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Cowboys free agency: Making sense of extensions and free agency spending in 2019

Should the Cowboys shop more aggressively in free agency? What about extensions for current players?

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys find themselves among the top 10 teams in cap space with over $46M in room. If they depart with aging linebacker Sean Lee as well as maligned receiver Terrance Williams, the Cowboy can get almost another $10M in relief. Understand that any NFL team can be flush with spending money with just a few clicks of a pen, salary cap juggling is an art that Stephen Jones has been practicing since the dynasty days of the 1990s.

Over the course of the last five offseasons this front office has tightened up the pocket book. Under Stephen Jones the Cowboys prefer to pay their own and do not tread too far out into the free agency pool. Instead, Dallas fill holes with bargain bin free agent shopping and especially avoids handing out guaranteed money to outside signings.

Season Total Spent Total GTD Signings In-House FA's Outside FA's GTD $ Rank
2018 23.8M 6.1M 7 2 5 31st
2017 37.1M 13.7M 9 4 5 25th
2016 43.5M 16.1M 12 7 5 19th
2015 28.3M 2.3M 11 3 8 29th
2014 40.3M 2.3M 12 2 10 31st

Now there is a difference between being frugal and what the Cowboys are doing in free agency. If you really want to see what an NFL team spends in free agency, guarantees are the only thing that matters. You can hand out incentive-laden deals that inflate the overall contract figures but it’s easy to break from should the performance not be as expected.

For example, in 2014 Henry Melton was brought to Dallas on a four-year, $27.5M deal but only $1M was guaranteed. He was out after one year.

In 2015, Greg Hardy was paid $11.3M and wasn’t brought back for multiple reasons. The only outside free agent that got a little guaranteed money was Cedric Thornton, $9M, spent two seasons in Dallas before he was shown the door.

Last season the Cowboys signed Allen Hurns to a team-friendly deal which made them feel comfortable enough to release Dez Bryant. Whether or not Bryant was capable of being their top guy aside, they soon found out that Hurns is more of a complementary player and he finished with 20 receptions, 295 yards, and two touchdowns. The Cowboys made a midseason trade for Amari Cooper to give the offense a true outside weapon for Dak Prescott.

Dallas is the only playoff team from last year to guarantee less than $13M in outside signings with only $6.1M. The two Super Bowl participants ranked 18th and 27th in guaranteed spending, the Patriots spent over twice the amount of the Cowboys and the Rams spent well over four times the amount.

Some low-cost signings do work out but the best example of this for the Cowboys has been Joe Looney, he’s made a little over $3M in three seasons. Still, outside of starting this past season, Looney is more of a quality backup. The Cowboys don’t have to spend outrageous money in free agency as that hasn’t been a proven method to success in the NFL either; however, they could stand to be a bit more competitive in free agency. On one hand, you can see why the Cowboys are reluctant to pay market value but if you don’t pay competitive prices you’re not really going to attract any impactful players like an Earl Thomas for example.

We know that the Cowboys had interest in Earl Thomas in 2018 but ultimately nothing could be worked out with the Seahawks to make that a reality. Now Earl Thomas is a free agent who is coming off of a broken leg and has had several seasons of bad luck with injuries. Without question, when healthy, Earl Thomas is still at the top of his game but what’s his market value going to be?

According to Spotrac, here are the market values for free safeties this year:

Free Safety Proj. Length Total Value Avg. Per Season
LaMarcus Joyner (LAR) 5 $53.2M $10.6M
HaHa Clinton-Dix (WAS) 5 $49.5M $9.9M
Landon Collins (NYG) 5 $46.8M $9.4M

You could argue that Earl Thomas is better than all three of these guys but consider two variables.

Age: Thomas will be 30 years-old this season

Injury: Thomas has suffered broken legs in two of his last three seasons

The Cowboys are one of the youngest teams in the NFL and only have two players on the roster over the age of 30. If they were to make a run at Earl Thomas his average is likely to be north of $10M per year... will the Cowboys think he’s worth it? That remains to be seen as we’ve detailed the Cowboys’ hesitance to spend.

Extensions are a part of free agency, too

Let’s shift focus to extensions because that’s where the Cowboys have spent quite a bit of money. Last year it was Zack Martin who got the extension, as he, Tyron Smith, and Travis Frederick are all locked-in until 2023. This season, the Cowboys have quite a few players to consider but the question is how many will they extend?

Let’s first check out Spotrac’s market value:

Market Value Years Total Value Avg. Per Year
DeMarcus Lawrence 6 $117.9M $19.7M
Amari Cooper 5 $83.6M $16.7M
Dak Prescott 5 $126.1M $25.2M
Ezekiel Elliott 5 $47.3M $9.5M

Right off the bat, market value is very hard to predict but to think Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott would sign at the above values is naive and we’ll get there soon. Let’s start with the players most likely to be extended in 2019.

The values for DeMarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper are closer to what the top guys at edge rusher and wide receiver have been getting. At the same time, the players and their agents are well aware of the annual salary cap increases, which will factor in and could raise either player’s value.

Amari Cooper’s representation will look to Sammy Watkins three-year deal last season worth $48M with an average of $16M. Watkins has a little bit of an injury history and that’s likely why his deal was just three years. Amari Cooper also had over 1,000 yards receiving and was a Pro Bowler. Spotrac’s five-year deal worth around $84M and close to $17M per year is pretty close to what he’ll likely receive.

The Cowboys will likely tag DeMarcus Lawrence for the two sides to work out a deal but he’s going to be in between Von Miller and Khalil Mack when the deal is done. Mack commanded $23.5M per season and $141M total, with $60M guaranteed. Tank had a breakout 2017, was asked to replicate that on the franchise tag, and had double-digit sacks this past season. He’s going to be slightly below the Khalil Mack contract but it’s not hard to envision his average being over $20M per season.

For Ezekiel Elliott, this conversation is going to start with what Todd Gurley received, four-years, $57.5M, over $14M per year. Money will not be left on the table but the Cowboys have a fifth-year option and could be patient with this one. That’s something to consider but then again, the Cowboys do not want a Le’Veon Bell situation.

Of course, the quarterback needs to be discussed as well

There is no chance that Prescott is signing for less than what Jimmy Garoppolo was given in his five-year, $137.5M deal that has him averaging $27.5M per year. The quarterback pay scale will have guys like Aaron Rodgers at the top, averaging nearly $34M per year. Dak Prescott may not get that much but he could very well end up with $30M+ per year. In the NFL quarterbacks get paid and the Cowboys have had Dak on a cheap deal due to his fourth-round status. For some, Dak still has a lot to prove but either way, it’s going to cost big money to find out. That’s just how the quarterback market is played and teams are better served to pay up sooner rather than later.

The Cowboys should get quite a few extensions out of the way in 2019 but they should also consider a splash signing at a position that needs upgrading. Safety is certainly and area to consider but so is defensive tackle. The Cowboys are about to spend an offseason knee-deep in contract negotiations with a lot of ink to be spilled over the next few months.

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