When the Tony Romo release becomes official, the Cowboys will get immediate cap relief bringing their grand total of cap space to $14.4 million. Don’t get excited, at one point last offseason, the Cowboys had north of $25 million and only handed out one moderately priced deal to Cedric Thornton. Free Agency is just not what the Dallas Cowboys under the firm of Jones-Garrett-McClay are about.
This team knows what free agency is - it’s fool’s gold. They’ve seen all sides of the coin and have made a decision that free agency is the CYA method in their mind. In fact, free agency starts for the league and then right around St. Patrick’s Day, it begins for the Dallas Cowboys. There is one drawback to free agency that almost every team hates; losing your own homegrown talent to other teams.
The Cowboys were 13-3 last season and that’s what sticks in the mind of the franchises that are fighting tooth and nail to compete at 8-8. Dallas is going to lose some talent and it has already begun with rumors floating around. When they lose their talent, it causes fans to get frustrated with the method because there are some guys they want to keep but it just won’t happen.
The reality is that the Cowboys could re-do contracts until they are blue in the face and keep everyone. However, that method creates problems because then you are bidding with other teams and overpaying through the nose. The Cowboys have 17 free agents after re-signing Brice Butler to a one-year deal but of those 17, Dallas isn’t going to war with other teams for any of them. So, what is the Cowboys’ plan to recoup their losses?
Likely Key Loss: DT Terrell McClain
started 15 games, 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
McClain played himself into a starting role by how he approached the offseason. After spending the better part of two seasons on injured reserve, McClain became everything the Cowboys’ hoped he’d become. He was a penetrating tackle that paired nicely with third-round pick Maliek Collins. Several teams are already in the mix on McClain and the Cowboys will likely be outpriced for his services.
Replacement Plan: Cedric Thornton at 1T
appeared in 13 games, 22 tackles, 1.5 sacks, forced fumble
Last offseason, Thornton signed a four-year deal with the Cowboys worth $18 million, $9 million in guarantees, $6 million fully guaranteed. He’s an athletic penetrating one-tech tackle that has some versatility in his game. When the Cowboys are in the base 4-3 alignment, they’ll likely employ Thornton right next to Collins. However, in passing downs, they’ll have a Part II of this plan below.
Important Note: Tyrone Crawford Back Inside
started 14 games at DE, 28 tackles, 4.5 sacks
Crawford signed a five-year extension in 2015 worth $45 million, $25.7 in guarantees, $17.4 fully guaranteed. Crawford was moved outside to defensive end in part due to necessity, but he was also outplayed by Collins. Marinelli likes to have two penetrating tackles on passing downs. The concern is that Crawford is coming off his second consecutive shoulder surgery to begin the year and there are durability concerns for him moving back inside.
Likely Key Loss: SS Barry Church
started 12 games, 85 tackles (3rd), two interceptions, one forced fumble
Going into his eighth season, Church has been a mainstay in the Cowboys’ starting lineup, missing 22 games in his career, appearing in 90 games. He’s a consistent leader on and off the field and he's been one of the Cowboys’ better defenders since becoming a full-time starter in 2012. The safety market is very thin in free agency and Church is probably signing a four-year contract for over $6 million annually putting him out of reach for Dallas.
Replacement Plan: Re-sign J.J. Wilcox, a bigger role for Jeff Heath, draft pick?
Wilcox: started 4 games, played 13 games, 49 tackles, forced fumble, interception
Heath: played in 16 games, 23 tackles, one interception
There is a notion floating around the Star that the Cowboys believe Jeff Heath could be their starting strong safety in 2017. That idea is picking up some steam with various Cowboys’ beat writers. If Dallas loses Church, they could try to re-sign Wilcox but he’s garnering interest on the open market as well. The problem is that both Wilcox and Heath are better players in limited roles. Heath is fantastic in spot duty and is a special team’s ace. Wilcox can set the tone as a hitter and is helpful as a role player. However, both guys give you concerns as a full-time starter because they can get exposed. Dallas could draft another safety and have a relatively unknown commodity in Kavon Frazier.
Likely Key Loss: WR Terrance Williams
started 16 games, 44 receptions, 594 yards, 4 touchdowns
Williams isn’t the most beloved WR2 as he’s been efficient at times and missing in action in others. Still, replacing his type of production will be a task that the Cowboys will have to figure out. He’s going to get far too much money on the open market than he’s likely worth and the Cowboys are prepared to part ways in this scenario. Dallas re-signed Butler but he caught only 16 of 32 targets this past season. He also made his fair share of poorly-timed decisions.
Replacement Plan: High Draft Pick
The Cowboys’ offense is very good but with the help of a young draft pick, they could become even more dynamic. Owner Jerry Jones has stated that there are two positions that must be addressed and the offense has one of them. It has to be at receiver because outside of Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, both Butler and Lucky Whitehead are models of inconsistency. They have an undrafted free agent in Andy Jones but that doesn’t excuse them from making this a priority.
Some people might say that the front office’s current philosophies of avoiding free agency in the early stages can pigeon-hole themselves in the offseason. There is some truth in that statement but Dallas has decided that the very clear method in building a consistent winner is through the draft. Still, they only have seven draft picks that can only stretch so far. Just because you were able to hit on Ezekiel Elliott, Collins, Dak Prescott, and Anthony Brown all in one year don't mean that’s going to happen all over again. Free agency is evil but it’s a necessary evil and the Cowboys now have a few more openings to worry about.