The Dallas Cowboys, as usual, have a top-heavy roster. Dallas has almost always leaned toward the so-called stars and scrubs style, preferring to pay for elite talents and supplement them with low-cost veterans and rookie-scale bargains elsewhere on the roster. With even more of their stars getting paid now than at any time in the recent past, Dallas is more in need of those veteran and rookie-scale bargains than ever before.
Lucky for them, the Cowboys have been one of the best drafting teams in the league over the past half-decade or so. That draft success (with a few exceptions, of course) has given them some fantastic values, with players whose roles and contribution far outstrip their salaries. In the space below, we'll walk through the top five for the 2020 season.
1. WR Michael Gallup
2020 salary cap hit: $972,495
The following players averaged more receiving yards per game in 2019 than Gallup: Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Davante Adams. That's it. And if it weren't for his uncharacteristic case of the dropsides, he might have ranked even higher on the list. (Gallup had eight drops in 163 college targets, then dropped 11 of 113 passes thrown his way last season. That's a doubling of his drop rate.) For the privilege of employing him, the Cowboys have to shell out ... the 99th-highest cap hit among NFL wideouts. Not a typo.
He and Amari Cooper formed one of the best receiver duos in the league, and with CeeDee Lamb joining them this year, they should all have a ton of room to operate. Gallup has already emerged as a strong deep threat and an even better catch-and-run guy on slants and other in-breaking routes, and with defenses likely unable to roll coverage his way on almost any snap this upcoming season, he might be in line for his best year yet.
2. RT La'el Collins
2020 salary cap hit: $4,950,000
When the Cowboys paid Collins last offseason, I was one of the skeptics. Why were the Cowboys locking up their fourth-best offensive lineman at a time when their quarterback, No. 1 wideout, and No. 1 corner were all still waiting to be paid? Even before Travis Frederick retired, Collins performed as perhaps the team's best overall lineman last season. Yes, he even (arguably) out-played Zack Martin.
Consistently a beast as a run blocker throughout his career, Collins had his best season yet in pass protection in 2019. After allowing 51 and 47 pressures in 2017 and 2018, Collins cut that number all the way down to 26 in 2019. Add in the league's third-best run-blocking grade among regular tackles, per PFF, and it's a wonder that Collins somehow missed out on a Pro Bowl berth. The terms of his contract extension are extremely team-friendly (at least until the Cowboys restructure it, as they are wont to do), with Collins ranking just 35th among tackles in cap hit for the 2020 season.
3. LB Leighton Vander Esch
2020 salary cap hit: $3,231,213
If we knew Vander Esch was going to be fully healthy, he might very well be No. 1 on this list. After a fantastic rookie campaign that saw him emerge as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL, LVE took a slight step backward in 2019, before a neck injury ended his season altogether. Whether or not he and Jaylon Smith end up swapping positions, as has been rumored, Vander Esch has the talent ceiling to remain one of the most effective 4-3 linebackers in the game.
He's a preposterous athlete, ranking in the 98th percentile of SPARQ, which helps establish the baseline for his skills as a cover player. He's equally adept working against backs and tight ends, and if the Cowboys can manage to get improved play up front this season, both he and Smith will be freer to flow to ball-carriers in the ground game. Considering the upside, Vander Esch's 26th-ranked cap hit among 4-3 backers is a relative steal.
4. S Xavier Woods
2020 salary cap hit: $2,172,972
Woods has yet to fully deliver on the playmaking potential he showed at Louisiana Tech, but he's a former sixth-round pick who has been an average or better full-time starting safety in two of his three NFL seasons. He split time between corner and safety in college, picking up 14 interceptions, six forced fumbles, four sacks, and 16 passes defensed during his three seasons as a starter. The Cowboys haven't really tapped into that versatility, and Woods has mostly been a solid but unspectacular contributor. Perhaps a move to a less stringent style of defense than Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli's vanilla Cover-3 scheme will unlock Woods' playmaking. He'll draw a salary of just $2,172,972 in the final season of his rookie deal, giving him the 55th-highest cap hit among safeties in 2020.
5. RB Tony Pollard
2020 salary cap hit: $841,945
A fourth-round pick a year ago, Pollard had a terrific rookie season working behind Ezekiel Elliott. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry on his 86 totes, and while you might want to attribute much of that production to Dallas' offensive line, you'd be mistaken. Pollard led the league in yards after contact per carry last season, according to Pro Football Focus, where he also led the league in Elusive Rating.
He broke tackles and created splash plays at a significantly higher rate than Elliott, and should have earned himself a larger role in the offense under new coach Mike McCarthy. His versatility to line up as a running back or slot receiver surely helps in that regard, since it seems unlikely the Cowboys are going to significantly cut Elliott's work rate anytime soon. Still, Pollard's $841,945 salary this season, which ranks 76th among running backs leaguewide, is a heck of a bargain, especially since he is also the team's primary kick returner.