Contract Year Looming For 23 Cowboys: Re-Sign Early Or Wait And See?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray highlight a group of 23 players whose contracts expire after the 2014 season, and 17 of whom will be unrestricted free agents. Should the Cowboys re-sign some of those players early?

Entering the 2013 season, the Cowboys had 11 players who were entering their contract year and were set to be unrestricted free agents after the season. They chose to offer an early contract extension to only one of those players, Sean Lee, and eventually franchise-tagged Anthony Spencer. The other nine players were either allowed to hit free agency (Jason Hatcher, Danny McCray, Ryan Cook, Ernie Sims), were waived early (Lawrence Vickers, Anthony Hargrove, Will Allen, Anthony Armstrong), or retired (Josh Brent).

Heading into 2014, the Cowboys currently have 23 players on the roster whose contracts expire after the end of the 2014 season, and who would qualify to be some kind of free agent. Which places the Cowboys front office in somewhat of a conundrum: extend those players now and hope to get a great performance on the cheap, or wait until those players break out before re-signing them and risk overpaying in the process?

The two highest profile players among this group are Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. Bryant is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract; Murray is entering his fourth and final year. With 4,104 receiving yards on 293 receptions and 40 TDs over four years, Bryant has clearly outperformed his rookie contract and the Cowboys are already looking at ways of extending him. We haven't heard anything yet about a possible extension for Murray, and the Cowboys are wary of making a similar mistake to the one they did with Barber. If he does sign a deal, look for the Cowboys us Sean Lee's contract as a model for how they can protect themselves from injuries.

Other notable free agents include Kyle Orton (whose situation we've covered extensively) and Doug Free, who might be amenable to a team-friendly contract extension.

Those four players highlight a group of 17 players who will be unrestricted free agents (UFA) after the 2014 season. Six more will be restricted free agents (RFA); no player is currently designated as an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA):

POS Player Status 2014 2014 Cap Hit
Doug Free RT UFA $6,520,000
Kyle Orton QB UFA $4,377,500
Dez Bryant WR UFA $3,148,500
Jeremy Parnell RT UFA $1,833,333
DeMarco Murray RB UFA $1,596,625
Bruce Carter OLB UFA $1,544,645
Justin Durant OLB UFA $1,450,000
Anthony Spencer DE UFA $1,296,875
Nick Hayden DT UFA $730,000
Amobi Okoye DT UFA $730,000
George Selvie DE UFA $730,000
Dwayne Harris WR UFA $655,000
Tyler Clutts FB UFA $645,000
Chris Jones P UFA $645,000
Sterling Moore CB UFA $645,000
Martez Wilson OLB UFA $645,000
Caleb Hanie QB UFA $570,000
Cole Beasley WR RFA $570,500
Lance Dunbar RB RFA $570,000
Orie Lemon ILB RFA $570,000
Darrion Weems LT RFA $570,000
Ron Leary G RFA $495,000
Ben Bass DT RFA $425,747

Some clarification on the terminology:

UFA: An unrestricted free agent is a player whose contract has expired and who has four or more accrued seasons of service (one accrued season = six or more regular-season games on a club's active/inactive, reserved-injured or PUP lists). UFAs are free to sign with any team, unless they are franchised by their old team.

RFA: A restricted free agent is a player whose contract has expired and who has three accrued seasons of service. A RFA receives a "qualifying offer" or a "tender" (with a salary predetermined by the CBA) from his old team but can negotiate with any team. If the RFA receives an offer sheet from a new team, his old team can match the offer and retain him (right-of-first-refusal). If the old team does not match the offer, it can receive draft-choice compensation depending on how the RFA was tendered (first-, second- or original-round tender).

There's no way all of these players make it to the 53-man roster, but the Cowboys will probably carry close to a dozen of the UFA through the season. After the season, and if the players are not re-signed by the Cowboys, they could provide the Cowboys with one final return on their contracts: compensatory draft picks.

If the Cowboys don't sign too many free agents in the 2015 offseason, and if their own free agents find gainful employment elsewhere in the NFL, the Cowboys could be looking at another solid haul of compensatory draft picks to rival this year's haul. The Cowboys won't get any comp picks for the 2015 draft, but if they play their cards right, they'll pick up a few extra picks for the 2016 draft. You heard it here first.

Looking over the list of players above, are there players you would like to see the Cowboys extend early? And where would you adopt a wait-and-see approach, even it could mean shelling out big bucks next year because a player had a "career year"?

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