take their chances with Rico Dowdle, Deuce Vaughn, and whoever else they add to the backfield.
Tyler Biadasz, center
The Cowboys may have to replace two starters along their offensive line if they decide not to retain Tyler Biadasz and Tyron Smith. Biadasz is a player who has seen some inconsistency after being named a starter in the middle of his rookie season after being drafted in the fourth round in 2020. Framed as the heir apparent for Travis Frederick, the Cowboys were content with allowing Biadasz to grow in his role.
Biadasz’s development peaked last season as he was named to his first career Pro Bowl. The decision to keep Biadasz is intrinsically tied to Tyron Smith and the Cowboys’ resources tied into their offensive line. The team paid Terence Steele a sizable contract a few months ago. Also, the team reworked the contract of offensive guard Zack Martin. If Dallas chose to pay Biadasz, the cost would not be cheap. The average yearly salary for top-five highest-paid centers is $13.1M. A new Biadasz contract could reset the market, currently at $14.25M dollars being paid annually to Eagles’ center Jason Kelce.