During the bye week, one of the topics that kept the Dallas Cowboys in the news was whether the team would be able to reach a deal for a new contract with wide receiver Dez Bryant. He was coming off a record-setting performance (all in one quarter, no less) against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and had also just switched representation for the negotiations. He and owner/general manager Jerry Jones were involved in a verbal dance in the media. Meanwhile, overblown reports about the team's "concerns" regarding Bryant and calls to the police and fire department surfaced and were quickly debunked, leading to questions about just how the non-story got started in the first place.
But Bryant is just one of the many Cowboys who will be free agents after this season. Counting all categories of free agents, there are 25, 20 of which are on the current 53-man roster, plus Justin Durant and Darrion Weems, who are on IR. That's over 40% of the roster that the team has to either pay or let walk. One of the reasons that Dallas is having to be very responsible in how much they pay Bryant is that they need money to sign some other players so they are not gutted. (For a brief description of each kind of free agent, click here.)
And Dallas currently has about $137.5 million worth of 2015 salary cap tied up. There will likely have to be some serious reworking of contracts to free up some money, plus some players may wind up being released.
For now, without trying to figure out how to get more space under the cap (which leaves the whole question of what to do about Henry Melton's contract for another day), I want to try and analyze the free agent decisions. I may not be anywhere close to how the team is looking at this (except for a couple of obvious calls) but this will illustrate just how complex this is going to be.
Going generally from most important decisions to make to least:
Dez Bryant. The team has to figure something out - or use the franchise tag. They cannot let him get away, even if they have to risk making him a little angry. He is number one no matter how you look at it, and will probably wind up costing the team something in the $12 to $13 million range annually (although not necessarily that much in cap space, which is only vaguely related to objective reality as we know it).
Doug Free and Ronald Leary. The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in football - and 40% of it turns into free agents. It seems logical that Dallas will want to keep this band together in light of the way the running game has worked, and how difficult it is sometimes to assemble a cohesive line.
Leary is a restricted free agent, which gives the team leverage. Since any team signing an RFA has to surrender draft picks back, this basically turns into a trade situation. Some team may want Leary that bad, but the odds are that the Cowboys can keep Leary at a reasonable price.
Free is a little more difficult, because according to Spotrac, the Cowboys have a team option to sign him - for $8 million a season. With the bonuses associated, this would lead to an $11 million cap hit. That seems way to rich for the team, so I wonder if they would need to try to negotiate him down. This brings in the risk of him getting a better offer, of course. Further complicating things is the fact the team can save $7 million in cap space by letting him go.
There was a belief that Zack Martin was drafted to eventually kick back out to tackle and replace Free, but with the success he has had at guard, there has been some doubt cast on whether that would happen. And what are the chances of hitting on another linemen of the caliber of Martin or Travis Frederick, especially if the team flinches at using a top pick again on the offensive line? If the team decides it cannot afford Free's salary and/or cap hit, it might have to go with Jermey Parnell or Weems at RT. Oh, wait, Parnell is a UFA and Weems is an RFA like Leary. The line itself is a very complicated situation.
Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, and Bruce Carter. Just like the offensive line, the linebacking corps presents a puzzle. McClain has been a real find, Durant was having one of the best years of his career before he was injured, and Carter is just good enough often enough to make you think there is something worth keeping with him. The odds are the team is not going to be able to keep all three of these players, especially with Sean Lee expected back. Just based on consistency of performance, it would appear McClain and Durant have an edge over Carter. That all could change if they get to free agency, however. McClain especially might draw some significant offers now that he has proven that he is over whatever led to the double retirement. He is a real unknown as to what demand he might generate, though, and the Cowboys may be able to get him signed to a cap friendly deal. Right now, though, it is hard to say, and Carter may wind up the cheapest option of the three, making him more attractive. Another puzzle box for the team to deal with. If the team has to part with one or more of these players, it could ironically give Cameron Lawrence a better chance of coming back, since he is likely to be really low cost.
DeMarco Murray. Most would probably rate him as the second priority after Bryant, but here are two reasons he may be much lower, especially given the price tag that will be on the most effective running back in the league to date, by far:
- The offensive line, the wide receivers, and the tight ends have done a phenomenal job blocking. While Murray gets credit for his contributions, it is reasonable to say that other backs might do nearly as well with that kind of road grading in front of them.
- Running back has become such a plug and play position. The team already has Joseph Randle, who seems quite capable. They can draft a running back out of college. This approach has served many teams well. And don't forget Ryan Williams, who may just be the insurance policy in case Murray is gone.
The rest of the names are more role players, but will definitely involve tradeoffs. Some examples where the team may have to make a cost/benefit decision between players at the same position:
- DEs Anthony Spencer, George Selvie and Jack Crawford. All may be expendable, but so far, it looks like Spencer's recovery is going pretty good, while Selvie is just not producing the way he did last year. Meanwhile, the Crawford born in London is starting to show some intriguing ability and could be a better deal than either of the others.
- DT Nick Hayden. This is a hard one. Hayden gets regularly slammed by Pro Football Focus, but the coaches have a different view of how he is handling his responsibilities. He likely would be very reasonable to keep, but does he have a place on the roster with Josh Brent now back in the picture?
- WRs Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. Although both are on the roster as wide receivers, they have very different roles. Harris is really a special teams ace (although not nearly as effective this season, so far), while Beasley is a possession receiver who also can really change how other teams cover. Still, there may be a squeeze after the scouts look over the upcoming draft.
The team also has to figure out what to do about CB Sterling More, FB Tyler Clutts, RB Lance Dunbar, S and ST specialist C.J. Spillman, and P and holder for the most accurate placekicker in the history of the NFL Chris Jones (just pointing out some of the factors that have to be looked at). All would be looking for a better contract to stay, while the team may have to consider cheaper (i.e. rookie) options.
There are a handful of other practice squad or Sunday inactive players that are totally expendable. But the names listed here are going to be a challenge to work through. There seems to be no way for the Cowboys to keep all the players that they would like to. With the team finally seeing some success on the field, it is going to be forced to make some hard decisions about who will come back next season.