FRISCO, Texas – Surprise, surprise.
Even before the bell went off at 3 p.m. Wednesday signifying the opening of the 2023 NFL free agency, the Cowboys had swung into action retooling for the upcoming season as if a bunch of Sooners back in the Oklahoma land rush days.
Oh, ye pessimists, so critical, suggesting the Cowboys front office guys already had headed out Monday on spring break. Or they were sitting on their hands the opening week of free agency when teams traditionally overpay during these bidding wars for players someone else didn't want.
A quick, exhausting review for now on Wednesday.
Re-signed safety and leading 2022 season tackler Donovan Wilson before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Re-signed linebacker and second-leading tackler in 2022 Leighton Vander Esch before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Traded one of their two fifth round compensatory picks (176 overall) for Colts 11-year veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the onetime 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year with New England.
Already had restructured the 2023 contracts of Dak Prescott, Zack Martin and Michael Gallup, opening a grand total of $37 million of salary cap space they desperately needed to not only give them some working capital but also get under the $224.8 million salary cap total before going into effect at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Then they adjusted the contract of Pro Bowl DE DeMarcus Lawrence Wednesday afternoon, creating another $8.89 million in space, but pushing his 2024 cap number to just more than $20 million.
Plus, reportedly Tyron Smith has agreed to restructuring the final year of his contract, the base having been $13.6 million and now the Cowboys can qualify starting him at left or right tackle if Terence Steele is not ready for the start of the season and also keep as the backup swing tackle.
And for the big whopper, significantly altering the direction of the franchise, gritted their teeth to outright release the 2016 fourth pick in the NFL Draft Ezekiel Elliott, making the running back a June 1 release, picking up another $5.32 in cap space, since they must account for $5.58 million in dead money this year and another $6 million next year.
All creating enough shots for a month. So, let's get started.
- Biggest Need: Well, how quickly that changed, and this does not particularly pertain to the first pick in the draft. On Monday's Mick Shots podcast, we all agreed on wide receiver. But with the acquisition of Gilmore and showing Zeke the door, I'm thinking running back now. And not necessarily in the first round, or a need to move up to get into position for a Bijan Robinson, but a running back effective enough to team with franchised Tony Pollard right off the bat as a rookie for the Cowboys to regain their one-two punch. Maybe someone down the line like Robinson's Texas teammate Roschon Johnson. Just someone good enough to replace Zeke's 12 touchdowns from this past season. And remember, Pollard is only under contract one year – for now. They "need" another.
- Never Say Never: Curious quote from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on the release of Zeke, saying, "We have mutually agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone is that he will be able to experience free agency, and we can increase our flexibility and options as well." Key word "mutually." Since the Cowboys couldn't qualify paying Zeke the $10.9 million base since already allocating for now $10.1 million for Pollard's franchise tag, this gives Zeke an opportunity to see just what his market value is around the league. Zeke is going into his eighth season. He turns 28 in July, traditionally the age of demarcation for NFL running back effectiveness. How much will someone pay him? If he doesn't get any takers, might he be willing down the line (after the draft) if he doesn't have a job to return for like $2-3 million? Just a thought. We'll see.
- On The Corner: My second choice with that No. 1 need had been cornerback. The trade for Gilmore somewhat lessens that one. Though remember, he only has one year left on his contract – could a restructure be in order to lessen his $10 million cap hit – and he will turn 33 in his 12th NFL season. Plus, Trevon Diggs is entering the final season on his rookie contract this year. Jourdan Lewis, coming off the season-ending Lisfranc surgery, is entering the final year of his contract. Veteran Anthony Brown, coming off his season-ending Achilles rupture surgery, is an unrestricted free agent. And so far, 2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph and third rounder Nahshon Wright haven't earned the team's trust to start. That then for this year leaves just Diggs, Gilmore and DaRon Bland, with Diggs and Gilmore in the final year of their deals at this point. See what I mean.
- $$$ Well Spent: The top three prospective unrestricted free agents the Cowboys had were Pollard, Wilson and Vander Esch. Well, check, retained every one of them. Franchising (for now) Pollard at a guaranteed $10.9 million. Re-signed Wilson, three years, $21 million, right at $13.5 million guaranteed, with a $24 million max and a 2023 cap hit of just $3.3 million. Can't believe the Cowboys got such a bargain on Vander Esch, finally healthy and balling out at middle linebacker while becoming the leader of that defense. Signed him at age 27 for two years, $8 million, a max of potentially $10 million with $1 million in performance incentives each season, and $5 million guaranteed. Good bang for their salary cap bucks.
- Quick Shots: Probably can drool if Steele is ready for the start of the season, if the Cowboys can identify someone of quality to start at left guard so Tyler Smith can remain at left tackle, thus making an eight-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith a swing tackle, a position the Cowboys always seem to struggle with . . . Doesn't appear as if the Cowboys will even re-sign Brett Maher on a one-year minimum deal to compete for the kicker job after his disastrous end to the season but betting someone will sign one of the NFL's leading kickers this past season to at least compete for a job . . . Guess the Cowboys decided to allow TE Dalton Schultz to test the market, although there has been a lot of tight end movement, seven guys not named Schultz either traded, franchised tagged or signed as free agents, so wondering what he thinks his market value is . . . Speaking of tight ends, the Vikings signed "blocking" tight end Josh Oliver to a three-year, $21 million package, half of that guaranteed for a guy with just 26 catches over his three NFL seasons, 23 of those the past two years with the Ravens . . . Must be nice to be so extravagant . . . The Cowboys must have told WR Noah Brown they weren't going to re-sign him, since the seventh-year receiver signed but a one-year deal with Houston for $2.25 million guaranteed, not bad for a guy the Cowboys would have considered no better than the fourth receiver . . . Hate to see Luke Gifford move on, but as a special teams player the linebacker deserves what the Titans paid him, two years, $4 million, with $1 million guaranteed . . . Much is being made of the Giants trading a third-round pick for Raiders TE Darren Waller, coming off a 28-catch, three-touchdown, nine-game season (hamstring problems) after having signed a lucrative three-year extension for $51 million in 2022 with the Raiders that the Giants inherited, on the books for an $11 million cap hit. Good luck there.
Will give this week's last word to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, praising the seven-year career of Ezekiel Elliott after deciding to waive his rights on the final year of his contract for $10.9 million base salary reasons.
"Zeke's impact and influence is seared into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way," Jones said in a statement. "He has been a consummate professional and leader that set a tone in our locker room, on the practice field and in the huddle. Zeke defined what a great teammate should be, and anyone that has ever played a team sport would be lucky to have a teammate like Zeke and be much better for it.
"His commitment and passion for winning is selfless, and the accountability he brings everyday earned the respect of our coaches, his teammates and our entire organization. He wore the Cowboys Star with pride and purpose every single time he put it on, and we're a better franchise because of the example he set for veterans and rookies alike. That carried over into our community as well, with Zeke's generosity and spirit about giving and caring for others."
Well said, having watched Zeke mature from a 20-year-old rookie when drafted in April of 2016 to a respected veteran turning 28 in July.