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A Cowboys’ Offseason Plan, Part 6: Which In-House Free Agents Will Dallas Keep?

In a ten-part series, we are going to take a comprehensive look at the Cowboys and how they might get better in 2017. This is part six.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by discussing the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. In parts two, three, and four, we looked at where the Cowboys are strong, okay, and weak. In part five, we showed how the Cowboys can create cap space to sign in-house and outside free agents. In this article, we’ll start with Dallas’s in-house free agents.

List of Free Agents

Here’s the complete list of Cowboy potential free-agents, courtesy of the Mothership, sorted by position.

Unrestricted:

QB Kellen Moore

QB Mark Sanchez

RB Lance Dunbar

RB Darren McFadden

WR Brice Butler

WR Terrance Williams

TE Gavin Escobar

G Jonathan Cooper

G Ronald Leary

DT Richard Ash

DT Jack Crawford

DE Ryan Davis

DT Terrell McClain

LB Andrew Gachkar

LB Justin Durant

LB Rolando McClain

CB Brandon Carr

S Barry Church

CB Morris Claiborne

S J.J. Wilcox

Exclusive Rights:

DE David Irving

As we did with the salary cap moves, let’s divide these into three groups - likely to retain, possible keepers, and least likely to be back.

Cowboys’ Ground Rules

But before we get there, let’s talk a bit about how the Cowboys might evaluate these players. If you remember the first article in this series, it talked about five elements of the Cowboy’s team philosophy. Four of the five elements bear on in-house free agents:

2. Keep your best players.

3. Plug holes through free agency, but don’t break the bank.

4. Go into the draft with holes filled, so you can take the best player available.

5. Stay young. Don’t re-sign any player over 30.

Part four of this series — where Dallas is weakest — identifies the biggest holes - CB, S, DL, WR, plus backup RB and QB. All of those holes cannot be filled with draft picks or undrafted free agents. Dallas is going to have to protect itself by signing a combination of in-house and outside free agents before the draft.

Keep in mind as well the article we wrote on the snaps each of these free agents played in 2016.

Likely To Retain

Taken in order of the list at the top of the article, these free-agents are most likely to be re-signed by Dallas.

Running back Darren McFadden

McFadden would actually be a perfect veteran backup to Ezekiel Elliott. First, he’s proven he can still be a lead back if anything were to cause Zeke to miss a game or two. Second, he was the only other complete back on the Dallas roster. He can run, catch, block, get short yardage, and hit big plays. Alfred Morris is a liability as a receiver and blocker, and isn’t even great in short yardage, so he’s likely to be cut and replaced by DMC. One other reason he’s likely to re-sign: Dallas paid him while he was rehabbing his elbow, so the team has some goodwill and could likely get him for a reasonable deal.

Guard Jonathan Cooper

This is a bit of a guess, since we didn’t see Cooper on the field at all. But Jerry Jones said the Cowboys “lusted” for Cooper when he first came out. With Ron Leary certain to be priced out of Dallas, Cooper makes a lot of sense if he has potential, as he might be signed much more cheaply than La’el Collins could be and therefor be a longer-term fit. Cooper has bounced around several teams, but Dallas’s tight offensive line group and coaching might be a perfect fit for him.

Defensive lineman Jack Crawford

Of the free agents on the Dallas defensive line, expect Jack Crawford to be the most likely to return. He is certainly not the “War Daddy” that Jerry Jones was talking about recently. But he does check a lot of boxes for the Cowboys. First, he played 561 snaps, which was the third most on the D-line. He also started 10 games. Second, he can play DE or DT interchangeably, and Rod Marinelli loves versatility. Because of that, retaining him would protect Dallas regardless how the draft falls. For example, if cornerback or safety or wide receiver or even tight end is the best player available in the first round, Dallas may not be able to draft a first-year starter along the line. Third, he remains healthy, which puts him ahead of Terrell McClain, even if McClain is more impactful when healthy. If Crawford gets a multi-year deal elsewhere, Dallas is unlikely to match it, but if he doesn’t get snapped up, expect him to return.

Defensive lineman David Irving

As an exclusive rights free agent, Dallas merely needs to tender a contract and he’s under control. If he harnesses his potential, he might become the Cowboys’ best defensive lineman. The question is: will it be inside or outside?

Possible Keepers

Taken in order of the list at the top of the article, these free-agents might return, if the money is right.

Wide receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler

While Dallas might want Terrance Williams to return, as he fits the measureables the Cowboys like in wide receivers, he is likely to be priced out of what they might be willing to spend on the position. Spotrac estimates he’ll sign for four years and $33 million, or $8.2 million per year. That’s likely to be $2-$3 million a year more than Dallas would like to spend. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of cheaper alternatives who can be relied on, and have the same size as Williams. We are placing him in this middle category because Dallas would like to make a deal, but he’s more likely to be gone.

Brice Butler is almost the flip side of Williams. He’s much less reliable as a receiver, and therefore less desirable to the Cowboys. But he’s also likely to come much cheaper, and could therefore give Dallas some insurance going into the draft if they are unable to upgrade that way. Expect Dallas to see Butler as a fall-back if nothing else works out.

Defensive tackle Terrell McClain

McClain had by far his best season in 2016, after missing much of his first two years in Dallas. He was also super cheap, at $1.1 million. And he’s only 28. So Dallas would likely love to have him back for a couple more years at similar money. The problem is, he was likely noticed this last year by the other teams, and so can expect a decent payday from someone else. Given his injury history, Dallas is unlikely to match a significant boost in pay. They are more likely to go with the healthier and more versatile Jack Crawford.

Linebacker Andrew Gachkar

He’s here because of his special teams prowess. If Coach Bisaccia wants Gachkar back, he’ll be back. He’s 28, so he wouldn’t break the over-30 rule. My only question is whether the Cowboys can get the same play from Mark Nzeocha for less money. The issue there is that Nzeocha couldn’t stay healthy in 2016.

Cornerback Brandon Carr

Keeping Brandon Carr would break the over-30 rule. But it would meet the other criteria, as it would plug a huge hole in Dallas’s secondary, and allow Dallas to draft whomever fell to them in the top rounds. Given Carr’s durability, he’s a solid, if unspectacular choice. And Dallas could and likely would still draft a cornerback to try to upgrade the position, which our real quarterback rating differential series showed they need to. Spotrac values Carr at $5.8 million a year, which Dallas could afford on a two-year deal.

Safety Barry Church

For Barry Church, see Brandon Carr. It’s essentially the same analysis, except Church hasn’t been as durable, though he’s younger. It’s a little bit trickier than with Carr, because Dallas mostly plays two safeties, so if they draft someone to try to upgrade the position, where will they play in year one? The answer is that they could take J.J. Wilcox’s snaps, which were considerable, and cut into Church’s snaps when ready. Spotrac values Church at $4.5 million a year. That’s also an affordable number for Dallas for a couple of years. Church is 29.

Least Likely to Return

Taken in order of the list at the top of the article, these free-agents are least likely to return.

Quarterbacks Kellen Moore and Mark Sanchez

The Philadelphia game ending the regular season, where Dallas rested its starters and seemed to lose its edge, revealed one potentially positive thing — Mark Sanchez would be a disaster as a backup quarterback if he was forced to play. No matter how much he might pump up Dak Prescott, the primary role of a backup QB is to be able to win some games if called upon. Sanchez can no longer do that. Time to move on.

Kellen Moore might be the fall-back guy if no other inexpensive option emerges, but the Cowboys would be better served by someone who has proven he can win games. My preference would be Brian Hoyer, but that’s for the next article.

Running back Lance Dunbar

Lance could never get into the swing of the offense last season, with only 139 snaps in 13 games. He is an injury risk if used on special teams. And the Cowboys would be much better with Zeke or DMC on third downs if DMC returns.

Tight end Gavin Escobar

The worst of the second-round tight ends picked by Dallas during the Jason Witten era. I thought they should have cut him before last season. Some other team is likely to get more out of him as a receiver, but Dallas will move on.

Guard Ron Leary

Leary was a very solid player for Dallas, but Spotrac estimates he’ll get four years and $36 million on the open market, for an average of $9.1 million a year. According to OCC’s recent article on compensatory picks, that could be worth a third-round pick. Because Dallas has La’el Collins and perhaps Jonathan Cooper in reserve, Leary will be let go.

Defensive linemen Richard Ash and Ryan Davis

The Cowboys website lists Ash as an unrestricted free agent, but OCC said he is an exclusive rights free agent. Either way, he was just someone Dallas brought in to fill a gap the last week of the season. Expect Dallas to seek better.

Ryan Davis is in the same boat. He briefly caused Benson Mayowa to be benched last year, but then Mayowa came on and Davis was benched. With Charles Tapper back, and Dallas likely to draft along the defensive line, Davis is unlikely to be re-signed.

Linebackers Justin Durant and Rolando McClain

McClain is a certain goner, and so is Durant with Jaylon Smith emerging.

Cornerback Mo Claiborne

When he was healthy last year, he was easily Dallas’s best cornerback, and started to show the promise that led Dallas to move up in the draft to get. But he couldn’t stay healthy. (He couldn’t even finish the Green Bay playoff game after weeks of being out.) For that reason, he’s probably not even worth another make-do $3 million contract like he signed last year. Some other team is likely to take the risk and give him a bigger deal.

Safety J.J. Wilcox

Wilcox might be put in the possible camp, except that he’s not going to upgrade the secondary if he returns. His best quality is hitting. Dallas needs to find safeties who can both cover AND hit. Better to spend the money on a potential impact player. Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier may be able to cover for Wilcox’s snaps if necessary.

Conclusion

  • Likely to retain: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Cooper, Jack Crawford, and David Irving (who’s a lock).
  • Possible keepers: Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, Terrell McClain, Andrew Gachkar, Brandon Carr, and Barry Church.
  • Least likely to return: Kellen Moore and Mark Sanchez, Lance Dunbar, Gavin Escobar, Ron Leary, Richard Ash and Ryan Davis, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain, Mo Claiborne, and JJ Wilcox.

If Dallas kept the top group, and lost the bottom group, they could put themselves in great shape if they kept a couple of guys out of the middle group. If they don’t keep their own, they will need outside free agents to plug some of those holes.

Part 1: What Is Dallas’s Team Building Philosophy?

Part 2: Where is Dallas Strong?

Part 3: Where is Dallas Just Okay?

Part 4: Where is Dallas Weakest?

Part 5: Freeing up Money For Free Agent Signings

Next - Part 7: Outside Free Agents (Offense)