The Dallas Cowboys season ended before everyone thought it would, upset by the Green Bay Packers in the wild card round of the playoffs. It was the Cowboys first home loss of the year, as they were the only home team to lose in the round. Many speculated the coaching staff would change, but Jerry Jones believes continuity matters, and has brought head coach Mike McCarthy back for the final season on his contract. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn could even be retained if he isn’t hired as a head coach elsewhere.
This left many fans frustrated because how would the team improve while running it back with the same staff and core set of players. Even if the 2023 draft class greatly improved and the team got more impact from Mazi Smith, Luke Schoonmaker, DeMarvion Overshown, and others, they would still need more to contend in the NFC, let alone for the Super Bowl.
Before the 2024 draft class comes to fruition, free agency will shape the majority of roster decisions for the club to make any improvement. The teams cap room shouldn’t be an issue because they can open up plenty of room with extensions to quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver CeeDee Lamb alone. Restructures and contracts they can move off of could create more space as well, so it will only be up to the willingness of the Jones’ to pay the players they want to sign.
Tony Pollard wasn’t the explosive runner he was as the change of pace back his first few seasons in Dallas. The question the front office will have to answer is, was that because of his changed workload or the fact he was coming off of a leg injury at the end of last season.
Pollard was very good in pass protection, and did rush for over 1,000 yards, so if the Cowboys believe he will be back to his explosive self a full year away from his injury, then he could be signed long term.
If Dallas believes his best days are behind him, they have strong options in free agency. Rico Dowdle was an important player on the Cowboys and is also a free agent, but if he returns it will be in a backup role to whomever the starter is, no different than this season. He could be upgraded, but likely is just a cheap resign.
Saquon Barkley could receive another franchise tag but would be a impactful runner who knows the division. Josh Jacobs and Austin Ekeler are two other running backs that should be in for a big payday, but the Cowboys might want more of a power back like Ezekiel Elliott was for them for six seasons. That would open the door for Derrick Henry.
The running back market is at a low point, and there are multiple big-name backs looking to get paid. Henry has a market value under $5 million, according to Spotrac.com, so this could be a perfect fit for Dallas. Henry accumulated over 1,100 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns on 280 attempts. His ability to score on the goal line and punish defenses throughout a game could be exactly what the Cowboys need to be more consistent rushing the ball next season. Pollard has familiarity in the offense, and that could put him as the favorite to return, but Dallas will have a veteran running back entering the draft just to cover their butts in case the right running back doesn’t drop to them in the draft.
In a league struggling to find good offensive linemen, the decision to bring back Tyron Smith should be easy. He only started 17 games from 2020-2022 and was still brought back on a contract that protected the team in case of injury. He started 13 games this season and played his best football since 2019. He was Second-Team All-Pro, with an 89.1 pass-blocking grade on 421 pass-block snaps, according to PFF, an unexpected dominant performance.
Chuma Edoga was a somewhat competent backup, but the team could look to Asim Richards, Matt Waletzko, or an early draft pick as the left tackle insurance if Tyron goes down. If it is a long-term injury, Tyler Smith could swing back out to left tackle, with T.J. Bass stepping in at left guard. Brock Hoffman could then be the reserve interior lineman for the guard position or the center unless he starts elsewhere due to other free-agent losses.
There is a possibility Bass isn’t available at guard either because he makes a move to center. Bass played well enough as an undrafted free-agent rookie to earn a look in the starting five, and the center spot could be opened up by the loss of their starter to free agency.
TylerBiadasz is somewhat like former Dallas tight end Dalton Schultz. He is a solid starter but not an irreplaceable guy that needs to be paid. If Dallas lets Biadasz leave, the Cowboys have players to try at center between Bass and Hoffman, but it is also a high-caliber draft at the center position.
If the veteran Smith returns, the offensive line will likely be him at LT, with the younger Smith and Zack Martin at the guards, Bass at center and Terence Steele at the right tackle spot. If Smith is out, then the All-Pro left guard moves out to tackle with Bass next to him. Hoffman starting at center with Martin and Steele on the right side. Either way a high draft pick likely goes to the offensive line. Dallas needs to rebuild now with an aging Smith and Martin as key starters.
While some might believe improving the inexperienced, smaller linebacker position should be the key to having a better defense in 2024, it is more likely the defensive line that brings up the play of the linebackers even before getting better talent at the position. Dallas is losing four significant contributors to their defensive line if they don’t bring anybody back: Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr., Neville Gallimore, and Jonathan Hankins.
The defensive end position can be supplemented with young draft picks like Sam Williams, Chauncey Golston, and Viliami Fehoko Jr. If Quinn stays, Fowler could be the veteran in rotation again. He added 12 pressures, seven QB hits, and four sacks in only 25% of the defensive snaps. With Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence as starters at defensive end, the Cowboys might try to add a pass rusher in the draft but stick to cheap rotational players to rotate in as backups.
Defensive tackle is another story as the position must improve.
Hankins should be welcomed back, he has done an excellent job as a run stuffer, but with his age and injury history with Dallas, the team should look to improve at starter there. Smith was drafted in the first round to be that guy but didn’t show the development necessary to be a cemented starter in 2024. Free agents like Christian Wilkins or D.J. Reader could be big-money improvements, but another option could be looking at possible cap causalities like DeForest Buckner who has a cap hit of $22 million, but a dead cap of only $2.5 million. If the Indianapolis Colts make the move to cut Buckner he could be a difference maker for the Cowboys.
Having a starting tackle group of Osa Odighizuwa and one of those big three options along with Hankins and Smith in rotation could improve the defense exponentially in 2024.
Linebackers are making a comeback in 2024, especially for a fanbase that saw two second-year players trying to figure things out on the fly after the loss of Leighton Vander Esch to injury. Damone Clark was a highly regarded prospect that fell due to injury concerns, and he has played up and down in his two seasons in Dallas. Markquese Bell was a safety who transitioned to linebacker to fill holes at the position and looked too small to make an impact against better rushing attacks. Both players are under contract for next year, and DeMarvion Overshown will be back from his injury in preseason this year, but that could be the entire position for the Cowboys, which isn’t good enough.
Vander Esch is under contract, but it is questionable if he will ever be able to suit up again. Jayron Kearse played a hybrid safety role that had him in a typical linebacker spot, but he is a free agent and could be moving on to another team. Dallas will be forced to address this position in both free agency and the draft. Clark will be in only his third year and Overshown hasn’t taken a regular season snap yet, so adding a free agent is highly likely even if a linebacker is drafted in the top two rounds.
This front office is unlikely to go all out at this position, so players like Patrick Queen, or Devin White are likely off the board. They could try for a second-level free agent linebacker like Willie Gay, Jordyn Brooks, or Azeez Al-Shaair. If they want the less-expensive route, they could hit a smaller deal with someone like Josey Jewell, Kenneth Murray, Lavonte David, or Bobby Wagner.
A really good veteran player who is an upgrade to Vander Esch along with the development of Clark, the added weapon that Overshown could be, and a top 100 pick in the draft, Dallas could drastically improve the weakest position on the team from 2023.
The Cowboys will walk into 2024 with a good defensive backfield just from what they have returning from this year. DaRon Bland and Trevon Diggs are All-Pro corners and Bland has the versatility to play inside or out. Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson will return as the starters at safety. Bell could move back from linebacker, and young players like Juanyeh Thomas and Israel Mukuamu have been contributors to the defense in a positive way already in their short careers.
Dallas has to decide what to do with Stephon Gilmore and Jourdan Lewis as they figure their cornerback depth. Gilmore played really well but will cost more money than Lewis and will be coming off of a major arm injury. Diggs is also returning from a season-ending leg injury.
The Cowboys haven’t had luck in that situation lately with Michael Gallup, Pollard, and Steele all not playing up to their previous capability before their injuries.
Lewis will be cheaper than Gilmore and started to play his best towards the end of the season. His ability in the slot allows Bland and Diggs to play full time outside. Mukuamu might be the main depth piece in the slot and on the outside, but the position is thin behind them. Nahshon Wright hasn’t produced anything in his time and Eric Scott Jr. is a complete unknown. The Cowboys are almost guaranteed to draft another player and could also bring in a cheap free agent with upside like they did when they traded for Noah Igbinoghene before the start of the 2023 season.