When the Cowboys picked up the fifth-year option on Ezekiel Elliott’s contract at the end of April this year, they ensured that they’d keep the two-time All Pro and two-time league rushing leader to anchor their ground game through at least the 2020 season. It also gave them one less free agent to worry about after the 2019 season.
And there is enough to worry about: Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, and Jaylon Smith headline a list of 35 players who’ll hit some kind of free agency after the season.
The 35 players are a motley crew of soon-to-be free agents.
Two players are playing on 5th-year options. The Cowboys have one more year to decide whether they want to re-sign Byron Jones and Amari Cooper early, possibly at a slight discount, or whether they want to wait until after 2019 to make that decision.
Four players from the 2016 draft class (Maliek Collins, Dak Prescott, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier) are entering the final year of their rookie contracts. Do the Cowboys want to work out an early deal with any of them, or will they let them hit free agency?
Nine players are playing on expiring veteran contracts. Two of them (La’el Collins, Jeff Heath) are home-grown talents, the other six (Allen Hurns, Cameron Fleming, Joe Thomas, Tavon Austin, Joe Looney, Xavier Su’a-Filo, C.J. Goodwin) were brought in from outside; all nine are playing out the final year of their veteran contracts. Fleming’s contract has a club option for 2020, but at $4.5 million, it’s unlikely the Cowboys will use it.
10 players signed one-year deals with the Cowboys this year (Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, Christian Covington, L.P. Ladouceur, George Iloka, Kerry Hyder, Justin March, Darian Thompson), which makes them feel a little bit like rentals. And I’m not sure you would have any long-term plans with a rental.
Ten players are restricted or exclusive rights free agents, which means they aren’t really free agents at all.
The ERFAs (Brett Maher, Antwaun Woods, Jameill Showers) have no more than two accrued seasons in the NFL and may only sign with their prior team, provided that the team extends a minimum qualifying offer to the player. So if the Cowboys want to keep any of the three after 2019, they can keep them for the veteran minimum for another year at least.
RFAs (Jaylon Smith, Darius Jackson, Rico Gathers, Daniel Ross, Blake Jarwin, Cooper Rush, Adam Redmond) are players whose contracts expire after the 2019 season but have only three accrued seasons of service. To retain them, the players would need a “qualifying offer” or a “tender” (with a salary predetermined by the CBA) from the Cowboys. Even if tendered, the players could still negotiate with any other team. But if they receive an offer sheet from a new team, the Cowboys can match the offer and retain the player (right-of-first-refusal). If the Cowboys decide not to match the offer, they can receive draft-choice compensation from the new team, depending on the tender they used on the player (first-, second- or original-round tender).
Of note, restricted or exclusive rights free agents that were not tendered do not qualify as compensatory free agents.
Here’s a summary table of all 35 players who could carry some kind of free agent designation after the 2019 season.
|Player||POS||Status||Cap Hit 2019|
|2016 draft class|
|Veterans on expiring contracts|
|RFAs & ERFAs|
So how many players on this list will the Cowboys keep beyond 2019? Let’s start with the biggest names on the list.
Dak Prescott is going to get paid. Anybody who thinks the Cowboys will get Prescott for less than $30 million per year has watched La La Land too many times. And the Cowboys would be well advised to extend Prescott now. If they wait another year, they can probably add an extra $3-4 million per year to that contract.
Amari Cooper and Byron Jones will also get paid. I think it was KD Drummond who coined the term “Money 5” in reference to the five positions on your team worth the megabucks contracts (QB, pass rusher, WR 1, CB 1, LT). That sentiment seems to be shared across the league:
An AFC front office exec texted me this this week: First you pay the guy who throws, then the guy that chases the guy who throws, then the guy who catches the ball thrown best, then the guy who covers the guy catching the ball best, then the guy who blocks for the guy throwing.— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) November 13, 2018
The Cowboys have already paid Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence, and now it’s time to lock up the remaining Money 5 positions at QB, WR1 and CB1.
Jaylon Smith will not get a long-term contract. Jaylon Smith sat out his rookie season on the non-football injury list, so his first season in the NFL was not an accrued season. That makes him a restricted free agent after 2019.
You can’t pay everybody, and with LB not part of the Money 5, there will not be a megabucks contract for Smith in Dallas. However, the Cowboys will slap him with at least a second-rounder tender, and probably even a first-round tender for 2020. Going by this year’s tender amounts, a first-round tender would pay Smith close to $5 million in 2020.
|2019 Tender Amount||Compensation required|
|$2.025 million||Equal to RFA's original draft round, nothing for UDFAs|
If another team decides to top the tender offer for Smith, the Cowboys would get either a first- or second-round pick as compensation, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Once Smith hits unrestricted free agency, the numbers go through the roof. LB C.J. Mosley signed a 5-year, $85 million contract with the Jets this year, LB Kwon Alexander signed a 4-year, $54 million contract in San Francisco; that’s the type of money we’re talking about for Smith, and the Cowboys won’t pay that.
The rest of the 2016 draft class (Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier) will all be allowed to hit free agency. The Cowboys would probably like to extend at least Collins and Brown, but at a reasonable price. That may not be possible, and the team already has rookies in place to step in if those three leave in free agency.
Veterans on expiring contracts
- La’el Collins will hit free agency. With the Cowboys already paying big money to the LT, OC, and RG, there simply is no room for a fourth big contract on the OL. The Cowboys have drafted wisely to rejuvenate their OL - and to keep costs down - and now have cheaper options at RT.
- Jeff Heath and Joe Thomas will get moderate offers from the Cowboys. Both Heath and Thomas will turn 29 before the 2020 season. The Cowboys like both players for their versatility, but they are not going to break the bank to keep either of them. Look for both to get one- or two-year deals for around $2 million, and if another team outbids the Cowboys, so be it.
- All other veteran players on expiring contracts will walk.
- It’s year-by-year for Jason Witten, Sean Lee, and L.P. Ladouceur. The Cowboys like all three players, but there’s no guarantee any of them can hold off father time much longer. If they provide value in 2019, the team might tag on an extra year for each. That’s a big “if” though.
- The Cowboys might keep one or two of the remaining “rentals”, but it’s too early to say which one.
An original-round tender will cost a little over $2 million for each of these RFAs, and judging by the performance to date, only TE Blake Jarwin would warrant that kind of money. And given that he was an undrafted free agent, the Cowboys won’t receive any draft pick compensation if they are outbid for his services by another team. If the Cowboys like Jarwin, the wise thing to do would be to sign him to an extension now instead of running the risk of losing him next year.
The same holds true for the other RFAs of course. If the Cowboys think they are worth at least $2 million, then re-up them now. But if the Cowboys don’t think the likes of Cooper Rush, Rico Gathers, Daniel Ross, Adam Redmond, or Darius Jackson have a future in Dallas beyond 2019, then the Cowboys need to think about how to maximize each player’s value, and that value may be as trade currency. Trade them for picks, trade them for other players, trade them for a happy meal; just don’t let them linger at the bottom of the roster and then let them leave without any compensation.
These are the easiest options on the entire list. Not because Antwaun Woods and Brett Maher are necessarily the next All Pros for the Cowboys, but because their status as an ERFA makes their future on the roster a slam dunk. If the Cowboys want either of them, they can keep them for the veteran minimum in 2020. For Jameill Showers though, this is the end of the road in Dallas.
There’s no way all of 35 players in the table above make it to the 53-man roster this year, but a sizable chunk will. After the season, and if the players are not re-signed by the Cowboys, they could provide the Cowboys with one final return on their contracts: compensatory draft picks.
If the Cowboys don’t sign too many free agents in the 2020 offseason, and if their own free agents find gainful employment elsewhere in the NFL, the Cowboys could be looking at a compensatory draft pick bonanza in 2021. The Cowboys probably won’t get any comp picks for the 2020 draft, but if they play their cards right, they’ll get a lot of extra picks for the 2021 draft.
You heard it here first.
Too much detail? Here’s the tl;dr version.
|2020 Free Agents|
|Coming Back in 2020||Will be allowed to hit free agency; may come back||Not coming back|
|Starter||Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith, Antwaun Woods, Brett Maher||Jeff Heath, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown||La'el Collins, Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb|
|Backup||Blake Jarwin||Kavon Frazier, Joe Thomas, Tavon Austin||Allen Hurns, Cameron Fleming, Joe Looney, Xavier S'ua-Filo, Christian Covington, George Iloka, Kerry Hyder|
|Depth||Daniel Ross, Cooper Rush||C.J. Goodwin, Justin March, Darian Thompson, Darius Jackson, Rico Gathers, Adam Redmond, Jameill Showers|
|Other||Jason Witten, Sean Lee, L.P. Ladouceur|
Looking at the names above, how many of the 35 do you think will be back in 2020? More than half, less than half, perhaps even less than a third?