National Football League
Five players who could make a big leap for the Cowboys in 2024
National Football League

Five players who could make a big leap for the Cowboys in 2024

Updated May. 29, 2024 6:07 p.m. ET

There is plenty of talent still available on the NFL free-agent market, and the Dallas Cowboys will likely look to bolster their roster in the weeks ahead. 

Just last week, we looked at five free agents who the Cowboys can still add, but let's stop with the speculation.

What we know now, without any guessing, is that the Cowboys pride themselves on their ability to draft and develop. To be fair, they are one of the better organizations in the NFL when it comes to drafting. To be a bit cynical, they also know it's easier to develop draft picks than spend money on outside free agents.

The Cowboys have positioned themselves to rely on their in-house options across several spots this season. It's a given they'll need their rookies to step up, but what about their Year 2 and Year 3 prospects?

Head coach Mike McCarthy loves to talk about young players making "the leap." Here's a short list of guys who could have the biggest impact on the Cowboys if they make that leap in 2024.

5. Sam Williams, DE

Not every loss of the Cowboys' offseason was a bad one. In fact, some of them were examples of quality team building. With so many other players to sign, it's understandable if Dallas' front office didn't want to compete with the $33 million payday Dorance Armstrong got in Washington. The goal now will be to replace the production of Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr. with homegrown assets. 

Enter Williams in his all-important third year.

To this point, Williams has lived up to both the good and bad aspects of his college scouting report. The athletic pass rush ability is there, evidenced by 8.5 career sacks despite averaging just 28% of the team's snaps to this point in his career. Williams has flashed the ability to beat top-tier tackle play and contribute to one of the league's best pass rushes the last two years. He also has a penchant for the unpredictable, having been flagged 13 times in his first two seasons.

The goal now is to harness the talent more consistently. The Cowboys have a phenomenal starting duo of edge rushers in Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. The next-best option behind Williams is rookie Marshawn Kneeland. If Williams levels up his game and, in return, is able to earn more playing time, it'll go a long way toward making sure Mike Zimmer's pass rush is as ferocious as Dan Quinn's was. If not, the big plays on defense might be harder to come by in 2024.

Should the Cowboys be concerned about their offseason?


4. Rico Dowdle, RB

Maybe you were expecting to see fan favorite Deuce Vaughn in this spot, and that's understandable.

Vaughn will have his opportunity to contribute, as the Cowboys pivot to a true running back-by-committee approach. But the educated guess here is his 5-foot-6, 176-pound frame will keep him from being the leader of this committee.

If we're looking for a guy who can seize that top spot (other than Ezekiel Elliott), I think Dowdle is the best bet.

It feels like Dowdle has been in Dallas an eternity after initially making the squad as an undrafted rookie way back in 2020. But Dowdle missed 2021 due to injury, and he's been a clear secondary option to Elliott and Tony Pollard ever since.

Elliott is no longer the clear-cut favorite in the backfield, and Dowdle has as good a case for playing time as anyone.

The reason is that Dowdle brings juice. Despite limited touches in 2023, he produced 12 explosive gains as both a runner and receiver. In fact, Dowdle had one less explosive run than Elliott last season on 95 fewer carries.

That speed, coupled with his ability as a receiver, should give Dowdle a shot at his biggest workload yet. 

3. DeMarvion Overshown, LB

It's a familiar storyline, but an important one.

A rookie draft pick bursts onto the scene in training camp, gets everyone excited and is cruelly injured before having a chance to make his mark.

Such was the case for Overshown, who was enjoying a standout August when he was carted off the field with a torn ACL in the Cowboys' preseason game in Seattle. Cowboys' decision-makers have likely lost sleep wondering what their linebacker corps could've been in 2023 with one more able body available.

It wasn't meant to be, and now, all that promise is projected onto Overshown's second season. The one silver lining of an August injury is that Overshown has had plenty of time to rehab and recover. He says he's bigger than last year and will be ready for training camp. 

The Cowboys' linebacker room could sorely use another playmaker. Eric Kendricks was one of the team's only free agency additions of note, but behind him, it's Overshown and third-year linebacker Damone Clark as the primary candidates for playing time.

How well Overshown acclimates might determine whether this group is a strength or a liability on defense.

2. Mazi Smith, DT

Speaking of Overshown and the linebackers, their jobs would be much easier if the players in front of them improved.

The Cowboys have struggled at defensive tackle for what seems like an eternity at this point, particularly against the run. Osa Odighizuwa is a solid enough pass rusher heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but this team has only had one solid run stuffer the last two years in Johnathan Hankins, and they let him walk during free agency.

As if there wasn't already enough scrutiny on Smith.

Smith was drafted No. 26 overall in 2023 to shore up the run defense, and the Cowboys trumpeted his potential Day 1 impact from the moment they turned his card in. The result was one of the most lackluster rookie seasons for a Cowboys' first-round draft pick in a decade or more. Even Taco Charlton, their much-lamented pick in 2017, made a more tangible impact as a rookie. Smith made just 13 tackles across 17 games, logging 284 snaps across the season. He got onto the field for just four snaps in the playoff loss to Green Bay.

None of this is to say his career is over. Each season is a new opportunity, and all eyes will be on Smith for his sophomore campaign. Cowboys coaches are already fielding questions about his playing weight and conditioning. Those questions will only get louder as training camp approaches.

With little in the way of proven production behind him, the Cowboys are counting on Smith to prove his rookie season was merely a setback. Otherwise, future opponents will be running at will on this defense the way we saw so frequently in 2023.

Take the Packers, Vikings over 9.5 and 6.5 wins, Cowboys under 10.5 wins

1. Jalen Tolbert, WR

This should sound familiar.

Tolbert enters his third season with massive expectations. He was only a rookie, drafted 88th overall in 2022, when the Cowboys asked him to assume a starting role.

That rookie campaign didn't go according to plan, as Tolbert was a healthy scratch in half the team's games and caught just two balls on the year. Things trended up in 2023, though.

Taking on a smaller role as the Cowboys' fourth receiver, Tolbert finished his second season by playing in all 17 games and grabbing 24 balls for 280 yards. He even delivered in some big moments, including a fourth-quarter touchdown on the road against Philadelphia.

The question now is whether he can keep the arrow pointed upward. CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks remain as the Cowboys' top-two receivers, but there's a clear vacancy for a third starter. Specifically, it'd be huge if Tolbert can step up and fill the X-receiver role that's been filled by Michael Gallup the last few years.

This team enters the season without a true solution at running back, and you can bet opponents will focus their game plans on limiting Lamb. The Cowboys need another proven weapon. Jake Ferguson has already shown promise. It would be huge if his 2022 draft classmate stepped up alongside him.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team's official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing "Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion" about the quarterback's time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more