FRISCO, Texas -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 15 at 4 p.m. ET. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.
The Dallas Cowboys consider themselves to be a draft-and-develop team and use free agency to fill holes, not make major splashes.
The last big signing they made in free agency was Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million) in 2012. Instead, they like to make under-the-radar signings that lead to players outperforming their contracts, like Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Dante Fowler Jr. and Bryan Anger.
The Cowboys have plenty of needs to fill -- wide receiver, linebacker, defensive line, offensive line, tight end, kicker and backup quarterback -- but mostly want to retain their own players, with 18 players set to hit the open market after using the franchise tag on running back Tony Pollard.
If they are going to spend big money, they want to do it on their own players, like WR CeeDee Lamb, CB Trevon Diggs and potentially C Tyler Biadasz, 2020 draft picks now eligible for second contracts.
Here's a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Cowboys, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Cooper Rush, quarterback
Rush agreed to terms on a two-year deal to return to the Cowboys.
What it means: The Cowboys know what they have in their backup quarterback. That's an important commodity since Dak Prescott has missed at least one game in each of the last three seasons because of injury. Rush has a 5-1 record, eight touchdown passes and four interceptions for his career. Without his steady play last year, the Cowboys don't make the playoffs after Prescott suffered a broken thumb. Teammates believe they have a chance when he has to play if something happens to Prescott again.
What's the risk: None really. Prescott has a confidante in the quarterback room in an offseason that has seen him lose Kellen Moore, Doug Nussmeier and Ezekiel Elliott. Financially, the deal falls in line with backup quarterback ($2.5 million a year) numbers. It doesn't preclude the Cowboys from taking a quarterback on Day 2 of the draft if they so choose, but they will return the same three from the last two years in Prescott, Rush and Will Grier.
C.J. Goodwin, cornerback
Goodwin will stay with the Cowboys on a one-year contract.
What it means: After losing their leading special teams tackler last year in Luke Gifford to the Tennessee Titans, the Cowboys couldn't lose Goodwin. He is one of the best gunners in football. He finished second to Gifford on the team in special teams stops. He is a good leader, willing to show the younger players the tricks of the trade on special teams. Having a core special teamer like Goodwin back for another year is a good thing for coordinator John Fassel.
What's the risk: None really. This isn't a huge financial commitment. They keep a good locker room guy, good special teamer. Goodwin can help at cornerback in a pinch if necessary, but he has been special teams only the past few years.
Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker
Vander Esch has agreed to return to Dallas on a two-year deal worth $11 million.
What it means: The Cowboys keep a key piece of their defense. His absence was felt when he missed the final three regular-season games due to injury. He gets everybody in the correct spots, but he is also productive. He had 100 tackles, second on the team. In the two playoff games, he led the Cowboys with 21 tackles. Vander Esch has played in 30 of the past 34 games after injuries curtailed his 2019 and 2020 seasons. Last year, he showed a similar form to his rookie year when he was named to the Pro Bowl. He brings toughness and leadership to a relatively young defense. Without Vander Esch, the Cowboys would have had a big void.
What's the risk: Injuries are always the concern with Vander Esch. He missed the final three games with a trapezius injury but was given a clean bill of health by the medical staff. After splitting reps for a spell in 2021 with Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch has shown the more he plays, the better he plays. If he can avoid injury, the Cowboys have a major player on their defense.
Donovan Wilson, safety
The Cowboys reached an agreement with Wilson to bring him back on a three-year deal worth up to $24 million.
What it means: The Cowboys keep a key part of their defense. Wilson led the Cowboys in tackles last season, and he and safety Jayron Kearse were the only two defenders to fill every major defensive statistical category in 2022. Coordinator Dan Quinn's base defense effectively uses three safeties, so with Wilson back, Quinn will have Kearse, Malik Hooker and Wilson back for another year to form one of the better safety trios in the NFL.
What's the risk: Wilson is a big hitter, and that can lead to some injury concerns, but the length of the deal is conducive to his style. Without Wilson, the Cowboys would have had the need to add another safety in the draft or free agency or hope Markquese Bell, an undrafted rookie last year, was ready to make a big jump. By paying a guy they know, the Cowboys take some of the risk out of a signing like this.