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Cowboys DOs & DON’Ts of free agency (PART I): D-Law’s extension, slot WR, safety, defensive tackle

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The Cowboys have some cash to spend in free agency but spending it wisely is just as important.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys typically don’t participate much in the annual free agency frenzy that has become so popular that it’s now yet another televised event on NFL Network. For the most part, the Cowboys wait until the market settles down to start shopping and are almost exclusively hunting in the bargain bins. Over the last five seasons, the Cowboys spent $8.1M in guaranteed money to outside signings, that’s 27th in the NFL over that time. In that same five-year span, on average, at least four of the Top-10 spenders in free agency make the playoffs. The Cowboys may not be one of the biggest spenders in free agency but have still won the NFC East in three of the last five seasons.

This offseason, the Cowboys find themselves among the Top-10 teams with money to burn while also being one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. With about $48M in cap room, the Cowboys can do whatever they please in free agency but it’s important to have a plan. What’s the best plan of action for a successful free agency period?

(In Part I of this three-part series, we’ll look at the extension for their best defensive player, and what to do at three other big areas of concern: Slot receiver, Safety, and Defensive Tackle)

DO extend DeMarcus Lawrence as soon as possible

There was premature forecasting last week that the Cowboys would franchise tag DeMarcus Lawrence, who is coming off another double-digit sack season. The tag could be in play should the two teams not be able to agree to terms prior to the start of free agency in March. Lawrence was more than happy to sign the tag last year and play 2018 on a prove-it deal but prove-it he did.

Jerry Jones has been very forthcoming with his plans to pay the very deserving pass rusher what he’s due. Lawrence has also been blunt that he will not sign another tag in 2019. So, the sooner this deal is done, the better for both parties because Lawrence isn’t just a premier pass rusher but he’s become a leader in the locker room. Because of his flair for honesty in his interviews and high demands placed on his teammates, Lawrence is the exact guy a young Dallas defense needs.

The deal itself is likely going to be just short of what Khalil Mack received from the Chicago Bears. Lawrence’s market value will allow him to command north of $19M per season and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him hit $20-21M per year. If you look at positional spending each offseason, pass rushers get paid. With all the money given to quarterbacks, it’s only natural to spend serious coin in being able to get to the quarterback.

Projected contract based on market value:

Six-years, $132M, $86M GTD, $21.9M avg. per season

DON’T pay premium price for slot receiver

Cole Beasley has been vocal that he would like to take this opportunity in free agency to get paid among the best slot receivers in the game. He also would like to go to a team that will have more opportunities for him in the gameplan. It doesn’t suggest a return to the Cowboys but never say never. For the right price, the Cowboys would certainly want him back but they should not prioritize re-signing Beasley by any means.

Sure, Julian Edelman just received the MVP at the Super Bowl but you could argue a defensive player truly deserved that honor. Slot receivers have their value and for the Patriots, that role is bigger than most. Still, Edelman was re-signed prior to this past season, the deal was for two-years, $11M, with only $7M guaranteed. Cole Beasley has played in 103 games since 2012 to Edelman’s 76 games but the production isn’t even close.

Beasley will be 30 years old, his market value will likely be a two- or three-year deal with an average between $5M-$7M per season. Even that may be too rich for Dallas to match especially when there are guys like Deebo Samuel and Penny Hart in the draft.

DO explore the safety market, Earl Thomas and beyond

We already know that there is mutual interest between Earl Thomas and the Cowboys. Though that’s the name at the top of everyone’s wishlist, it’s not the only name to consider. Last year, the Cowboys were content with what they had in Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods, at least that’s what they said publicly. They wanted Thomas in a trade but weren’t excited about the rest of the market so they stuck with what they had.

Xavier Woods played well in his second season and is someone to build around but it’s time to look for a more reliable option than Jeff Heath. Not that Heath has been a bad player but he’s better off the bench than being asked to start. Heath missed 14 tackles in 2018, that was the most missed tackles at the safety position. More than anything, the Cowboys need to find a play-making presence on the back end.

If that’s Earl Thomas, great, but there are also guys like HaHa Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and many more. The Cowboys may be able to get a sizable discount if they go after a young guy like Adrian Phillips, who is a free agent from the Chargers. Phillips is only 26 years old, plays mostly free safety, and will be a forgotten name in an oversaturated market. Phillips had 65 solo tackles, 10 passes defensed, four tackles for loss, a pick, and a forced fumble. There are going to be lots of names out there and it will benefit the Cowboys to explore them all.

DON’T shop free agency for high-priced defensive tackles

Whether it’s Grady Jarrett, Ndamukong Suh, or a possible soon-to-be cap casualty Gerald McCoy, the Cowboys need to avoid big spending at defensive tackle. It’s not that Dallas doesn’t need some help in that area but they would be best-served to re-sign Datone Jones or Caraun Reid and move on to the draft.

Sheldon Richardson would be a nice grab but his current market value is north of $8M per season and he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations of a first-round pick. If you can swing a deal for half that price for Bennie Logan, a sure-fire run-stuffer, that would be smart spending. The Cowboys have tried before with Henry Melton and Cedric Thornton, neither of which worked out.

Though the Cowboys need to fortify the middle of their defense, they really need it to be a guy that can stuff the run. There is a tendency by this team under the influence of Rod Marinelli to not value 1-tech run-stuffing tackles. The Cowboys have guys that can play the 3-tech pass-rushing under tackle but they lost in the playoffs because they had no beef in the middle. If the Cowboys are shopping the defensive tackle market, they need to look for low-risk deals because almost every guy at the top of the market is nearing or over 30 years old. Dallas has the benefit of waiting until the draft with a decent class of mid-round defensive tackles projected to be there for the taking.

In our next part of the series, we’ll dive into the offense, looking at who to extend, and where to shop for underrated value. Should Dak Prescott be extended? What about Amari Cooper or Ezekiel Elliott? There are still plenty of areas that the Cowboys have to explore with many more dos and don’ts.