With the NFL tag deadline now in the rearview — the Dallas Cowboys having chosen to apply the non-exclusive tag to tight end Dalton Schultz — it’s time for the organization to turn its full attention to trying to secure talent in free agency that might help them reload for 2022. Unlike recent seasons past, this offseason sees the team offering up their own laundry list of top-shelf talent other teams will be thirsty to acquire, which will make it difficult to keep the band together (one that went 12-5 last season). And seeing as the Cowboys aren’t expected to be big players in chasing outside talent, it’s imperative they retain the right guys.
As an aside here, objectively speaking, that includes not moving on from Amari Cooper and/or DeMarcus Lawrence, but that’s a largely different conversation from the one we’re having in this article. The Cowboys aren’t expected to be completely absent when legal tampering gets underway on March 14 and when the league year and free agency officially kick off on March 16, but how they approach players from other teams will be frugal and measured — having already done some contract restructuring but still tight against the cap wall at the moment — looking to the 2022 NFL Draft for the bulk of their new acquisitions.
There is no shortage of electric names set to hit the market next week, with varying odds of landing with the Cowboys, so let’s take a look at five they have to give a hard look if they’re finally serious about trying to return to the Super Bowl and, as such, if head coach Mike McCarthy plans on still being the head coach in 2023.
Previous team: Cowboys
Using the tag on Schultz means Gregory is fair game for NFL teams, and he’ll garner a ton of interest. It’s paramount the Cowboys secure him as quickly as possible, especially with the future of Lawrence now in question after rightfully refusing to take a pay cut in 2022. Losing one would be a massive blow, but losing both would be devastating to a defense that went from worst to first in the span of only one season under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. The presence of Gregory (and Lawrence) also helps All-Pro linebacker and rookie phenom Micah Parsons remain versatile, his biggest strength, and avoids creating a deeper need at LB — assuming Parsons would be asked to rush the QB much, much more often.
Gregory has long battled the NFL over its antiquated marijuana policies that have now been updated and are now no longer a hurdle of concern for his career, one that could see him explode into a double-digit sack talent at any moment going forward. And given how much the Cowboys have invested in supporting him throughout his combat with the league, allowing him to walk would be a very real head-scratcher — a unique edge rush talent who could be the premier pass rusher on nearly any team in the league. He is just one of many in-house talents the Cowboys have to keep (e.g., Michael Gallup, Jayron Kearse, Bryan Anger, etc.), but Gregory should be at the top of the totem.
Previous team: Seahawks
The rebuild button has been smashed in Seattle after the team traded Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos and, not long after, released another team legend in linebacker Bobby Wagner. Their loss at linebacker will be someone else’s gain, because Wagner is widely regarded as one of the best at the position, and likely a future Hall of Famer. The Super Bowl winner and eight-time All-Pro (yes, eight All-Pro nods) is now an unrestricted free agent able to command a top dollar in the first wave of free agency. The Cowboys have an edge if they look to pursue him and, if they were smart, they’d run at him full speed. That edge is Quinn, who once coached Wagner as part of the Legion of Boom construct in yesteryear and it’s a foregone conclusion Quinn is drooling at the idea of having Wagner line up with Parsons.
He’d have to convince the Cowboys front office to go against their own nature, though. It’s not impossible, in seeing how less rigid they’ve been in free agency since bringing McCarthy onboard, but it’s admittedly very unlikely. Free agency is also a two-way street, and knowing the Cowboys won’t be comfortable getting into a bidding war to land him, Wagner would likely have to accept less money to reunite with Quinn while knowing the Joneses could approach him as early as next year with a pay cut (don’t anticipate a player of his caliber signing a one-year deal anywhere). So, should the Cowboys sign Wagner? Absolutely. Will they try? Probably just enough to make Quinn feel like they gave it their best shot, sources telling CBS Sports they’re not [yet] moving toward him.
Previous team: Chiefs
It’s a mistake the Cowboys probably regret greatly, but here’s a chance to correct it. Well, actually they made the mistake at least twice, first passing on Mathieu in the 2013 NFL Draft and again when he parted ways with the Cardinals following the 2017 season — the Cowboys waving him off because he didn’t fit their scheme. All Mathieu did was then go to the Kansas City Chiefs and earn another All-Pro honor, two more Pro Bowl nods (including one in 2021) and a Super Bowl ring. And here he is again a free agent with the Cowboys having a chance to grab him, with a possible eye on combining him with breakout safety Jayron Kearse with Donovan Wilson still in tow and potentially retaining former first-round pick Malik Hooker as well on an inexpensive deal.
Seriously, how much sweeter could the proposition get? I’m getting a cavity just thinking about the defensive candy in the secondary, when also factoring in All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs and the potential breakout season of former second-round pick Kelvin Joseph. Signing Mathieu is the type of season-changing move that propels a team to the top of the mountain, and you can ask the Chiefs if that’s true or false. The problem is he won’t come cheap, but you often get what you pay for or, as the Cowboys have learned in passing on Mathieu previously, what you don’t pay for.
Previous team: Buccaneers
It’s no secret the Cowboys have problems with their once-regarded offensive line, but I’ve gone one step further this offseason in identifying it as their top position of need. When you factor in the continued durability issues on All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, Connor Williams entering free agency, the disappointing lack of progression on center Tyler Biadasz and lack of overall depth across the board, the only dependable variable is Zack Martin. To that point, they need to get to work addressing the interior of the offensive line and work their way outward, seeing as the biggest question marks are at left guard and center.
Enter Jensen, an interior linemen who helped keep Tom Brady clean for two seasons en route to landing Pro Bowl honors in 2021, and someone who’ll give the Cowboys an immediate upgrade at center — having lacked firepower there since the retirement of Travis Frederick. And considering one of the issues on the O-line in Dallas is durability, as noted above, it’s key to note Jensen is as durable as they come. He hasn’t missed a single game since in the last five seasons, starting in every one of those. Grab Jensen and instantly lessen the need to attack the position in this year’s draft, and free up that energy to address the others.
Previous team: Buccaneers
Sure, you tagged Schultz, but it’s non-exclusive and while highly unlikely, it’s possible somebody is thirsty enough for a playmaking tight end to cough up two first-round picks to outbid the Cowboys for his services. But even if Schultz doesn’t go anywhere, there’s the matter of Blake Jarwin, who underwent a rare hip procedure and may not see a football field again until 2023. You like what the Cowboys might have in Sean McKeon, but Howard is a proven talent at the position that can either take over for Schultz or tandem with him to make for a more potent TE unit in Dallas. Howard was a major target for Jameis Winston but lost that status when Brady and Rob Gronkowski came to town, dropping his production but not his skill set to make plays.
Additionally, Howard is still young, a 27-year-old who bounced back from 2020 injury to be active in all 17 regular season games for the Buccaneers in 2021. Sticky hands makes him an ideal red zone target as well, and that’s also something the Cowboys could use in spades, with the 6-foot-6 receiving talent not being afraid to outbattle a defender for a jump ball. The good news here is that because the Buccaneers made him an afterthought, Howard isn’t expected to command big money, so with David Njoku having been tagged by the Browns, it leaves Howard as the other viable tight end option in free agency.