Clarence Hill: Dallas Cowboys continue flurry of moves. What does it all mean?
The release of two-time NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, once considered a foundational cornerstone to the success that the Dallas Cowboys hoped to have, has received the biggest and latest buzz.
But it was only move in what has been a busy offseason of change for the Cowboys that began with coach Mike McCarthy firing eight coaches, led by the departure of Kellen Moore, and taking over the play-calling duties.
It has continued with a flurry of aggressive cap maneuvers, priority re-signings of their own free agents, namely running back Tony Pollard, safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and a trade for cornerback Stephen Gilmore, a four-time Pro Bowler and former NFL Defensive MVP.
It has not been business as usual for the Cowboys, who general had a passive attitude towards the offseason with a mantra of “we like our guys.”
Ever since the season ended — with a playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers for the second straight year that extended their Super Bowl drought to 27 years since their last title — the Cowboys have focused on whatever it takes to take that next step, which has taken them out of their comfort zone.
McCarthy shook things up with his coaching and philosophical changes on offense and a plan to put a greater emphasis on the running game and lean on a defense that has become the strength of the team.
The move with Elliott was certainly an extension of that, as the Cowboys are turning the keys to the running game over to Pollard and a a $10.1 million franchise tag.
The first big move the Cowboys made on defense was retaining coordinator Dan Quinn, who was a finalist for head-coaching jobs in Denver and Arizona.
They have since gone about the business of bolstering his unit — which led the league in turnovers the past two seasons, the franchise in the NFL to do so since the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s
Keeping Wilson and Vander Esch, the two leading tacklers in 2022, were priorities once free agency began.
Wilson signed a three-year, $21 million deal, including $135 million guaranteed, Tuesday morning and Vander Esch got $11 more over two years, later that afternoon.
In between, the Cowboys filled a huge need with addition of Gilmore in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts for a compensatory fifth-round pick.
Gilmore, who will turn 33 next season, has one year left on his contract, $7.9 million base, with a roster bonus of $1 million due on May 20.
He gives the Cowboys a proven veteran opposite All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs and speaks to the team’s win-now mode for 2023.
To make it all happen, the Cowboys created more than $55 million in cap room by restructuring the contracts of quarterback Dak Prescott ($22 million), guard Zack Martin ($8.8 million), receiver Michael Gallup ($7 million) and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence ($8.9 million) and asking veteran tackle Tyron Smith to take a pay cut.
Smith was due $13.6 million in salary in 2023. He is now under contract for $6 million in a new deal, clearing $9.6 million.
Smith, a former eight-time Pro Bower, has missed at least three games in each of the last seven seasons due to injuries, including 14, 6 and 13 in 2022, 2021 and 2020, respectively.
He can earn his money back via play-time incentives.
Most importantly, the Cowboys have roughly $26 million cap space.
With an admitted need to add juice to the passing game, the Cowboys are likely not done yet in free agency during this offseason of change.
Three-time Pro bowl receiver Odell Beckham remains high on the wish list of owner Jerry Jones, while a number of other veteran receivers are available to be had via trade.
The Cowboys are no longer sitting idly by in the off season.