Why the draft-and-develop Dallas Cowboys allow home grown free agents hit the market

The Dallas Cowboys have long preached a mantra of being a draft-and-develop organization.

It’s the basis of their justification of not being major players with outside free agents because they like to draft, develop and retain their own guys.

Apparently, that philosophy has exceptions. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, safety Donovan Wilson and tight end Dalton Schultz are learning this firsthand leading up to start of free agency, which begins with the legal tampering period on March 13.

The Cowboys have prioritized retaining running back Tony Pollard by giving him the franchise tag of $10.1 million to keep him off the open market, leaving productive and valuable starters like Vander Esch, Wilson and Schultz available for bidding by the other 31 teams.

By all indications, all three will likely have news homes in 2023.

Schultz, a 2018 fourth-round pick 2018 developed into quarterback Dak Prescott’s most trusted pass catcher the past three seasons, played on the franchise tag in 2022, earning $10.3 million.

And, as one of just two proven and productive tight ends in free agency, Schultz is expected to command a salary far more than the Cowboys are willing to pay.

So much so that the Cowboys’ didn’t meet with Schultz’ agent at the combine last week to discuss his future.

The Cowboys drafted a tight end in the fourth round last year in Jake Ferguson and could be in the market to take another one even higher in the draft in 2023. Several mocks have the Cowboys selecting a tight end the first or second round.

“Tight end, and of course Dalton, is very important,” owner Jerry Jones said. “But it’s important to remind everyone that we have other players involved here. I think we’re fortunate to have the young players that we had last year really step up.”

The Cowboys did meet with the agents of Vander Esch and Wilson and there is no progress on the former and little optimism on the latter, per sources.

It’s will be hard good bye for Vander Esch, who took the league by storm as a first-round pick in 2018, leading the Cowboys in tackles and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

But injuries soon took their toll and the Cowboys didn’t pickup his fifth-year option. After a strong fourth season, he was on the verge of signing a free agent deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers before a last second change of heart by the organization.

Vander Esch came back to the Cowboys on a one-year, prove-it deal in 2023 and had a strong season. He was a huge part of the team’s run defense, finishing second on the team with 90 tackles, including 54 solo. He four tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and one quarterback hit.

Vander Esch missed the final three games of the regular season with a neck strain.

And the Cowboys are continuing to balk at signing him to a multi-year extension due to injury concerns, paving the way for him to sign elsewhere.

Wilson is the perfect example of draft and develop. He came to the Cowboys as a fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M in 2019. He has become of the more valuable members of the defense and has thrived since Dan Quinn took over as defensive coordinator in 2021.

In 2022, Wilson led the Cowboys with 77 solo tackles and recorded a career-high five sacks. He always around the ball has five career forced fumbles.

The Cowboys value him around the line of scrimmage in their big nickel defense that features three safeties with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker.

However, the team has a history of not valuing safeties financially. The have not selected a safety in the first two rounds of a the draft since Roy Williams in 2002.

And they have not paid a safety a top market deal since signing Ken Hamlin to a six-year, $39 million deal in 2008. He was released two year later in a salary dump.

With Kearse and Hooker already under contract for $4 million and $3 million, respectively, the Cowboys have shown no indication they will compete for Wilson on the market.

One reason they never even considered the franchise tag for Wilson is that it would have guaranteed him $14 million in 2023.