While the Cowboys are still licking their wounds from Sunday's untimely playoff exit, many are already turning their attention to the upcoming draft and free agency. Dallas has numerous players with expiring contracts in 2022, making for potentially high roster turnover in a critical offseason.
There's plenty of room for debate on who the most important of the upcoming free agents is. On pure talent, most would defer to WR Michael Gallup and DE Randy Gregory as the top players from each side of the ball.
There will be plenty of time for those conversations in the coming weeks and months.
For now, let's just look at this by position and see how many players the Cowboys could be looking to replace.
Running Back — Corey Clement
Third-stringer Corey Clement showed some good things in limited carries, spending most of the year rightfully buried behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
He also returned kicks and worked on special teams coverage units, playing the third-most special teams snaps on the team.
Assuming Rico is on track to return next year, Dallas may let Corey look for work elsewhere.
Wide Receiver — Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Malik Turner
Dallas may have Cooper and Lamb locked up for next year but you can't say that for the rest of the WR Corps. The next four names on the depth chart are all unrestricted free agents in 2022.
Obviously, the first concern is Gallup.
He's arguably had the most chemistry with Dak Prescott of any receiver since he joined the team. Unfortunately, Gallup is now looking for a new contract within months of a devastating late-season ACL injury.
Complicating matters is Cedrick Wilson, who is also a free agent.
Dallas could operate just fine on offense next year with Wilson as WR3 but, after flashing his talent plenty of times over the last few years, Cedrick may finally get bigger opportunities elsewhere in the league.
Noah Brown has been around a lot longer than most would've expected from a former 7th-round pick.
He's lasted this long on his niche abilities as a blocker and special teamer but never really became a factor on offense.
The new prospect du jour, Malik Turner, had a couple of nice moments this year but probably not enough that Dallas would trust him as their third receiver.
Still, I could easily see him brought back to compete and provide depth.
Tight End — Dalton Schultz, Jeremy Sprinkle
Since Blake Jarwin's week 1 injury in 2020, Dalton Schultz has been taking advantage and emerged as one of the more productive tight ends in the NFL.
He's hitting free agency with momentum and could quickly soar out of Dallas' price range.
Thankfully, Jarwin still has two years left on his deal and is a solid Plan B for 2022.
Dallas also has Sean McKeon as an intriguing TE2 prospect for next year. But if the Cowboys are more interested in keeping Schultz, then they could save $4 million of Jarwin's $6.25 cap hit by releasing Blake and allocating that money toward keeping Schultz.
Jeremy Sprinkle was a low-cost veteran addition last year for blocking and special teams purposes.
If the team likes him then they can probably re-sign him easily, or they shouldn't have to work hard to replace him.
Guard — Connor Williams
Connor Williams, the most-penalized player on the league's most-penalized team in 2021, is a huge question mark this offseason.
After high marks for his development in 2020, Williams failed to sustain that momentum and even got himself benched during the season as Dallas assessed Connor McGovern's potential.
Williams eventually got his job back due to McGovern struggling but still enters free agency without much leverage.
I expect Connor to not be re-signed as the Cowboys make the offensive line a focus of the offseason, but the lack of in-house options does leave him a little hope.
Offensive Tackle — Ty Nsekhe, Mitch Hyatt
Neither of these guys is consequential to next season.
Ty Nsekhe was a band-aid this year, both for health issues with the unit and for Terence Steele's issues playing on the left side.
The Cowboys have bigger concerns with the declining health and performance of their starting tackles and neither Nsekhe nor Mitch Hyatt is in a position to help there.
Hyatt, as only an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, will probably return as a camp body.
However, I expect we'll see bigger moves and investments at offensive tackle this year that will make him and even Nsekhe irrelevant.
Defensive Tackle — Carlos Watkins, Brent Urban
Both of these veterans will have a hard time getting new deals with the young core of talent Dallas has assembled at defensive tackle.
Defensive End — Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong
Randy Gregory has been waiting a long time to get a real NFL payday and it may finally be here. He also may be the most likely candidate to get the franchise tag from the Cowboys in 2022, provided they can afford to pay it.
Gregory is the biggest x-factor of this free agency bunch.
He's only 29 and has low mileage after his past suspensions. But the rest of the NFL knows this and will be in hot pursuit.
Dallas is going to have to get creative with the cap to keep him.
The fiscally conservative move might be to let Gregory go and hope for a nice compensatory pick, then re-sign Dorance Armstrong.
While he doesn't pose the same level of threat to opposing offenses as Gregory, Armstrong did show up this year and could remain a solid pass-rushing option at a much lower salary.
Linebacker — Keanu Neal, Leighton Vander Esch, Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard
Neither Keanu Neal nor Leighton Vander Esch did enough this year to feel safe now.
While there's no shame in being lost in Micah Parsons' shadow, the veterans didn't capitalize on his presence or pass-rushing duties.
Vander Esch did pick up his game late in the year, ending it with an exclamation point in a strong performance against the 49ers. But after Dallas chose not to pick up his 5th-year option and made 2021 a “prove it” year, it's hard to say that the former first-rounder proved enough.
Neal was an intriguing player this year as a former safety converting to linebacker, but the play-making ability just wasn't there.
A second season in the new role could do him good, and two bouts with COVID during the year certainly didn't help matters.
Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard are both solid depth players and special teamers who could easily be brought back. Luke is a Restricted Free Agent and Bernard is an ERFA, making his return almost a given.
Cornerback — Maurice Canady
After some hype during training camp as one of the team's top corners, Canady never really materialized in the regular season and eventually went out with a concussion in Week 6.
Cornerback is one area that Dallas appears set for 2022 and I imagine Canady will be looking for work elsewhere.
Safety — Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Damontae Kazee
Jayron Kearse walked in and became the team's best safety and even a defensive leader in 2021.
Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee are less secure in their positions.
They got outshined by Kearse and have younger prospects like Donovan Wilson and Israel Mukuamu already under contract.
They'll likely have to accept less lucrative deals to stick around.
Punter — Bryan Anger
Bryan Anger didn't just provide an upgrade at punter this year; the veteran made the Pro Bowl and gave Dallas one of its best punting seasons in a long time.
The Cowboys will likely bring him back as long as his big season doesn't drive his price up too high.
Long Snapper — Jake McQuaide
Jake McQuaide had a clean season as the new long snapper and helped Bryan Anger accomplish big things.
I expect Dallas will keep him in place with a new deal and focus their attention on Greg Zuerlein and the kicking woes.