The Dallas Cowboys are currently on vacation after losing their Divisional Round matchup against the San Francisco 49ers 19-12 on Sunday. Now they head into an uncertain offseason with a number of key free agents as they currently sit over the NFL's salary cap for for 2023. Dallas will have to make some hard decisions in the coming months.
It's possible the Cowboys could ask Dak Prescott, Dexter Lawrence and Zack Martin to restructure their contracts to create more salary cap space, but they won't be able to free up a crazy amount of cash. That means they'll likely have to let some guys walk, while cutting a few franchise mainstays. Here's a look a six players who probably won't be back in 2023.
This seems like a slam dunk. Elliott is coming off the worst season of his career and is set to make $16.7 million in 2023. Cutting him would save $4.8 million the Cowboys could put towards re-signing free agent-to-be Tony Pollard. Pollard is the team's top back, having surpassed Elliott over the past few seasons. He's younger and has been better, making Zeke expendable. It's an easy decision.
This one is going to hurt. Smith has been one of the best linemen of his generation and is a borderline future Hall of Famer. An eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro and member of the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2010s, he has spent his entire career in Dallas. But he is 32 and has dealt with a ton of injuries over the past three seasons. Since 2020, he's only played in 14 games thanks to neck, ankle and hamstring issues.
Smith is due to make $17.6 million in 2023, and cutting him would save Dallas nearly $9.6 million. He was forced to move to right tackle and the end of the 2022 season due to Tyler Smith's emergence, making him even less important. A restructure of his contract is possible, but a parting of the ways is far more likely. It'll be really hard for Dallas to do that, but it's the smart business decision.
Maher is hitting free agency at the exact wrong time. The last thing anyone will remember is watching him miss four extra points in Dallas' Wild Card round win over the Buccaneers. In the Divisional Round he had a field goal blocked that was almost certainly going wide anyway. That followed a horrible pregame warmup session. The 33-year-old is a solid kicker who had a decent regular season, but it would be crazy if he was back next season given how things ended.
With Prescott locked in as Dallas' starter for years to come, this is Rush's chance to go out and find a shaky quarterback situation to take advantage of. No one will sign him as a starter, but he could join a team with a QB1 on bad footing and see what happens. Rush has been good when he's had opportunities over the past five season. He got in five games in 2021 and posted a quarterback rating of 105.1, and in nine appearances in 2022 he had a QBR of 59.1. He' 29, if he's going to search for a chance to start, now is the time.
Leighton Vander Esch
Vander Esch signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys before the 2022 season, then went out and struggled. Down the stretch he began returning to form, totaling 90 tackles on the campaign. Two things are true about the 26-year-old's season: He played well enough to get a multiyear contract somewhere, but he wasn't good enough for Dallas to make moves and create cap space to keep him. Expect him to be elsewhere in 2023.
Schultz's 2022 season will be remembered for the two boneheaded plays that cost the Cowboys dearly on their final drive against the 49ers. But that's not why he won't be back in 2023. Like Vander Esch, Schultz has played well enough to get looks from other teams, but not well enough for the Cowboys to make the moves necessary to keep him. In 2022 he finished with 57 receptions for 577 yards and five touchdowns. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 67.8. That's average and the Cowboys could find that production elsewhere.