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Projecting The Dallas Cowboys Roster Over The Next Three Years

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In this offseason of roster building, let’s get an overview of what Dallas’s roster looks like projected over the next several years.

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

You may want to bookmark this post. It’s intended to provide an overview of the Dallas Cowboys roster as it stands now, projected over the next several years, including the salary cap hits for all players, when their contracts expire, their current age, and approximate value according to Pro Football Reference. This endeavor was made possible by Spotrac, which provides most of the data in the tables below.

We’re going to interweave this data with the analysis of the Cowboys’ Offseason Plan to provide another look at where Dallas is strongest, okay, and weakest going forward. For the Cowboys to improve, they will need to address those weaknesses in free agency or the draft. We’ll approach this by position groups. For each group, we’ll provide a grade, and a number of players the Cowboys need to fill their roster.

The data goes out five years, but most players are only signed through the next three. Thus, this is the Cowboys’ three year window. It’s not meant to imply that the Cowboys have only three years to compete, but the team will look a lot different a few years from now.

(Table notes: AV is approximate value, cap numbers are current cap hits for those seasons, RFA is restricted free agent, UFA is unrestricted free agent, ERFA is exclusive rights free agent, xx under AV denotes the player didn’t play, 0 under AV denotes the player played some but provided no real value.)

Quarterbacks

QUARTERBACKS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Dak Prescott 23 16 QB $635,848 $725,848 $815,849 UFA -
Jameill Showers 25 xx QB $465,000 $555,000 ERFA - -
Tony Romo 36 xx QB $24,700,000 $25,200,000 $23,700,000 UFA -
Mark Sanchez 30 0 QB UFA - - - -
Kellen Moore 27 xx QB UFA - - - -

Dallas has a 23-year-old franchise quarterback, who just came off the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history, and who’s due just over $2.1 million over the next three years. As we’ve argued elsewhere, this makes him the most valuable player in the NFL. Indeed, the cheapness of Dak’s contract should allow the Cowboys during this three-year window to surround him with enough talent to compete for the Super Bowl, just like it helped Seattle when Russell Wilson was still on his first contract.

Once Tony Romo is traded, however, there is nothing behind Prescott. The Cowboys should not be thinking about 37-year-old Josh McCown to fill this backup role. Instead, they should sign 31-year-old Brian Hoyer, who only cost $2 million last year, the same amount the Cowboys used to sign Mark Sanchez, and who has posted back-to-back years of 90+ quarterback ratings when called upon to make nine and five starts, respectively. If the Cowboys locked him up for three years, they might only need to carry two quarterbacks on the roster.

Position grade: A. Having a young franchise quarterback who can get much better is something every team in the NFL would love to have.

Need: At least one backup quarterback.

Wide Receivers

WIDE RECEIVERS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Dez Bryant 28 8 WR $17,000,000 $16,500,000 $16,500,000 UFA -
Cole Beasley 27 9 WR $4,000,000 $4,250,000 UFA - -
Lucky Whitehead 24 1 WR $618,334 RFA - - -
Terrance Williams 27 6 WR UFA - - - -
Brice Butler 27 2 WR UFA - - - -

Dallas is set at their top receiver for the next three years, and Cole Beasley is signed for two more seasons. Bryant will be 31 at the end of his current deal and Beasley will be 29. These are exceptional players, and the Dak-to-Dez connection is only likely to get stronger.

Behind them, however, the Cowboys have almost nothing. Terrance Williams and Brice Butler are free agents, and Lucky Whitehead might be lucky to retain his roster spot this year, as his return game was lacking in 2016 and he offers little as a receiver. Andy Jones is on the roster, as are some others, and they might assume the Butler role. But the Cowboys need to either sign a free agent wide receiver, or draft a good one, or preferably, do both.

Position grade: B+. Strong at the top, but no depth at the moment.

Need: At least two big wideouts. Someone to compete for Lucky Whitehead’s job would be a bonus.

Running Backs

RUNNING BACKS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Ezekiel Elliott 21 16 RB $5,671,895 $6,806,274 $7,940,655 - UFA
Alfred Morris 28 2 RB $2,137,500 UFA - - -
Rod Smith 25 0 RB $465,000 $555,000 ERFA - -
Keith Smith 24 0 FB $690,000 RFA
Darren McFadden 29 1 RB UFA - - - -
Lance Dunbar 26 1 RB UFA - - - -

Having Ezekiel Elliott to pair with Dak Prescott is, in a nutshell, the Dallas Cowboys’ three-year window. It’s doubtful Zeke will have any 2,000 yard seasons, because Dallas is likely to keep his carries down enough that he won’t wear out. But he can still get better and have more impact, especially if he’s used more as a receiver.

Behind him the Cowboys have Alfred Morris, who had an uninspiring season, and should get cut if the Cowboys can sign a better player. That player should be Darren McFadden, who would give the Cowboys two complete backs. Expect the Cowboys to look for cast offs or undrafted free agents to fill the third slot. Keith Smith will reprise his role as fullback.

Position grade: A. Having the best back in the NFL deserves nothing less.

Need: At least one backup, preferably a complete back. Two backups if Alfred Morris is released.

Tight Ends

TIGHT ENDS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Jason Witten 34 7 TE $12,262,000 UFA - - -
James Hanna 27 xx TE $3,000,000 $3,500,000 UFA - -
Geoff Swaim 23 1 TE $628,683 $718,685 UFA - -
Rico Gathers 23 xx TE $465,000 $555,000 ERFA - -
Gavin Escobar 26 0 TE UFA - - - -

The ageless Jason Witten continues to lead this group, but for how much longer? His contract is a huge cap hit, and concludes this year. It’s likely he could continue at his current production levels for another three years, but his numbers are no longer elite. Should the Cowboys seek his replacement? James Hanna may or may not come back from his injury, and Geoff Swaim is merely a role player. Rico Gathers, on the other hand, is a wild card. Can he harness his impressive physical skills? My guess is the Cowboys will roll with what they have for another year, focusing on other more pressing concerns. But in 2018, they will have a decision to make.

Position grade: B.

Need: No players needed, though Dallas could choose to draft Witten’s eventual replacement. (We’ve heard that before, haven’t we?)

Offensive Line

OFFENSIVE LINE AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Tyron Smith 26 13 LT $8,820,000 $17,545,000 $15,545,000 $13,545,000 $12,245,000
Doug Free 33 8 RT $7,500,000 UFA - - -
Travis Frederick 25 13 C $4,514,200 $13,239,200 $9,239,200 $10,239,200 $9,389,200
Zack Martin 26 13 G $2,853,391 - UFA - -
Joe Looney 26 2 G $850,000 UFA - - -
Chaz Green 24 1 T $786,467 $877,245 UFA - -
La'el Collins 23 1 G $623,750 RFA - - -
Emmett Cleary 26 1 RT $615,000 RFA - - -
Ron Leary 27 5 G UFA - - - -

Thought of as the bedrock of the team, with three perennial All-Pros, the line nonetheless does have some question marks. The Cowboys have already locked up Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick for five plus years, and will likely add Zack Martin to that group sometime this offseason. But beyond that, the team is in flux. Ron Leary is certain to leave, and now Doug Free is considering retirement. With La’el Collins and Chaz Green, the Cowboys have potential solutions in house, but that would sap their depth. Plus, neither player is tied up for long. Are the Cowboys going to make a play for Jonathan Cooper to return at guard and compete with Collins? Or will they look to the draft? Or both?

Position grade: A. Best line in the NFL, with fairly clear options for maintaining its dominance.

Need: If Free remains, perhaps no one. But there’s also an opening for competition at guard and a tackle to groom to replace Free next year.

Defensive Line

DEFENSIVE LINE AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Tyrone Crawford 27 7 DT $10,350,000 $9,100,000 $10,100,000 $9,100,000 UFA
Cedric Thornton 28 2 DE $4,250,000 $5,250,000 $5,250,000 UFA -
Benson Mayowa 25 4 DE $2,600,000 $3,850,000 UFA - -
DeMarcus Lawrence 24 2 DE $1,752,116 UFA - - -
Maliek Collins 21 7 DT $832,788 $975,288 $1,071,816 UFA -
Charles Tapper 23 xx DE $694,470 $784,470 $874,470 UFA -
Randy Gregory 24 1 OLB $1,040,437 $1,213,844 UFA - -
Terrell McClain 28 7 DT UFA - - - -
Jack Crawford 28 6 DE UFA - - - -
Ryan Davis 28 1 DE RFA - - - -
David Irving 23 3 DT ERFA - - - -
Richard Ash 24 0 DT ERFA - - - -

This group is maligned for lacking a pass rush, but the potential is there for improvement in 2017, even before the team adds anyone. DeMarcus Lawrence isn’t likely to be held to one sack again. Maliek Collins is the same size as Warren Sapp, and outplayed Sapp’s rookie season. What can he do with an offseason of conditioning and weight room work, plus a training camp and preseason (both of which he missed his first season)? Benson Mayowa found his game in the second half of the season which will hopefully carry over to 2017. Cedric Thornton might find his game again, as he was much better in Philadelphia. David Irving can be much more consistently explosive, and Charles Tapper could provide an extra edge threat.

There are three issues with the line. First, Tyrone Crawford’s contract looks like an albatross. Rather than cutting him, the more optimistic solution would have him just stay healthy and play better. Second, Lawrence is a free agent after 2017. If he has a bounce-back year, can he be trusted if given an extension? Third, the biggest lack is a speed guy, which is why Dallas drafted Randy Gregory. But will he ever play again?

Cowboys might tinker cheaply in free agency, but one would expect they’ll try to upgrade this group with their first draft pick, and likely another one as well.

Position grade: B. May seem high, but Dallas has quality players here, just no super studs.

Need: An impact pass rusher off the edge. Two to three players overall, including at least one defensive tackle.

Linebackers

LINEBACKERS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Sean Lee 30 16 OLB $12,450,000 $8,450,000 $7,500,000 UFA -
Kyle Wilber 27 2 OLB $1,750,000 UFA - - -
Jaylon Smith 21 xx OLB $1,476,129 $1,771,355 $2,066,584 UFA -
Anthony Hitchens 24 7 ILB $798,716 UFA - - -
Damien Wilson 23 3 OLB $731,578 $821,581 UFA - -
Mark Nzeocha 27 0 OLB $631,087 $721,088 UFA - -
Justin Durant 31 1 ILB UFA - - - -
Andrew Gachkar 28 1 OLB UFA - - - -

Sean Lee had his best season in 2016, although the Cowboys could do with more interceptions from him. But he’s 30, so he’s likely on his last contract. Jaylon Smith should be a stud, but if the nerve doesn’t fire, will he be a notch down as a player if he has to use a brace for his drop foot? If those two can cover the next three years, the Cowboys will be in solid hands. With Hitchens and Wilson also on board, the Cowboys likely don’t need to replenish this group until 2018.

Position grade: B+ until we see how Smith performs. If he’s back, this will go up to an A.

Need: No one this year if Jaylon Smith is ready for heavy action.

Secondary

SECONDARY AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Orlando Scandrick 30 4 CB $5,281,021 $5,281,021 $5,600,000 UFA -
Brandon Carr 30 6 CB $2,717,000 - - - -
Byron Jones 24 6 CB $2,345,984 $2,736,981 - UFA -
Jeff Heath 25 3 FS $1,921,000 $1,950,000 $2,450,000 UFA -
Leon McFadden 26 1 CB $775,000 UFA - - -
Anthony Brown 23 4 CB $573,736 $663,736 $753,739 UFA -
Kavon Frazier 22 1 S $565,089 $655,089 $745,089 UFA -
Barry Church 29 5 SS UFA - - - -
Morris Claiborne 27 3 CB UFA - - - -
J.J. Wilcox 26 2 FS UFA - - - -

(Note: Brandon Carr’s money is dead money; he is free to sign with anyone.)

This is the biggest hole in the Cowboys roster, with four free agents this year, two cornerbacks and two safeties. Plus, Orlando Scandrick is on the wrong side of 30, and is having recurring health problems, while Byron Jones appears good, but hasn’t been a major difference maker. Thank goodness sixth-round pick Anthony Brown played well as a rookie, or this group would be in dire shape. The Cowboys need to re-sign a cornerback and safety from among their own free agents, or from outside. Then they’ll need to spend two draft picks to inject youth into this group.

Position grade: C. Cowboys need to get better in all facets of the secondary.

Need: At least four players - two cornerbacks and two safeties - including a starter for each position.

Special Teams

SPECIAL TEAMS AGE AV POS. 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Dan Bailey 29 4 K $4,000,000 $4,200,000 $3,400,000 $3,400,000 UFA
Chris Jones 27 2 P $1,750,000 UFA - - -
L.P. Ladouceur 35 1 LS $1,220,000 UFA - - -

Dan Bailey may have been passed as a kicker by Justin Tucker, but he’s still tremendous, and well worth having locked up for the next four years. Chris Jones isn’t the best punter in gross or net yardage, but he’s top-ten, and is a good enough athlete to run fakes and take out returners. LP LaDouceur has still never missed a snap.

Position grade: A.

Need: No one.

Recap

  • Quarterbacks: A. Great, cheap, second-year franchise QB, but zero depth at the moment. Need: A backup who can win games if called upon.
  • Wide receivers: B+. Two great receivers at #1 and slot, but nothing behind them. Need: Two big wideouts, and competition for Lucky Whitehead’s job.
  • Running backs: A. Best in the NFL lead back, but no depth here either. Need: At least one backup, preferably a complete back.
  • Tight ends: B. Witten’s career is winding down, and no replacement is in sight. Manageable for now. Need: No one, though the team could draft Witten’s eventual replacement.
  • Offensive line: A. Three All-Pros, but some flux at left guard and right tackle that needs to be sorted out. Need: Possibly no one, but adding future right tackle and competition at guard would be a plus.
  • Defensive line: B. Several quality players, but still looking for a couple of studs. Maliek Collins might be that inside, but who can threaten from the edge? Need to keep adding here. Need: Impact edge rusher, and two-three players overall.
  • Linebackers: B+. If Jaylon Smith is as advertised, this will jump to an A. Could be set here for three years. Need: No one.
  • Secondary: C. Weakest area of the team. Needs to be upgraded as much or more than the defensive line, especially in the area of forcing turnovers. Need: At least four players, including two starters.
  • Special teams: A. The kicker is locked up, but the punter is under contract only for this season. Should be an easy fix. Need: No one.

Total needs? Four to eight players on offense, including a starting wide receiver. Six to eight players on defense, including at least two starters in the secondary, and a strong rotational player or two on the defensive line.

If the Cowboys stay healthy, they are likely to contend each of the next three years. But several position groups have no depth, and the secondary and wide receivers don’t even have enough starters.

With Romo’s contract coming off the books, and Dak being dirt cheap for the next three years, Dallas should have the resources to fill these holes and contend. But they’ll still have to draft the right guys and sign the right free agents.