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Cowboys free agents 2018: Who stays and who goes?

The Cowboys will have some tough decisions in determining which of their own players they keep in free agency.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is just a couple months away and soon we will all start sharing thoughts on which players from other teams we would like to see the Cowboys sign. It’s always fun to get some new blood on the roster. But before the Cowboys go shopping for new players to fill holes, they’ll need to have an idea what to do with their own players hitting the free agent market. The organization will take a close look at their needs, the cost of these players, and what is likely to be available in the upcoming draft as they collectively put it all together in determining how to make improvements to the roster. Last season, that resulted in a complete overhaul of their secondary as four free agent defensive backs signed with other teams.

The Cowboys have 10 unrestricted free agents heading into the 2018 offseason. Some of these players will receive a contract extension and stay in Dallas, but then some of these players will receive better offers from other teams. A lot of different factors will play into the decision of who stays and who goes, but let’s take a look at each of these players to get a better idea if they’ll be with the team next season.

Some of the front-page writers gave their best guess as to which of these UFAs will remain with the team and here are the results:

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE

There is a pretty solid consensus among Cowboys Nation that the team will retain defensive end, DeMarcus Lawrence. The only real question is - how much will it cost? After a breakout season where he finished tied for second with 14.5 sacks, the Cowboys have finally found themselves a formidable edge rusher. And it’s not just the high sack numbers that tell the story. Lawrence plays with high energy and is relentless in the running game. He has finally developed into a huge playmaker for this defense and it couldn’t come at a better time for Lawrence as he now stands to cash in handsomely.

After a disappointing 2016 performance riddled with injuries and a four-game suspension for violating the leagues substance abuse policy, many fans had doubts on whether or not Lawrence was the real deal. And it seems like only yesterday that people were overreacting to an unflattering photo that appeared to indicate he had packed on some weight during the offseason.

All those doubts are long gone now and Lawrence will be eating well. The front office will most likely slap the franchise tag on him so he cannot enter the free agent market and entertain offers from other teams. Whether or not he plays the 2018 season under the tag price for defensive ends (about $17M) is unknown as both parties may desire a long-term deal. But what is known is the Cowboys have finally got themselves a young, powerful pass rusher and you better believe they’re going to keep him.

Jonathan Cooper, G

The Cowboys signed Cooper to a one-year deal last offseason and he came in handy. He wasn’t the team’s first choice to fill the void left by Ron Leary, but he ended up being their final choice, starting the team’s final 13 games at left guard. Cooper has battled injuries his whole career so it was very unfortunate to see him suffer a knee injury in the final game of the season. How much that impacts his market value is unknown and even if the Cowboys re-sign him, is he someone they would be able to rely on next season?

The BTB staff all agree that Cooper stands a great chance to return.

L.P. Ladouceur, LS

The Cowboys long snapper is the oldest player on the team. At 36, and 13 seasons hiking the ball on special teams, he’s been a model of consistency throughout his entire career in Dallas. If you ever hear a long snapper being talked about, it’s typically for something bad so that would explain why Ladouceur has had a quiet tenure with the Cowboys. He is a master of technique and you are more likely to find machines that would fail before he does.

As long as Ladouceur wants to keep playing football, he’s got a job in Dallas. He started out making $200k a year and has gotten a raise each year he’s been in the league. He’s making just over $1 M per season now, which is not a bad take home considering he plays about 8 snaps a game. While his job is to snap the ball, you’ll often find #91 down the field quickly helping bring down the ball carrier. He even recovered a Jamison Crowder fumble in the Redskins game.

Anthony Hitchens, LB

The Cowboys coaching staff is real big on position flex and the usage of Anthony Hitchens has shown how great that can be. During his rookie season in 2014, he was asked to play all three linebackers positions due to injuries. He performed well, accumulating 84 total tackles. Hitchens has been a reliable piece to the defense playing in all 48 games in his first three years in the league. This season, he finally missed his first action as it was thought he would miss extensive time when he hurt his knee in preseason, but he ended up only missing four games. He’s dependable, has a high football IQ, and is starting to show himself as an effective run stopper.

There isn’t much doubt about whether or not the Cowboys want him back, but it’s all going to come down to his asking price. Our own Tom Ryle is the odd man out when it comes to whether or not Hitchens will be re-signed. He explains:

I am not optimistic about keeping Hitchens. I fear he will get one of those overpaid offers elsewhere, not top level, but enough the Cowboys will decline to match to save money for DLaw, Irving, and the coming Martin deal.

It very well could go down like that. Even though Hitchens is the type of player this organization would like to hang on to, his price will ultimately determine if it happens or not.

Joe Looney, G/C

The Cowboys signed Joe Looney to a two-year, $1.675 million deal in 2016 so the team would have some depth on the interior offensive line with someone who is capable of playing center. Three times over the course of the last two seasons Looney has been called upon to fill in at guard, subbing for injured Ron Leary last year as well as Zack Martin and Jonathan Cooper this season.

Even at full health, Looney is featured as an extra blocker in the “Jumbo Joe” package and will see a handful of offensive snaps per game. With his position flex, cheap cost, and spot on impression of Ezekiel Elliott - all things point to keeping him around as a solid depth lineman.

Alfred Morris, RB

The Cowboys signed Alfred Morris to a two-year, $3.5 million deal to give the team a reliable running back. While he was shelved for most of the year last season, he came in handy in 2017 when Elliott missed six games due to a suspension. The veteran back performed well, averaging 4.8 yards per carry which matches his highest average dating back to his rookie season where he ran for over 1,600 yards.

The emergence of Rod Smith and his dirt cheap, $700k cost next season means the Cowboys already have a decent backup and don’t really need to waste money on another back who is likely to be put back on the shelf again. The draft will also provide a chance to get a cheap youthful RB resource who may also have some open field speed and could play special teams. Morris does none of that.

Most of the BTB team think his Dallas days are done, with the one outlier being yours truly. Here is my thinking on Morris:

I’ve listened to people write this guy off from the moment he arrived in Dallas. Whether they’ve been advocating for Darren McFadden or Rod Smith, Morris is just a guy few people get excited about. But let’s remember, he played McFadden off the roster and he was the lead dog when Zeke was out. This team sees something in him. The way he approaches his job and never gets hurt is something worth having and it shouldn’t cost very much to keep him. The Cowboys absolutely must protect this running attack should the unthinkable happen and they lose Zeke again.

Byron Bell, OT

One of the teams biggest fails this season is the inability to get quality play from their swing tackle position. Tyron Smith missed 30% of the offensive snaps and the coaching staff turned to Chaz Green and Byron Bell to fill in. It was a disaster.

The team’s done well in the past when a starting tackle missed time. Jeremy Parnell played so well that he got a big contract to play in Jacksonville, netting the Cowboys a compensatory pick that was used to select Dak Prescott. Parnell will be playing in the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Chaz Green actually played solid last season, but struggled mightily this year. He was benched after giving up a plethora of sacks in the Atlanta game. Bell came in, but didn’t fair much better. He ended up finishing out the season at left tackle when Smith was unable to play down the stretch. Bell committed three holding penalties in the season finale against Philadelphia.

The Cowboys will certainly be on the prowl for better options at the swing tackle position. Will they sign Bell to a cheap deal as a fail-safe? That wouldn’t sit well with Cowboys fans as the team needs to be diligent in upgrading this position on the roster.

Brice Butler, WR

When Dez Bryant went down with a foot injury in September of 2015, the Cowboys moved back a round in the 2016 draft (gave up a 5th and got a 6th) to acquire the services of Brice Butler from the Oakland Raiders. With great speed, he’s been a very nice vertical option for the offense. He’s only on the field for a quarter of the offensive snaps, but made good use of his opportunities with 21.5 yards per catch this season.

Butler has recently expressed his displeasure with how he was utilized in Dallas and stated he’s open to returning, but only if he’s a starter. The Cowboys have Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley already as the team’s starting receivers and nothing Butler has demonstrated since joining the squad would justify jumping any of them so it looks like he’ll have to find a home elsewhere.

Kyle Wilber, LB

Kyle Wilber isn’t a bad player. But unfortunately, he isn’t a good player either. The team gave him a second contract in 2016 that paid him $3.25 million for a couple years of service. That’s a fair price for a special teams player that would also be asked to fill in at linebacker here and there. This season saw Wilber’s defensive snaps reduced to just 39 plays as he’s almost exclusively a special teams guy now.

The Cowboys may like the type of person Wilber is and his approach to the game week in and week out, but his limitations to what he offers the team makes it hard to keep him around. As the bottom of the roster becomes stronger, roster spots become more precious and the team can simply call upon a more effective player like Damien Wilson.

Bene Benwikere, CB

Right before the season began, the Cowboys shored up their cornerback depth by trading a conditional 2019 sixth-round draft pick to acquire Bene Benwikere from the Cincinnati Bengals. After being made inactive for the first two games of the season, it looked like they might keep that draft pick as Benwikere appeared to be a player they would just stash for a “just in case” type of situation.

But injuries to Chidobe Awuzie and the release of Nolan Carroll meant the Cowboys would need to make Benwikere active in case a mid-game injury made them light at cornerback. He would play in every game from week three on, however it was mostly on special teams. Benwikere played in the fewest defensive snaps (10) of any player that saw the field and it’s hard to see a place for him on this team going forward.

Which one of these unrestricted free agents to you think the Cowboys will re-sign?

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