The Dallas Cowboys like to keep their own successfully developed players which means they will have several decisions to make on their impending free agents
DALLAS — Free agency is set to open next week on March 15, and the Dallas Cowboys have their work cut out for them. With several players set to hit the open market, the team must make some tough decisions on who to keep and who they allow to walk away.
The list was originally longer, but the Cowboys placed their franchise tag on running back Tony Pollard and used a second-round tender on right tackle Terence Steele. Neither player is likely going anywhere, no team is going to give up the draft capital to sign Pollard, and the Cowboys have the right to match any contract another team offers Steele or be compensated with a draft pick.
With Pollard and Steele more than likely back in the fold, that leaves 19 players eligible to leave the organization when free agency begins. Dallas doesn’t want to see all 19 go, and the hope is that they’ve prioritized the players that they wish to keep.
Here are the four best free agent options for the Cowboys to keep this offseason:
Donovan Wilson – Safety
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn likes having three safeties on the field and employs each of them for specific roles. Jayron Kearse is used more as a safety to erase tight ends, while Malik Hooker is more of a coverage safety. Wilson’s role has been to do a little bit of everything, but he excels at playing closer to the line of scrimmage to cause disruption.
Quinn uses Wilson as an effective blitzer to get after the quarterback, as well as being another option to try to stop the run. Wilson is coming off his best season where he led the defense in tackles with 101, had two forced fumbles, and collected one interception.
Wilson also led all NFL safeties in sacks with five, while playing a full season for the first time in his career. Despite being smaller than the average safety in the league, Wilson packs a punch when he tackles and is the tone setter for the Dallas defense.
The Cowboys do have two young safeties waiting in the wings with Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell, but Mukuamu is better suited for a role in coverage and Bell doesn’t have enough experience.
Re-signing Wilson won’t be cheap, but it’s an investment that the Cowboys should make. With Wilson, Kearse, and Hooker, the Cowboys would continue to have one of the strongest safety units in the league and the team would be wise to keep the group intact.
Leighton Vander Esch – Linebacker
Coming off his best season since his rookie year, Vander Esch was second on the team in tackles with 90 and was the most consistent middle LB on the team. Vander Esch plays a position where the Cowboys have some young talent waiting, but the team doesn’t have much depth at LB.
Although he missed three games, Vander Esch managed to stay healthy for the most part and he was effective when he was on the field. Availability has been perhaps the biggest issue for the former Boise State standout since Dallas grabbed him with their first-round pick in 2018.
In 2022, the Cowboys put some big bodies at defensive tackle in front of Vander Esch which allowed him to run at the ball carrier freely, helping him excel and stay relatively injury free.
Second and third year LBs Damone Clark and Jabril Cox are the next men up to take Vander Esch’s place, but there isn’t much on the depth chart after them. Clark looked like a keeper as a rookie, but Cox barely saw the field in his sophomore season after a promising first year that was cut short by an injury.
Currently, Clark and Cox are the only LBs left signed on the roster, so losing Vander Esch would necessitate the need to throw an abundance of resources at the position. Vander Esch shouldn’t break the bank and the Cowboys could breathe a little easier if he were to return.
Jonathan Hankins – Defensive Tackle
A mid-season trade brought Hankins to the Cowboys, and his presence in the middle was welcome. Dallas’ defense has missed a space eater on the interior of their defensive line for years and Hankins came in to help stop the bleeding for a unit that was porous against the run. Hankins played in only five games with the Cowboys, but he helped keep Vander Esch clean to run and chase ball carriers. In two of the four games that Hankins missed with injury, the Cowboys gave up 192 and 151 yards, respectively, on the ground.
The defense has some depth at DT, but there isn’t anyone on the roster capable of taking on double-teams or eating up space in the middle like Hankins. It wouldn’t cost much to keep him and, despite being a little long in the tooth, Hankins is still a solid player that the Cowboys can use.
Jason Peters – Offensive Lineman
Peters is another veteran that the Cowboys brought in to add depth last season. Keeping Peters around is simple, the team needs depth in case of a Tyron Smith injury, and because Steele is coming off a serious injury late in the 2022 season. Steele is expected to be ready for the 2023 campaign, but the team doesn’t need to be searching for another swing tackle if there is a setback.
The Cowboys have Tyler Smith ready to play LT, but the team doesn’t have another tackle capable of playing if necessary which is what necessitated Peters in the first place. With the rash of injuries and age accumulated by the Cowboys on the offensive line, having at least one more solid, versatile option would be a smart move.
As Peters demonstrated last year, he can play both tackle positions and still has some gas left in the tank. There aren’t many better options for a team that needs depth at tackle and cannot afford to pay top dollar for a good one. Peters is the perfect fit in Dallas.
Which upcoming free agents do you hope to see the Cowboys re-sign? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.