Things could not have gone much worse for the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1. Their loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 13 wasn’t the worst they’ve ever taken, remaining in the game long enough to see a controversial call seal shut the coffin the Cowboys had been slowly constructing much of the evening, but it’s who they lost that looms large going forward. Not only did they lose starting tight end Blake Jarwin to torn ACL — the team confirmed — but also Pro Bowl linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who suffered a fractured collarbone at SoFi Stadium. 

Barring an unexpected turn of events, Jarwin is done for the season and Vander Esch is himself set to miss upwards of 6-8 weeks, sources tell CBS Sports. Those wondering if the Cowboys have the depth to roll with what they have will quickly find the answer is mostly a resounding “no”, in particular at the tight end position. Two critical drops by backup Dalton Schultz in Jarwin’s absence against the Rams drive home that point, and Blake Bell wasn’t brought in to be an athletic playmaker. The club has Cole Hikutini on the practice squad, but he has only two receptions for 15 yards in since entering the league in 2017.

And then there’s the linebacker position, where while Francis Bernard had a stellar camp at linebacker, he’s an undrafted rookie who is currently also on the practice squad — having lost out to Luke Gifford (who was inactive in the opener). The latter has also himself battled multiple injuries entering his second year in Dallas, and despite the upside on both, their combined NFL regular season snap count of zero has to [also] make the Cowboys nervous on some level. And, don’t forget, Sean Lee is on injured reserve for at least two more weeks, and there’s little that should make the Cowboys feel great about his chances of remaining on the field for the entire ride. 

Suddenly in dire straits at both positions, it’s no longer the Earl Thomas saga taking center stage going into Week 2. It’s all about who Dallas should (and might) go after to fill two cavernous holes on both sides of the ball.

I have a few ideas.

Linebackers: 

Clay Matthews – Free agent

You could do worse than bringing in a six-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion.

That said, sure, there are concerns about Matthews, but beggars can’t be choosers here. The science is the science, in that Matthews isn’t the same player he once was when he was racking up 13.5 sacks in a season for the Green Bay Packers. And while many will point to the fact he’s 34 years old, the Cowboys aren’t looking to lock him in for half a decade. The right deal would equate to a one-year agreement at $2 million or a bit less, and instantly provide both a veteran presence, a proven talent, and one McCarthy knows oh so well. It’s could not be more clear in how McCarthy loves familiarity (look at the Cowboys coaching staff and inhale the Cheese), and it was McCarthy leading the Packers when they used a first-round pick on Matthews in 2009 — the former also helping to mold the latter into one of the best linebackers in the league.

Will Matthews suddenly regain his All-Pro form in Dallas, in a reunion with McCarthy? That’s unlikely, but if he comes anywhere near the eight sacks he secured for the Rams in 2019, count it as a victory. He recently turned down an offer from the Denver Broncos but still wants to play football, and McCarthy hasn’t deleted his phone number from his contact list. 

Something to keep an eye on here.

And if you want to really get spicy, seeing as Vander Esch is only projected to miss 6-8 weeks, the Cowboys could do for Matthews (or other vested free agents on this list) what they did with Brandon Carr. Move them to the practice squad down the road and call them up as/if needed, which could very well be brilliant — given the injury history at the position in North Texas.

Mychal Kendricks – Free agent

This one is a more profound rolling of the dice than is Matthews, but it’s worth a tire kick.

Kendricks still has some legal issues to sort out, but the former second-round pick was allowed to take the field for the Seattle Seahawks in the last two seasons. A former Super Bowl champion himself, the 29-year-old has the benefit of youth on his side, as compared to Matthews, but not the resumé. Still, Kendricks could help in a bind much like Joe Thomas (a former Packer who arrived before McCarthy), and give the Cowboys experience and an upgrade at the position, at least until Bernard and Gifford are ready to truly be unleashed. Kendricks logged 14 starts for Seattle in 2019 en route to 71 combined tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. 

Those are strong numbers for a player still sitting in free agency, mostly because teams are trying to figure out their needs after Week 1. And here are the Cowboys doing just that, which should put Kendricks on their radar with the others on this list.

Darron Lee – Free agent

So you want youth and experience? Well, say hello to Darron Lee.

The 25-year-old is a former first-round pick to boot, having parted ways with the New York Jets and then signing with the Kansas City Chiefs during their Super Bowl of 2019. Lee did most of his damage at the NFL level with Gang Green, needless to say (given he was there three seasons), racking up 155 combined tackles with 11 pass break ups, four sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 36 starts. Seeing as the Chiefs were/are loaded at linebacker, he didn’t get much play as a starter last season, and that is reflected in his downturn in production. Lee has proven he’s a capable starter in the pro ranks though, and would add sub-4.5s speed to the Cowboys linebacker corps. A champion at both the collegiate and pro level, the former Ohio State star is simply waiting on a call to get back to the field and prove he deserves a long term deal from someone. 

Given the Cowboys need at LB — arguably both now and in 2021 — Lee is an attractive option to solve an existing problem while creating a doorway to fixing one in the future as well. 

Haason Reddick – Trade

Given the options above, the Cowboys don’t need to give up assets to fix the problem, but it’s an option.

It feels like Reddick could truly benefit from a situation wherein he logged a ton more snaps than those in Arizona, seeing as he has just 20 starts in 49 games since the Cardinals used the 13th-overall pick on him in 2017. I’m not convinced Reddick is suddenly not a great talent, as much as I point to the fact he’s not Kliff Kingsbury’s guy, considering the latter didn’t take the reins as head coach until 2019. To that point, Reddick went from 12 starts in 2018 to only five last season, despite having delivered four sacks, five pass break ups, a forced fumble and 80 combined tackles in 2018. The addition of Buddha Baker also factors in — a versatile safety who can line up at linebacker when asked to do so. And considering Baker, as one example, isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, maybe it’s time Reddick does.

A sixth-round pick should get this deal done, and the Cowboys just happen to have two sixth-round compensatory picks currently in their pocket, by way of the contracts on Jason Witten and Maliek Collins in Las Vegas. It would quite literally cost the Cowboys nothing but his remaining 2020 salary — seeing as he’s under a contract year — of just over $2.3 million, while freeing up cap space for the Cardinals on a player they’re not even attempting to lean on.

That’s a win-win. 

Tight Ends: 

Delanie Walker – Free agent

Schultz ain’t it.

And so we venture into the land of free agency to see if there’s a chance to grab someone who can step in and immediately help the ailing tight end unit, as opposed to moving backward and taking on the weird social media take of trading for Witten. Shielding our eyes from such a depraved stance that ignores McCarthy’s want of an athletic tight end atop the totem, while aged, Walker provides an intriguing option. Admittedly, you won’t find a spring chicken in this coop, with the three-time Pro Bowler having turned the ripe age of 36 this past August. What you will find, however, is someone better than (or at least more ready than) Schultz, Hikutini, and Sean McKeon; assuming Walker can stay healthy. He signed a two-year deal with the Tennessee Titans in 2018 but an ankle injury cost him significant time during that contract — his seven seasons in Nashville having now come to a close.

By all accounts, he’s now a full go, and likely doesn’t want to end his NFL career on a sour note. Having proclaimed in 2018 he was the best tight end in the NFL, he’d like a chance to at least polish his brand before hanging up his cleats. And where he fails to differ in age to Witten, he separates himself in athleticism. Only two seasons removed from an 800+ yard season with seven touchdowns, and having registered a 1,000-yard season not long before that, it won’t hurt for the Cowboys to give him a holler.

But, it might hurt if they don’t.

O.J. Howard – Trade

Howard wasn’t a happy camper when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the decision to sign Rob Gronkowski.

There was talk of trade demands from the 25-year-old, but general manager Jason Licht never gave in. He might, for the right offer, and if Jerry Jones used his now rarely seen ability to wheel and deal. While the Buccaneers plan on utilizing Howard going forward, they also have Cameron Brate, and one of these isn’t like the other. The latter signed a six-year, $40.8 million contract with $18 million guaranteed in 2018, which would make for a hefty chunk carved out of anyone’s salary cap to take him on in 2020. Contrarily, Howard is set to hit the salary cap for just $3.53 million this season and $6.01 million on a fifth-year option in 2021, making his contract much more reasonable in trade discussions for a Cowboys team currently making moves to secure cap space for Dak Prescott next offseason

I won’t be coy here and presume the Cowboys can get Howard for the same sixth-round flyer they’d try to woo the Cardinals with regarding Reddick, so let’s talk turkey. Send over a fourth-round pick for Howard and call it a day, because it would get you a young, talented, athletic tight end for mid-level pricing that you have contract control over for at least two seasons. It also wouldn’t hurt the 2021 draft haul, considering the Bears gave the Cowboys a compensatory fourth-round pick when they signed Robert Quinn to a megadeal this offseason.

The only loss here for Dallas would be the salary itself. The comp pick is found money, anyway. Might as well use it to buy a primo tight end who can then replace Schultz and make for one hell of a one-two punch when Jarwin returns in 2021, or release Howard next season and save $6.013 million with zero dead money hit. 

I challenge you to find the L here.

David Njoku – Trade

This is less likely than the others — considering he’s heading to IR for at least three weeks (knee) — but it’s an option nonetheless, and speaking of unhappy campers in the NFL forest…

Njoku hasn’t exactly been happily preparing picnic baskets alongside Yogi and BooBoo in Cleveland. The former first-round pick has mostly had it up to here with the Browns — *gestures toward my hair line* — requested a trade in 2019. They didn’t give him what he wanted, but that doesn’t mean the saga has ended. And considering the Browns began the 2020 season by being disemboweled by the Baltimore Ravens, he’s probably also looking for a change in culture. He’ll have that in spades in Dallas, where Mike McCarthy is working to install just that on the heels of a nonproductive Jason Garrett era. And let’s be honest, the worst Cowboys team in recent memory isn’t equivalent to what Browns fans and players have had to put up with for a long time now. 

Like Howard, Njoku has a fifth-year option on his deal that pays $6.013 million in 2021, which gives Dallas the same flexibility I named above on Howard, and he could probably be had for the same price. The Browns are hoping to keep Kevin Stefanski around for longer than five minutes, but the new-look front office is also going to need some extra draft picks to start building for the future, and the Cowboys just happen to have the aforementioned extra fourth-rounder laying around next April. 

Njoku is one of the most talented young tight ends in the NFL, but also disgruntled, and there’s nothing that guarantees he re-signs in Cleveland once his rookie contract expires. In striking a deal with the Cowboys, they’d get a fourth-rounder they can either flip or use for a potential impact player, and Dallas gets a solution at TE1 now, and possibly a[nother] reason to send Schultz packing later. I would even try to negotiate this down to a fifth-round pick, using the injury as leverage in post-IR trade talks, but that’s just me.

The Cowboys have several options in helping to avoid catastrophe at linebacker and tight end, but sitting still isn’t one of them. 

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