With free agency and the draft looming, all the teams in the NFL are starting the process of improving to try and reach the Super Bowl. The time between now and the start of the season is when they make moves that will either make that possible, or pretty much put it beyond their reach. The Dallas Cowboys have several things they need to do to be in the former category. Here are the crucial items.
Navigate the extensions and re-signings
This is the most complex thing they face. Dallas has been riding on a bunch of talented players who were on their rookie contracts, but several of them are now at the point that the team has to figure out second deals, or even whether to let them test the free agent market soon. DeMarcus Lawrence played last year on the franchise tag, with very good grace, but he is also in that mix. The others include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones. They also have to figure out what they will pay Amari Cooper, and whether there is enough cap space left to make some kind of offer to Cole Beasley. Finally, there are players who are possible cases for outright release, like Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams, and either that or a reduced deal for Sean Lee.
The cap is what really complicates all this because the team has to make things fit. The team has about $46 million in space according to Over the Cap, plus whatever it frees up with releases or renegotiation. That will get eaten up quickly as several of the players who are looking for new money will demand a lot.
Fortunately, Stephen Jones and his staff have proven to be masters at manipulating the accounting fiction that is the salary cap. Look for all the new deals to involve a lot of bonuses that can be pro-rated over the length of the deal, and built in triggers to free up more money later as needed. The cap just keeps rising, and few teams have proven that “cap hell” is a myth better than the Cowboys.
And now, a new factor is nearly in play. The current CBA expires after the 2020 season, and there is a good chance that the cap will undergo some major revision - hopefully to increase. Back-loaded deals would be even better then. There is always the chance the NFLPA will get hosed again, but they are coming into the next round of negotiations with the league with some bitter feelings about what happened last time, and a real desire to get some back from the billionaire owners.
Nothing has happened on this front for Dallas as yet - that we know of. But things are going to start soon, if they haven’t already. We should have some good confidence that the staff will work things out successfully. They have done well in the past.
Make the offensive changes work
This is on Jason Garrett and his staff, particularly new OC Kellen Moore and QB coach Jon Kitna. The Cowboys simply have to show more adaptability, flexibility, and innovation. All indications are that Moore has the intelligence and creativity to do this, but potential is not performance.
Moving on from Scott Linehan was an important first step, of course. It was almost certainly overdue.
The changes also have an interesting and intriguing relationship to the decisions regarding Elliott. Will the offense still run through him (pun very much intended) or will things pivot to focusing on the pass? In either case, the team may well want to exercise the fifth-year option on Elliott, even with the risk of him doing a Le’Veon Bell and holding out. The team really cannot let themselves be held hostage by one player, even if he is the best at his position in the NFL.
Legitimate franchise quarterbacks are the most expensive of all players, because they are both so rare and so crucial to the success of the offense. The team believes it has that in Prescott, but while he certainly showed a lot in his rookie year and the latter half of last season, he also had that rough stretch from mid-2017 to mid-2018.
Now he has to take the steps necessary to become the complete QB the team needs, week in and week out. Kitna is going to be a big part of that. Involvement with an outside QB coach is also on the table. If he is indeed what the team thinks he is, then the future is very bright for Dallas, given his age and how early in his career he is. The coming deal for him is going to be huge. He is an investment, and he has to pay off.
Find some bargains in free agency
There will be the usual howls of anger when the Cowboys eschew diving into the first wave of free agency and spending big, but with Lawrence, Prescott, Cooper, and others, they really have to be careful with how much they commit to free agents. Do not expect them to break their habit, and you will save yourself some disappointment.
But the team does have to be on the hunt for some affordable talent, including looking for real steals like Antwaun Woods, who was signed after being released by the Tennessee Titans last May. He was a remarkable find, and the team needs Will McClay and his scouts to ferret out one or two more this year.
One possible candidate may be the much-coveted Earl Thomas. He is coming off an injury, and that may well put his price tag into the Cowboys’ comfort zone. But if they miss out on him, there are a lot of other safety candidates to keep an eye on. A few other positions of possible high interest include defensive tackle, running back, wide receiver, and tight end.
Get the most bang out of the draft
In one sense, they already have cashed in. The trade for Amari Cooper now is seen as having been absolutely the right move, revitalizing the offense and making the run to the playoffs possible.
Now, they won’t even get started drafting until late on day two. With an expected compensatory pick, likely in the fourth round, they will have six to work with (unless they get another comp pick, which is not impossible). It is seen as a deep draft at some positions, and they need to use them wisely. Will they make any trades? They don’t have a lot to work with there, but don’t be surprised to see some movement either up or down, depending on how their board winds up and how things go ahead of them.
Dallas has built their roster mostly through the draft, and it is both young and talented. The success they have had needs to continue. There is of course overlap here with the free agent possibilities, but a couple that could be of big importance are tight end and running back. The latter could be really critical with the lack of depth there, and the aforementioned question of how things go with Elliott.
Those are the things that strike me as “must get right” issues for the Cowboys. Some are really perennial, but the first three are more significant this year because of the unique situations facing Dallas.
Let us know how you see them, or if you have some you would add.
What do you think is the most important task the Cowboys must accomplish to be better?
This poll is closed
Get the extensions and new contracts done right.
Have Kellen Moore be who we hope he is.
Get Dak to take the next step.
Come away with some free agent steals.
Make every draft pick count.
Other (tell us in the comments).