Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit put together a list of the most significant free agents in the NFL. It is a long one, broken down by position, and also includes some possible cap casualties. Naturally, as Dallas Cowboys fans, we are interested in who Benoit has on his list and what he has to say about them.
And in looking for that, something else really jumped out: There are very few Cowboys listed at all. Just three free agents, and two potential cap casualties. Here they are (with the comments on the free agents, and age in parentheses).
Demarcus Lawrence (25)
There’s almost zero chance he gets past the franchise tag. Too bad for teams needing a proven edge guy—the gap between Lawrence and No. 2 (Ziggy Ansah) is substantial.
The top name on the EDGE list, and who can argue?
Anthony Hitchens (25)
The talent is evident, but he couldn’t secure an every-down role last season. Why?
Benoit seems unaware of the injury problems early in the season for Hitchens, and then how Sean Lee also missed games, causing a lot of shuffling.
Jonathan Cooper (28)
He was surprisingly sturdy in Dallas, where he played between superstars Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. History says he’ll disappoint if not playing under such favorable circumstances.
That’s a pretty good evaluation.
Possible cap casualties
Dez Bryant and James Hanna. No writeup on these, but it is one more case of the persistent notion that the Cowboys have to get a pay cut or move on from Dez - which just isn’t true.
Five names. Out of over 220 in the entire article. That averages out to about seven per team, with many of course being above average. Without spending a lot more time at this than seems justified, I can’t list how many teams show up less on this list than Dallas - but it certainly can’t be many.
The Cowboys also have RFA David Irving to deal with, but this particular article only dealt with UFAs. Clearly, there are not as many decisions to be made about that latter kind of player in Dallas as in most franchises.
And that tells us something about how the team approaches roster building, and how this year at least, it has made managing the roster and the cap a lot less difficult in Dallas than for most.
Remember, Benoit was just dealing with the significant free agents, not ones who were unlikely to generate much interest in the league. Those other free agents are ones that the team can let go without much concern, or re-sign for minimal contracts. The Cowboys have long focused on identifying their best players and getting them signed to extensions early. It has not always worked well, but for the most part it seems to be a good approach to stabilize the roster. It was also interesting to note that two of the defensive backs that the Cowboys let go in free agency last year to clear the way for the rebuild of the secondary are mentioned by Benoit. Morris Claiborne is already hitting the free agent market again, while Brandon Carr could be released due to cap constraints. Which is fine for Dallas, since compensatory draft picks won’t be affected.
As mentioned elsewhere, Bryant is probably going to have his contract restructured to free up cap space without forcing a pay cut. Hanna is not exactly a crucial decision to make, and is not that big an issue. He represents a potential cap savings of $2.75 million, so the team can make its decision on his perceived value.
So outside of Irving, the Cowboys only have three notable free agents to decide to re-sign or not. Lawrence is obviously going to be retained somehow, even if he has to be tagged. Hitchens may be the only player who Dallas would like to keep, but could find themselves outbid for his services. And as Benoit noted, Cooper was serviceable when playing between a couple of All-Pros. His early career certainly hinted that he is not nearly as reliable when you can’t surround him with such help - and few other teams can do that.
This all sums up one way the Cowboys have more control over their roster and cap situation than many other teams. It is a subtle thing, perhaps, but in a game of inches, the small things matter. There is often discontent over how Dallas does these things, but the evidence from this article at least is that it is working for them.