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The end of the first week after being eliminated from the playoffs is a spot in the decompression element of an offseason when we can begin identifying the biggest hurdles in front of the Dallas Cowboys. There is plenty to do and creating a list is a great way for any of us to set our priorities and that can also apply to a football organization. Establish the biggest problems and know that those decisions will help inform how many of the smaller ones are solved.
Make no mistake, this organization — like 31 others — has plenty to consider before camp opens. You might roll your eyes about going around the sun again, but this is how it all works. The players may now rest and allow their bodies to heal, but for the decision-makers, this is when games are won and lost. These are the decisions that bring results inside the season. There is no way around that.
This piece serves as a brief (by my standards) Cowboys’ offseason to-do list. Each one of these should and will likely receive its own fully hashed-out piece, but for now, we are simply setting the agenda. We will be following this throughout the offseason.
Now, I had 10 items, but the first one and arguably the biggest one — How can you replace the job Dan Quinn has done? — has been deleted. Amazingly, the Cowboys retained the work of their strong defensive coordinator who has put together two seasons that both must be described as massively wonderful years. Not since Wade Phillips has this franchise had defenses like this and while we can ask if Micah Parsons is what makes Quinn or is it Quinn that helps make Parsons, we won’t have to make that a significant storyline in 2023, because Quinn has informed the team he is going nowhere and that is an exciting development.
With that in mind, let’s look at the other nine items on this Top 10 questions and decisions the Cowboys face this spring.
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1. Who is coordinating this offense?
This is a slightly lesser question than the Quinn story because the Cowboys have a number of offensive minds in-house. That includes the head coach who should personally be far more qualified to find the answers to the Dak Prescott questions than Kellen Moore or pretty much anyone in the building and most everyone outside of it. I prefer a fresh set of eyes and a far fresher scheme (much more on this to come), but we must be prepared for Moore to return. I think many of the indicators are that he won’t be, to be honest, but I know this organization has a difficult time saying goodbye to its favorites. Moore has been given many years to push this thing over the top and while he has a loaded resumé, this offense still has issues with details and playing its best against the best. For this reason, I think this is a very important question and I would like to dive further into this plenty in the days to come.
2. What are the top priorities in talent acquisition this year?
We must consider two spots that require priority picks and cap room. Playmakers on offense and corners on defense. This does not differ much from anyone’s list, but on offense, the Cowboys played the second half of a huge playoff game with CeeDee Lamb and a bunch of ordinary players so Dalton Schultz was probably Dallas’ second-best offensive target. That is brutal and has no chance to win when you are dealing with an opponent that has a third WR and a second RB who would easily be better than anyone on your two-deep. The Cowboys must get that much better. Also, remember that Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert should be much better in 2023 than in 2022 — improvement from within is a viable option. Just don’t make “hope” a strategy. On defense at corner, Anthony Brown is a free agent and coming off a major injury, Jourdan Lewis is coming off a major injury, Trevon Diggs might have a contract issue and Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are both guys the Cowboys have no faith in. So, yes, they need more corners to join DaRon Bland and probably Diggs (more below on that).
CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)
3. What will they do with Dak Prescott’s contract?
Hopefully, this one is answered quickly with “nothing”, but we know how the Jones family handles cap issues. They restructure! In this case, that would require an extension of one or two years and I don’t think extending the “off-ramp” is very responsible. Let’s not touch the contract and leave our options open. I am not ready to move on and you shouldn’t yet be either. This 29-year-old has many opportunities to break through, but in the meantime, I am drafting a QB and maybe as early as Day 2.
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4. How about the franchise-tag situation, i.e., Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard?
This one is really interesting because a week ago, I would have advised them to move on from Schultz and tag Pollard. Now, I wonder what Pollard’s ankle surgery does to this and whether the Cowboys consider another strategy, because frankly, I cannot remember a franchise tag being given to someone recovering from a major injury that could absolutely affect Pollard’s best trait. I think how the Cowboys handle this will inform us of quite a bit. I think you want to see about extending Pollard before tag day and try to find some financial security for him, but probably not at a tag price. But, does Gallup’s first year back give them major pause? This whole thing is interesting. I still don’t think I pay Schultz what we assume he wants (Dallas Goedert’s four-year, $57 million deal). I allow Schultz to hit the market and see what is out there.
5. Is Tyron Smith worth the price in 2023?
This one hurts to ask because this space is a Tyron Smith is beyond reproach space and therefore I don’t like to consider that one of my favorite players covering this team might be nearing the end of the road. That said, it is $17.6 million to keep him in 2023 and about $8 million if you don’t keep him — which could be a June 1 move — you could get back about $13 million this year in cap space. Also, you can ask if he is one of your best two tackles right now if Terence Steele and Tyler Smith are your guys. Can he still do it? I think he can, but you better be sure because that is a lot of money for a guy who has played 17 of the previous 50 games.
DeMarcus Lawrence (Jerome Miron / USA Today)
6. Is DeMarcus Lawrence worth the price in 2023?
His cap hit is $26 million this year and before you say no, just know that releasing him costs $35 million. That’s right, because of the “pay cut” deal he signed two years ago, 2023 was virtually guaranteed. So, this one doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks. Dallas will roster him and should ask him nicely to make that a contract adjustment of some sort. But, for now, he holds every single card and doesn’t have to agree.
7. How is the Ezekiel Elliott era ended?
Easily. I would find anything short of a full cutting of the cord to be a disappointment. Again, this isn’t to say he hasn’t been a good soldier, but it is finished. People talk about a pay cut, but the money is only part of the bigger issue which is his spot in the pecking order and the organizational strife it causes to feel an obligation to his role on offense. The Cowboys cannot do it at any cost, because it is a progress stopper. Pollard and a rookie with competition from someone like Malik Davis will suit this offense just fine. I would not be interested at all in a compromise.
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8. When Trevon Diggs forces a contract extension this summer, what is your play?
This will upset some good folks, but this is on the board. I know Lamb and Parsons are the biggest contracts on the horizon, but they are both first-rounders and will have fifth-year options. That delays Lamb until the summer of 2024 for any hold-in contract situation to get his extension and Parsons to the summer of 2025. But, the summer of ’23 is the start of Diggs’ final year because he had a second-round contract of four years. The range of extensions would range from Denzel Ward (five years, $100 million) to Jaire Alexander (four years, $84 million) as outside corners who are considered in the All-Pro range. Given his issues with contact, would Dallas pay him the $20 million to $21 million per year to lock him up for five more years? Dallas should know the answer before the situation arrives because it is likely — because the entire league is doing it — that Diggs will not want to play his final year without a deal.
9. What is the plan at kicker and backup QB?
Odds are that Dallas should move on from Brett Maher and might have to move on from Cooper Rush. These are two vital spots and the Cowboys better get both figured out.
So, there you go. That should keep the Cowboys busy and perhaps you, too. As I said, plenty more on all of this in the weeks and months to come.
(Top photo of Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard: Tom Pennington / Getty Images)