Cowboys point to players returning from injuries as upgrades — but how true is that?


Two days before the NFL Draft, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones sat alongside executive vice president Stephen Jones and head coach Mike McCarthy for a news conference. The second question directed at the father-son duo was about their excitement levels for the draft, considering it was the next big chance to improve the roster following a muted free agency.

Jerry Jones answered first, giving a primer on the salary cap and relating it to the importance of young, cheap players having a significant impact. When Stephen Jones began his answer, he mentioned the lack of action in free agency would create an easier pathway for the draftees to get opportunities on the field. Then, he invoked a few names who weren’t offseason additions but were being presented as such.

“We do have some guys who didn’t play for us last year,” Stephen Jones said. “(DeMarvion) Overshown, John Stephens Jr. was on his way to making this team before he tore his ACL. You have (Trevon) Diggs who didn’t get to play but a couple of games last year, so we’re going to have him back.”

Though those players are at different levels of proving their NFL worth, the Cowboys could use a boost from their talent. It is factually correct that those players are primed to return from injuries — all three tore ACLs — and be a significant part of the equation. But presenting them as a substitute for offseason activity is flawed logic for a few reasons. Before proceeding, it’s worth acknowledging that Stephen Jones’ framing is merely to provide a public excuse for the inactivity during a major player acquisition window. Perhaps he’s aware of the agitation of the Cowboys fan base and is trying to express more optimism after pessimism took center stage because of the complete outlook of the roster to that point. That would be understandable.

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John Stephens Jr. was injured in the preseason last year. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

But if the front office looks at Diggs, Overshown and, to a lesser extent, Stephens as upgrades in the bigger picture, that’s troubling.

To begin with the obvious: There is a level of unpredictability with how each player will return from his injury. A torn ACL isn’t the kind of physical setback it typically was a couple of decades ago, but it’s still a major injury. The Cowboys saw it with Michael Gallup the past two seasons. A 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, Gallup never really returned to his pre-injury form after tearing his ACL in the final week of the 2021 season. From a timeline standpoint, the three players above had a favorable situation. Stephens and Overshown tore their ACLs in the preseason, and Diggs tore his before Week 3. They’ll each have nearly a full year of uninterrupted rehab time with no clock ticking in front of them rushing their return to the field. It also doesn’t hurt that each player is 25 years old or younger.

It’s not a reach to expect all three to reach their pre-injury forms, if not better, but it could take time and is still not a sure thing.

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Of the three, Diggs is the proven veteran — an All-Pro with a proven playmaking skill set. His addition is bound to make any team better, but how much does it really boost the Cowboys’ cornerback position from last season? Without Diggs, the Cowboys had their two outside corners in good shape and a solid cornerback in the slot, with shaky depth. DaRon Bland (outside corner) and Jourdan Lewis (slot corner) are unchanged. Diggs should help on the other side, but Stephon Gilmore, who wasn’t brought back, was good at the other outside position. Even if Diggs is viewed as the better player, the upgrade is minimal and, considering Gilmore’s departure, the total outlook for the position is unchanged.

Overshown has been the offseason darling of the internal upgrade conversation. There’s certainly merit to it. Overshown, last year’s third-round pick, flashed plenty of intriguing traits in training camp and preseason. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was so excited about him that he had roles carved out specific to Overshown. As long as things continue to progress medically, Overshown should be a true boost to the linebacking group. But it’s also a fact that Overshown hasn’t taken a meaningful snap against full NFL competition. Until he proves himself at that level, there should be a cause for pause.

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Stephens is an interesting player because although the Cowboys like to lump him in that group with Diggs and Overshown — mainly because he was going to make the roster after a strong training camp — he was going to mostly be a depth piece. With Peyton Hendershot’s injury and Luke Schoonmaker’s struggles, perhaps Stephens would have gotten a decent shot to make an impact last year but it wasn’t going to come in a starring role. With Gallup gone, it’ll be worth monitoring if the Cowboys feature Stephens more as a red zone target or implement more two-tight end sets. All of that is a bit premature at this juncture.

The other layer to Stephen Jones’ flawed logic is that the Cowboys won’t simply be adding Diggs, Overshown and Stephens to last year’s roster, which was quite talented. The current iteration of the Cowboys’ roster is a step down from what it was in 2023. It also doesn’t take into account that while those three players will be returning from injuries, there will very likely be other players who will miss time because of injuries. Diggs, Overshown, Stephens, Leighton Vander Esch and C.J. Goodwin were the 2023 victims of the injury bug. In 2022, it was Tyron Smith, Lewis and Terence Steele. In 2021, it was Gallup and Blake Jarwin. In 2020, it was Dak Prescott, among others. Injuries are an inevitability over the course of an NFL season.

Stephen Jones is right, the players returning from season-long injuries will be positive additions. But to point to that as an excuse for inactivity in free agency, or as proof as to why the roster may be better in 2024 than it was in 2023 is an explanation that lacks the full context.

(Top photo of Trevon Diggs: Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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