Not a whole lot of attention has been given to free agency as the Dallas Cowboys are using their cap resources to re-sign their own stars. With DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones all needing new deals - the front office has a lot of big decisions to make. Most of these players will get a huge second contract and it’s very possible that all of them are with the team for years to come. But it’s also possible that one of these players will slip through the cracks and not be a part of the team’s plans for the future. We’ve seen players like DeMarcus Ware, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray all leave the team after the Cowboys decided to spend their money elsewhere. It was hard to say goodbye to some of those players, but the organization made their decisions on what was going to help them in the future. And despite what we’ve seen from these young stars so far, future expectations will drive these decisions. There were surprises before and there could be more surprises ahead.
For this exercise, we are going to hypothesize situations where the team walks away from these players. Keep an open mind about these scenarios as we try to think outside the box and be imaginative. These are not predictions suggesting what the Cowboys are actually going to do, but rather shocking developments that might cause the team to go a different direction.
Let Tank walk
The Cowboys have franchise-tagged Lawrence for the second-straight year. Why? What’s the hold up here?
What if Lawrence is wanting to be the highest-paid edge rusher in the game, eclipsing Khalil Mack’s recent deal of $23.5 million annually? And what if the Cowboys are far away from that figure? This could result in no ground being made on a new deal, causing Lawrence to actually play under the tag again this year. This leads to a big problem. If Tank folds his arms and bets on himself another year, it could be very rewarding if he produces another strong season. For the Cowboys to tag him a third time next year would run them nearly $30 million, they aren’t paying that. This means Lawrence would enter the free agent market where any NFL team can bid on his services.
This scenario would make Tank unaffordable if the team holds true to their ceiling price. If any of their younger edge rushers were to break out this season, could it change the way the team view’s their defensive end situation? They also have two more drafts to potentially address the edge rusher position should they try to find a replacement.
Zeke is replaceable
There is this narrative that running backs are interchangeable and that teams shouldn’t spend a lot of resources on that position. The Cowboys balked at paying for Murray in 2015, but then turned around and drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016. On the surface, it would appear the team has every intention of re-upping on their highest draft investment since the early ‘90s. But just because they valued Elliott then doesn’t guarantee he’s valued now. Forget for a minute that he’s led the league in rushing in two of the last three years and has been every bit as good as the team had hoped for when they drafted him. What if the Cowboys could find a suitable replacement for way cheaper?
If you look at the top 20 rushers from the 2018 season, half of them were taken in the third round or later. Players like Jordan Howard (fifth round), Lamar Miller (fourth round), and Chris Carson (seventh round) are out there. The Cowboys have three drafts worth of dart throwing to find a good running back. It may not be their intent to replace Zeke, but what if as they’re trying to find a good complementary back, they land someone very comparable? Were the New Orleans Saints looking to replace Pro Bowler Mark Ingram when they drafted Alvin Kamara? Was James Connor expecting to be the successor of Le’Veon Bell? No, but it happened.
Dak is not the answer
Okay, so this one is going to take a little imagination, so bear with us.
Remember when Dak Prescott was the third-string quarterback, but with a couple fluke injuries was instantly propelled to the team’s new starting quarterback? Out of nowhere, the team’s new franchise quarterback emerged.
Let’s say for a moment that Kellen Moore has some sort of Beautiful Mind football genius about him to where his influence impacts this team more than we realize. One of Moore’s first contributions as a coach was the input he had when it came to drafting Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White last year. How much growth White has experienced will be on full display when training camp rolls around. It sure would create a stir if White started playing extremely well, especially if Prescott experiences any type of struggles.
Spending $30 million on a quarterback is a pricey endeavor, but that’s the path the Cowboys are on. It would take a huge swing in how the current quarterbacks play to redirect them. Of course, we saw exactly that in 2016 when the much cheaper Prescott jumped Tony Romo as the team’s new franchise quarterback.
Be wary of Amari
Would you believe the Cowboys have had a different leading receiver in each of the last four seasons? Amari Cooper (725 yards, 2018), Dez Bryant (838 yards, 2017), Cole Beasley (833 yards, 2016), and Terrance Williams (840 yards, 2015) all have taken turns leading the team in receiving yards. In each of those instances, nobody broke the 1,000 yard mark, but give Cooper credit; he did all his damage in just nine games. And all of those guys are now gone with the exception of Cooper. It seems clear that he is the future and after the Cowboys spent a first-round draft resource to get him - it’s for all intent and purposes, a done deal.
But what if the team has yet another new receiving leader this season? What if Michael Gallup has a great sophomore season? What if the Cowboys spend another draft resource on a new receiver and he hits the ground running? The Pittsburgh Steelers used their second-round pick (62 overall) to select Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and he’s now their #1 WR on the team. A player like Hakeem Butler could shake up the offense as the rangy Cyclone has been known to pluck balls out of the sky, making the defender look silly.
Visst, det är mot Kansas. Men Hakeem Butler är en vääääldigt spännande spelare. Fysiskt har han få övermän på college. pic.twitter.com/367BNfcvkR— Magnus Adolfsson (@magnus_nfls) November 10, 2018
If the Cowboys wait on extending Cooper and the dynamic of the receiving group changes, what type of impact could it have when the two sides negotiate a new deal next year?
Cheeto-bay is here to stay
Byron Jones is the team’s All-Pro cornerback. After being misused the first three years of his career, Jones finally had a breakout season in his first year at cornerback. It’s bitter sweet because it’s nice to have one of the top corners in the league, however the timing isn’t that great because his four-year rookie contract is up. Fortunately, the team exercised his fifth-year option so he’s sticking around for at least another season, but then what?
If the Cowboys are hard-pressed to sign every one of their stars, Jones could be the odd man out. With only one year of great play, he stands to be the riskiest of all these players. Another element could be the hidden ability of Chidobe Awuzie. He didn’t get the attention Jones got last season because he surrendered more catches, but we shouldn’t discount how well he smothered the receivers. If he can just get his body turned around in time, he would increase his chances of making a big play by a factor of 10.
Incredible interception from Chidobe Awuzie pic.twitter.com/oK6VEtehwx— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 19, 2018
Which of these players do you think the Cowboys can live without? If you had to play GM where cap resources are scarce, what type of decisions would you make to put the team in the best position to succeed?