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Cowboys' main 2023 free agency lesson came from the 2022 draft

NFL teams have two major avenues in which to improve in the off-season: Free agency and the draft. Internal development happens naturally for everyone but it’s roster churn that typically dictates whether an off-season was successful or not.

The Cowboys notoriously lean on the draft to provide most of their off-season upgrades. They dabble in free agency but veterans are expensive, so they prefer slotted salaries that come with rookie contracts. While this has served them fairly well in their roster building over the years, there’s a lesson the draft taught them last season which should influence how they approach free agency in 2023.

In order to get more bang for their salary-capped buck last off-season, the Cowboys traded away Amari Cooper. Even though Cooper was widely regarded as one of the best in the game, his price tag was significant and his contributions and availability weren’t always consistent.

To replace Cooper, Dallas turned to the 2022 draft. Sure, they signed James Washington to a bargain deal, but he was never meant as a one-to-one Cooper replacement.

The solution was put off to the draft.

Several highly talented prospects entered the draft and the Cowboys could save a considerable sum of money is they filled Cooper’s spot with a rookie rather than a veteran.

Some of the top receiver prospects from the 2022 class were even official 30-visits for Dallas. The Cowboys shop frequently from the 30-visit list, so fans can use it as a decoder ring, of sorts, to give them a glimpse of what Dallas may be planning each year.

Cowboys Wire tracked these visits last off-season as with every off-season. It’s required reading for any Cowboys draftnik.

As the draft unfolded, receivers came off the board quickly, with Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jameson Williams, Jahan Dotson and Treylon Burks all falling off the board before the clock struck Cowboys at pick No. 24.

This unfolding of events came back to hurt the Cowboys in 2022. Undermanned at receiver, they were forced to lean on a still-recovering Michael Gallup and compelled to elevate players like Noah Brown to levels far above their prescribed weight class.

It was a situation which hurt them throughout the season and led to a midseason meeting with Odell Beckham Jr and eventually to signing T.Y. Hilton. Dallas put all the weight of their receiver need on the draft and when their third round project player, Jalen Tolbert, didn’t pan out, they were left with severely limited options.

The lesson to take from it is this: If a need is glaring the Cowboys cannot afford to do the bare minimum in free agency and hope the NFL draft can bail them out. The stakes are too high if they expect to be a competitor in 2023.

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