Rigor mortis hasn’t even set in yet on the 2016 season and already the mind is starting to look ahead towards 2017. For the first time in several years, fans won’t have to go through the worry of trying to find the successor to Tony Romo. The Cowboys have done that already. Sean Lee has had two straight healthy seasons and the move to weakside linebacker (as well as strengthening the interior line) appears to have done wonders in preserving his health. And now, he’ll hopefully have a partner in crime next to him as promising star Jaylon Smith will be trying to return from a knee injury.
There are a lot of reasons to feel good about the future of the Cowboys, but here is a right-out-of-the-oven take on what the front office needs to do in order to reach the next level in 2017.
#1 Move Romo
It comes with a heavy heart that these words would even be constructed from the keys on my laptop. It’s not something the heart wants. But neither was releasing DeMarcus Ware in the offseason of 2014. It’s very cliché, but the truth is - it’s just business. And its business that needs to be done. Tony Romo will not play under his regular contractual terms in place next season. Some type of adjustment will occur. Whether it be a trade or straight up release, the Cowboys should be willing to absorb his dead money hit so they can pursue other financial endeavors.
Dak Prescott is this team’s quarterback. No longer are the days where people should compare a Dak-led team to a Tony-led team. Oh, that will still happen, but it will eventually stop. Fans have seen first-hand how this team has been uplifted under the play of the Cowboys new quarterback. And there is no getting away from that. What Romo has done for this team will always be cherished, but what is going on now is completely separated from all that. This team has a new franchise quarterback now.
There is always the remote chance that Romo sticks around, but it would require him to not only take a substantial pay cut, but also accept the role of the backup. That would certainly be a win for the Cowboys. They would get short term cap relief as well as have an outstanding quarterback in their back pocket. But the competitor in Romo would make it extremely difficult to just stand on the sideline with a headset just waiting for fate to intervene.
#2 Sign Jason Pierre-Paul
It’s a valiant effort, the amount of work put in by Rod Marinelli and company, to try to turn water into wine with this defensive line, but unfortunately the Cowboys pass rush is still sour grapes. Between some dice rolls in the draft by taking some red flag players in Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence and a bargain-priced free agent in Benson Mayowa, the Cowboys have fallen considerably short in developing a viable pass rush. With the emerging play of David Irving and Maliek Collins, the team has some good pieces in the middle, but they are suffering on the edge.
The New York Giants signed Olivier Vernon to a lucrative deal last year and got positive results from rookie Romeo Okwara so it is unclear where Jason Pierre-Paul fits in with them now. The Giants signed him to a one-year “prove it” deal worth $10 million and he showed that he is still one of the stronger pass rushers in the league. In just 12 games he still managed to get seven sacks and was 14th in the league in hurries for all edge defenders.
Pierre-Paul won’t come cheap, but the Cowboys need to be willing to overspend a bit if they can secure a real pass rusher. There is no other silver linings to count on. Gregory won’t be available. Lawrence remains a wild card. The only potential the team has is if last year’s “other” fourth-round draft pick, Charles Tapper, turns out to be a good player. But even if he is, he missed 2016 with an injury so he will require time to develop.
Pierre-Paul is a sure thing. There isn’t a mystery what you’re getting with him. Even with his remodeled hand, he’s still extremely effective at getting to the quarterback. He’s only 27 so he meets the team’s age requirements when they shop for free agents. The Cowboys have $6.5 million in rollover cap money and with the amount they’ll save with Romo, the front office will have some cash to spend.
#3 Trade Up For An Edge Rusher
Remember back when Jerry Jones ran the team when he would just act in haste and overspend for free agents and trade up to get special players? That was terrible, right? So why am I suggesting doing both of those things now? Well, there is a notable difference among some of those other teams and this team. This team is young. It’s not an aging team that will suffer through attrition over the next several years. There are so many strong pieces in place.
The Cowboys are deeper than they’ve been in a long time and they can afford to sacrifice quantity for quality. The Cowboys don’t need three draft picks in the first three rounds. Two will do just fine. And edge rusher and another defensive back would work nicely. Now, in a perfect world, a nice defensive end falling to pick 28 would be super fantastic. But Jerry needs to take himself to the pick. The Cowboys could pull a reverse-Travis Frederick deal from 2013 and give up a third-rounder to move up to the late teens to grab a pass rusher who has fallen.
The Cowboys need to get a player that can be a clear-cut starter and that player needs to play defensive end.
#4 Part Ways With Williams And Leary
Terrance Williams and Ron Leary are great pieces to this team. It would be wonderful if they could play for $2 million a year every season, but unfortunately their contracts have expired and it’s time for them to get paid. Marvin Jones ($8M), Mohamed Sanu ($6.5M), and Travis Benjamin ($6M) all got inflated deals last offseason as they went from complimentary roles from one team to having a larger role with their new team. And don’t forget that backup tackle, Jeremy Parnell got huge deal ($6.4M) to go start for Jacksonville. Leary is definitely a lot more valuable than Parnell.
Both these players should earn a nice contract that could result in a compensatory pick for Dallas in 2018. And it may not seem like a lot, but the Cowboys turned the Parnell comp pick into a selection that gave them their new franchise quarterback.
#5 Retain The Secondary
The Cowboys have four free agent defensive backs – Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox. While at one point it may have seemed like a nice relief to finally get out of these contracts, all these DBs have played surprisingly well this year. Maybe it’s the new defensive backs coach, Joe Baker (let’s hope for that because he’ll still be here)? Maybe it’s that these players have improved? Or maybe it’s because they are all in a contract year and are playing for a new deal?
Whatever the reason, the Cowboys coaches should have a good idea of which players they should try to keep and which ones will be priced out of Dallas. It was a strong season for the Cowboys secondary and they don’t want to shake things up too much with this group. They still have good pieces in place with Byron Jones and Orlando Scandrick and they have to be pleased with the performances of rookie Anthony Brown and Jeff Heath, but it’s still important to keep a couple of these veterans around.
What moves do you think are the most important for the Cowboys to make this offseason?