For all of the great things the Cowboys were able to do in 2023 NFL free agency, they couldn't retain everyone they'd hoped to, and that means trying to replace some proven production
FRISCO, Texas — It's fair to award the Dallas Cowboys a standing ovation for what they've done in 2023 NFL free agency, moves that allow them to truly focus on drafting the best player available when the draft rolls around in a few weeks. Landing wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore in exchange for compensatory picks was a stroke of brilliance, and that combined with key in-house signings to make for a potent stretch of moves in March.
That said, as you well know, the Cowboys can't keep everybody. So while they successfully negotiated new deals with safety Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch and Johnathan Hankins, among others, they lost Dalton Schultz, Connor McGovern and a few more to other teams.
In looking at the production lost, the Cowboys are still in a very good space even before they take a single player off of the board in late April.
Dalton Schultz, TE —
- 2022 stats: 17 starts, 107 targets, 69 receptions, 699 yards, 8 TDs
- Forecast: Schultz lands with the Texans on a one-year deal and that ushers in a new era at tight end for the Cowboys, Schultz having done so prior in taking over for a retiring Jason Witten on two separate occasions.
- Having been Dak Prescott's security blanket in the post-Witten era, his production declined over the previous season as Prescott missed time due to injury and with the emergence of fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson and undrafted talent Peyton Hendershot — both of which put the Cowboys in great position to finally have the type of young, potent and complementary dynamic duo they've tried to build for a very, very long time.
Connor McGovern, LG/FB —
- 2022 stats: 16 starts, 909 offensive snaps (88%)
- Forecast: Josh Allen has a new protector on his offensive line, and it's McGovern, who is heading to the Buffalo Bills on a three-year deal that is, by far, the most robust signed by a departing Cowboys player in 2023.
- McGovern entered 2022 training camp wondering if he'd remain starter at left guard, considering the Cowboys spent their first-round pick in 2022 on Tyler Smith who, at the time, was being moved from tackle (where he played at Tulsa) to LG in training camp, but injury to Tyron Smith guaranteed McGovern stayed put, until more injury forced shuffling and McGovern found himself again doing whatever the Cowboys needed him to to, including playing fullback. With him gone, look for Aviante Collins and Matt Farniok to play a key role along with incoming signee Chuba Edoga, because it appears (for now) that Tyler Smith will stick to protecting Prescott's blindside.
Noah Brown, WR —
- 2022 stats: 13 starts, 78 targets, 47 receptions, 594 yards, 3 TDs, 68 S/T snaps
- Forecast: Brown has never played for another NFL team in his young career, but that will change in 2023 when he suits up for the, you guessed it, Houston Texans alongside Schultz — also on a one-year deal.
- There was no player in Dallas' wide receiving corps who got off to a hotter start to the 2022 season than Brown, helping Cooper Rush to keep the offense afloat in the absence of Prescott for five games last season, but he failed to keep that fire ablaze for all year; and that led to the addition of T.Y. Hilton after a public courtship with OBJ. Now comes Brandin Cooks, a speedster who is also a proven 1,000-yard receiver several times over to tandem with Michael Gallup and the now-ascended CeeDee Lamb, so expect that trio to rack up major numbers, though Brown will be missed as a special teamer and a locker room leader.
Carlos Watkins, DT —
- 2022 stats: 6 starts, 28 combined tackles, 1 forced fumble
- Forecast: There was a lot of optimism that Watkins would return for the 2023 season in Dallas, but he instead opted to test the waters … in the desert … heading to the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year deal that will see him attempt to help solidify the interior of their defensive line under new head coach Jonathan Gannon.
- No, Watkins' numbers won't floor you but anyone who watched his impact can then deny the presence of it, as evidenced in his classic "Thick Six" against the New Orleans Saints in 2021. His ability to both support the run and disrupt the opposing backfield as a rotational player gave the Cowboys all they needed in that role, and the torch will now pass to players like Chauncey Golston and Neville Gallimore — as two examples — to take the next step in their career in 2023.
Luke Gifford, LB —
- 2022 stats: 18 games, 368 S/T snaps (82%)
- Forecast: Much like Brown, you've never seen Gifford in another NFL uniform but you soon will, although it won't be with the Texans. Gifford is heading east to join Mike Vrabel's defense with the Tennessee Titans on a two-year deal.
- Similar to Brown in Dallas, it's the special teams abilities of Gifford that will be sorely missed — an ace and stalwart on that unit that helped anchor it along with Brown and others like C.J. Goodwin (Goodwin having returned to the Cowboys on a new deal). But, lest it be forgotten, Gifford acquitted himself well last season in the December loss of Leighton Vander Esch due to injury. His defensive reps were minimal over the course of his career, however, making it easier for Jabril Cox, Malik Jefferson and others to try and step into the role behind LVE and Damone Clark … though it's unclear if any of them will become an ace contributor on special teams.
Jake McQuaide, LS —
- 2022 special teams stats: 4 games
- Forecast: One free agency visit later and McQuaide is out of Dallas and into Detroit on a new deal with the Lions to try and solve their need at long snapper.
- This was completely fine with the Cowboys, though, considering they're trying to get younger at the position, one once owned for nearly two decades by the perfection of L.P. Ladouceur. In the post-Ladouceur era, it was McQuaide getting the nod before missing the majority of last year due to injury that then led to the signing of Matt Overton, the latter currently still a free agent. To replace them both, it's Trent Sieg who'll get the nod going forward, a 27-year-old who spent time with the Las Vegas Raiders prior to heading to North Texas. Sieg is more than capable of performing at a high level to help ensure Bryan Anger continues to do so.