With the playoffs now out of the picture for the Dallas Cowboys, it is time to start thinking about how to build the roster for 2016. The draft is always the big show in the offseason, but first comes free agency. For some teams, it is a time for big, splashy signings, but that has not been the approach in Dallas for some time now. Outside of the very team-friendly but highly-controversial Greg Hardy signing, they stuck to cost effective players to fill needs in 2015, which is pretty much their MO since the less-than-successful big contract they used to sign Brandon Carr.
Given the disappointing payoff they got for that $50 million boondoggle, we can expect that to hold true again when free agency gets underway next year. But first, the team has to decide how to handle the players currently on the roster whose contracts are up. Last season, they had two big names to deal with, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. They chose to go all-in on Bryant while setting a limit on how much they would pay to keep Murray in the fold. That decision has not exactly worked out for the best, as we have seen. But given the failure of Murray under football genius Chip Kelly and his Philadelphia Eagles and the fact that Bryant has been severely hampered by the broken foot he suffered in the first game of the season, it is hard to say that they made the wrong call.
This year, they team is not faced with anything of near the magnitude of the Murray and Bryant decisions. The names on the list of free agents for the end of the season looks a lot easier and cheaper to manage. (A shout out to David Helman of the mothership, one of the true good guys of Cowboys media, who put this up on Twitter and saved me a ton of work.)
For the curious. These are the Cowboys players whose contracts expire at the end of the season. pic.twitter.com/QaTG8p7LMx— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 21, 2015
Just to save your eyesight if you are reading this on a small screen, here is the list transcribed for you.
Unrestricted free agents:
Restricted free agents (the Cowboys can make a qualifying offer to these players and can make a matching offer if another team exceeds that, or can get draft compensation if they do not):
On this list, there is only one name that jumps out as someone who is almost certainly not going to be retained by the team, and that is Cassel. Outside of him, it depends strictly on the team evaluation of the remaining players, and for many, perhaps most, the game is now whether the Price Is Right.
Before delving into how the team may approach some of these players, you have to look at Dallas' salary cap situation for 2016. According to Over the Cap, the expected salary cap for next year is estimated to be $150 million. If the Cowboys do nothing else, they have $9.95 million in space, and are only looking at $901,076 in dead money. But we all know that the team management is willing and able to do whatever it takes to generate more space as needed. Players can be cut, and the big contracts all have more or less automatic restructures built in. Cap hell is nothing more than a myth for the Cowboys, so it can be safely assumed that the team can find a way to do whatever it feels it needs to do in free agency.
The two names for whom the price question is probably the most important are Hardy and McClain. Both have been very valuable this year, although their suspensions had a very negative impact on the team overall. Assuming the team would like to retain both for next season, they will probably put an offer on the table. The players can take it, or more likely test the waters to see if they can cash in elsewhere. The offers will likely be very firm as far as how much. Dallas is willing to pay.
Everyone else is more complicated. Some, like Turbin, are going to be playing to earn a contract in the final two games. Others, like Nick Hayden and Jack Crawford, are potentially valuable pieces but also will come with firm ceilings on how much the team will pay. And all are candidates to be set free to try and hook on somewhere else, the way Jason Hatcher was previously. They just will not be seen as having enough to offer for the money. The good news is that there is no one on this list who is in line for a megadeal like Bryant's, and we should be spared the drama that went along with that last year. Some look more unlikely to be kept include Clutts and Brown.
This list can be gamed a lot, and we will probably be surprised by how some of them shake out. Last season certainly had its share of decisions most of us didn't see coming. Predicting how things will go is almost impossible, but if you held my feet to the fire, I would guess that there will be more names on this list leaving than staying, by a good margin. That is just based on recent history. If you like to pretend you are part of the brain trust for the Cowboys, here is a chance to pick your favorites and nominate some others you think should go.