There have been a handful of new deals announced by various NFL teams. Although free agency is still a few weeks away, teams can go ahead and sign their own free agents to avoid getting into a bidding contest with other franchises. In addition, a few players have been released and others have announced their retirement. But for the Dallas Cowboys, all is quiet on the home front.
That is likely to change soon. At a minimum, the team will probably seek to lock up any of their own free agents that they wish to keep. This will be important in driving the decisions once full free agency is underway. It narrows down the remaining needs to fill, and the Cowboys have shown in recent years that they prefer to address needs with free agents in order to make the draft process more "best player" focused. However, that list of their own free agents they should keep looks very short. Here is one idea for how the team should handle this issue between now and March 7, when the legal tampering period begins. (For more details on the reasoning behind the rest of this article, you can check two previous analyses of the Cowboys' free agents, one done right after the end of the regular season, and the second shortly after the Super Bowl.)
Tender the two restricted rights free agents. Both Ronald Leary and Jeff Heath are RFAs, and that means the team has control. By making tenders to them, they can set their own price, and still could match a competing offer and keep them. They can also put a second-round tender on Leary, which would come with a more expensive contract, but also give them a pretty huge payoff if another team is hungry enough for a good guard with experience as a starter.
Re-sign Jack Crawford. He is good enough that the team should keep him. Improving the pass rush is a likely priority again this year, and letting Crawford go on the market would just open up another hole to try and fill from outside the team. This might drive the price for him up a bit, but he is one of the few players worth putting a little extra money on the table.
Re-sign James Hanna. With the injury last season to Gavin Escobar, Hanna became the primary backup for Jason Witten. He is not only a better receiver than many realize, he is a better blocker in the run game than Escobar, and may even be about on a par with Witten in that department, or even a bit better. Since Escobar just does not seem to have developed the way the team would have wished, given his cost in the draft, Hanna may be the most valuable free agent Dallas could re-sign. He is like Crawford in that the team may want to give him a little bit more to make sure they keep him in the fold.
Make an attempt to re-sign Kyle Wilber. He is a serviceable backup linebacker and a valuable special teams player. However, unlike Crawford and Hanna, there should be a hard ceiling on how much the team offers him. On the other hand, he is less likely to get a lot of interest than them from other teams, so the Cowboys should have a good chance of getting him back.
Let everyone else go on the market. Of the thirteen remaining free agents, the Cowboys should not attempt to lock any of them up. This includes Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, which is part of why Crawford and Wilber should be locked up. Essentially, they, and other players such as Mackenzy Bernadeau, Morris Claiborne, Tyler Clutts, Lance Dunbar, Nick Hayden, and Jeremy Mincey, may become part of the "bargain hunting" that the Cowboys have used to get most of their free agent acquisitions. If the market is soft for any of these, then Dallas can go in with team-friendly offers. But all of them potentially may get overpaid elsewhere. For all of these, it is an economic decision. It is entirely possible that all the remaining free agents that wind up with a new deal will be with other teams.
If there is one player on the "go to market" list that would be most likely to return to Dallas, it is probably Hayden. He might even get an offer along with the top three UFAs, because Rod Marinelli loves him some Hayden. But with a draft that looks to have a lot of interior defensive line talent available, the wise decision would be to wait and see if he could be brought back at a low cost.
Even with the two tenders and three top free agents to re-sign, this is not going to eat up much cap space at all. None of them should command overly large contracts. It would set the Cowboys up to go after one or two higher profile pieces while still having plenty of room to add several journeymen to plug holes and perhaps use to extend more high profile players before they get to the end of their current contracts.
It is not as sexy as the search for "silver bullets" in free agency, or drooling over who might be available at each pick in the draft. Still, it is a necessary part of getting to the next step of the offseason. Once the NFL Combine wraps up, look for this to be the next step in Dallas' offseason.
So what do you think? How would you handle it if you were part of the Dallas brain trust?