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Cowboys free agency: Earl Thomas is worth the price if he can help Cowboys defense get takeaways

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Why the Cowboys should look to free agency for defenders capable of getting takeaways.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

There has been some offseason chatter about how the Cowboys don’t really have many pressing needs. Maybe there is some truth to that statement as the Cowboys did take care of their most glaring need at receiver by way of a midseason trade for Amari Cooper. Dallas will enter this year’s draft without a first-round pick but it was well-spent on the 24-year-old receiver that already has three 1,000+ yard receiving campaigns. However, just because there are no glaring holes on the roster doesn’t mean there aren’t areas under the surface to address.

The Cowboys defense finished with just 20 takeaways in 2018, which ranked them 16th in the NFL. The Cowboys, Chargers, Ravens, and Eagles all made the playoffs despite having 20 or less takeaways. The two Super Bowl teams, Patriots and Rams, combined for 58 takeaways, and both ranked Top-5 in creating turnovers.

The Cowboys haven’t been Top-5 in takeaways since the 2014 season. This Cowboys defense has been among the best in fumble recoveries, ranking 7th in 2018 with 11 of their 20 takeaways being from forced fumbles. However, the secondary has really struggled to snag interceptions and it’s been a troubling trend over the last four years. Since 2014, a season when Dallas had 18 interceptions, the Cowboys have only reached 10 picks once, which was 2017. Last year, the Cowboys only had nine picks and the players would tell you that they missed quite a few opportunities.

Byron Jones made the Pro Bowl despite not recording a single interception at cornerback. Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and second-year safety Xavier Woods tied for the team lead with two interceptions each in 2018. Some how, some way, the Cowboys have to get more playmaking ability out of the back end of this defense. Though most of the offseason work will be done in-house by way of extensions, the Cowboys really need to consider the options available to them in free agency.

Here is a list of unrestricted free agents that had at least three or more interceptions last season:

Player Team Age Pos G GS Int PD FF FR Sk Comb Solo TFL
Curtis Riley NYG 26 S 16 16 4 5 - - - 75 63 0
Steven Nelson KAN 25 CB 16 16 4 15 - - - 68 58 2
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix WAS 26 S 16 16 3 6 2 1 1.0 93 80 1
Tre Boston ARI 26 S 14 13 3 9 1 1 - 79 66 1
Brian Poole ATL 26 DB 16 9 3 6 0 2 3.0 74 53 4
Mike Adams CAR 37 S 16 16 3 6 - - - 75 47 3
Marcus Gilchrist OAK 30 S 16 16 3 6 - - - 58 40 0
Earl Thomas SEA 29 S 4 4 3 5 - - - 22 16 0

Dallas sits with just over $46M, which puts them at tenth in the league in cap space. If they make decisions on Sean Lee ($7M base salary), Terrance Williams ($3.5M base salary), and potentially even Allen Hurns ($4M base salary), the Cowboys could free up another $18M. Even if they don’t create more cap space, several extensions could help them lower cap hits this season and go after a playmaker on the back end. Dallas has been reluctant to spend in free agency but the right player could be worth spending on if he can help this defense take a step forward in 2019.

Earl Thomas

At the top of the wish list is Earl Thomas and it makes a lot of sense given his familiarity with Kris Richard’s style and the Cowboys scheme. Thomas only played in four games last season but still managed to get three interceptions. He has a nose for the football and has shown countless times what value he brings to a defense.

Earl Thomas has 67 pass deflections, has recorded 28 interceptions, and has notched 11 forced fumbles in his nine-year career. The Cowboys have an affinity for interchangeable safeties and pairing Thomas with a young Xavier Woods could be beneficial tutoring in the short-term that pays off in the long-term. After all, we’re talking about a six-time Pro-Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro safety here, there is no better player out there to learn from than Earl Thomas.

The question will center around the market value for a player like Thomas, who is coming off a lower-leg injury that ended his season prematurely. It is the second time in the last three seasons that Thomas’ year ended with a fractured leg. Does this coupled with the fact that he’ll be 30 this season lower his price? Perhaps, but there is little doubt that he couldn’t still get an average of $10M per season or better.

Could the Cowboys perhaps get Thomas on a similar deal to his last one with the Seahawks in 2015? Thomas signed a four-year deal worth $40M, $25.7M guaranteed, $9.5M signing bonus, with a $10M per year average. Dallas won’t be able to get that exact deal as inflation is certainly something to consider but maybe they could catch a break with a lower guarantee?

Proposal (based off Spotrac market value): Four-years, $41.2M deal, $22.6M GTD, $9.8M signing bonus, $10.3M per year average

Knowing the Cowboys front office, if they swing something like this, it’ll be a front-loaded deal with lots of protection in the details. Another thing to consider is last year’s safety market, which was at a complete standstill. Earl Thomas’ holdout had a lot to do with it and the largest contract that was signed was a three-year deal worth $16.5M for Kurt Coleman of the New Orleans Saints. Even the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu only got a one-year deal and hits the market again in 2019.

With guys like Lamarcus Joyner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tre Boston, Adrian Amos and Earl Thomas available, free agency has a heavy dose of safety help. Will these players all find that an over-saturated safety pool brings another stingy market? If so, the Cowboys may be in great position to get a friendlier deal below market value. Either way, the Cowboys defense just needs to find a playmaker on the back end and Earl Thomas is atop the list of candidates for the job. If Earl Thomas’ ability to get takeaways is added to an already ascending defense, the Cowboys may finally get back into Super Bowl contention.