It is no secret that the Dallas Cowboys have a bunch of players entering free agency. Pro Football Focus has an article listing the free agents league wide, and they have 25 Cowboys who were on the roster at one point in the season, but now are hitting the market. Those range from players like Ray-Ray Armstrong, who you might not even be aware was active for 21 special team snaps in the season finale, to starting quarterback Dak Prescott. Some of this group will likely be brought back, at least for camp. Players like kicker Kai Forbath and safety/special teams ace Kavon Frazier may be rather affordable. Some, however, are going to be very, very expensive.
The PFF article helps define all this in ranking the top 85 NFL free agents. (No, I don’t know why it is 85 instead of some other number.) If you do a bit of math, you will determine that on average, teams should have two or three players on this list.
The Cowboys have five. Logic dictates that the players who make the ranked list should be expected to make the most money in free agency.
Yeah. That creates a problem for Dallas. They need to retain as much of the top talent as they can, but it is going to be very difficult if not impossible to keep all of their top free agents, retain some of the less expensive ones, and go out and pay players from outside the organization to fill roster holes.
First, here are the non-ranked free agents the Cowboys have, just to show how many spots are opening up.
- Kai Forbath
- Ray-Ray Armstrong
- C.J. Goodwin
- Justin March
- Joe Looney
- Jason Witten
- Xavier Su’a-Filo
- Tavon Austin
- Sean Lee
- L.P. Ladouceur
- Darian Thompson
- Anthony Brown
- Joe Thomas
- Maliek Collins
- Christian Covington
- Michael Bennett
- Malcolm Smith
- Jeff Heath
- Kerry Hyder
- Kavon Frazier
There are some names here you really would like to see back (Ladouceur may be the most universal choice among the group), some that would be OK, and others that will probably not be missed.
But now, in reverse order, let’s consider the top ranked free agents, and what the team has to decide.
#77 Randall Cobb
Prior to the hiring of Mike McCarthy, Cobb was seen by many as a player that would not be brought back simply because the team has finite cap space to work with, and Cobb is not the only wide receiver they have to worry about. But his old head coach may have some ideas on how to incorporate Cobb, who certainly should know what McCarthy needs from him. Cobb only got $5 million last season, and gave a pretty good return on that investment. Of course, McCarthy might not be all that eager to retain him, so we will see how this plays out. At least he would likely be one of the more manageable deals.
#54 Robert Quinn
The team sack leader for 2019 may be a bit less reasonable. PFF has a projected contract for him (which is not done for Cobb). They think he will get a three year deal worth $30 million, with $12.5M in guarantees. That is not exactly break the bank territory, but Dallas would likely have to get some of their other canards properly aligned before making an offer.
There is also the issue of bidding for his services. In general, the pressure on free agent deals is always to move upwards. Quinn clearly proved he can still contribute, and he is at one of the premium positions. If the Cowboys make a reasonable offer, he may just decide to wait until free agency kicks off to see if there is an unreasonable one out there. Of the five Dallas players that made the top 85, Quinn is probably the least likely to return.
#9 Byron Jones
OK, quick pop quiz. I stated that this was in reverse order of ranking, and that there were five Cowboys players listed. So if the third one I write about is at number nine, how many total Dallas players are among the top ten most highly valued free agents in the NFL?
Yeah. Three. Now you know why the words “top-heavy” were in the title. Top ten free agents either get a premium offer from their old team or get suitors bidding for them. That quickly maximizes their new deal. And according to Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, Jones is already being linked with a certain beloved rival of the Cowboys.
Word here in Mobile is that the Philadelphia Eagles will go hard after a cornerback in free agency. Chris Harris and Byron Jones are two of the names being thrown around, but I expect the Eagles to turn over every rock in free agency in an attempt to fill the position.
PFF projects that Jones should get a deal worth $80 million over five years, with $50.5M of it guaranteed. That’s probably realistic, since it beats out the current highest CB contract, Xavien Howard’s $75.25 million. This is one position where the value is well established. Four other corners have contracts totaling $70M or more. And if the CB market heats up, the Cowboys might have to sweeten that a bit to keep him from testing the waters. Cliff Harris Jr. is ranked tenth on the list, right behind Jones. That could lead to both players wanting to wait to see what the other gets to leverage a better deal.
If he or his agent has an ounce of smarts, there should be no consideration whatsoever of a hometown discount. Loyalty has little meaning in the NFL, and the only things a player has to offer are his ability on the field and his health. This is a chance for Jones to lock in his future financial security before one or both of those decline. If Dallas wants him back, they have to pay him enough to do exactly that.
You can also hold off on bringing up his lack of interceptions. That is not what his future salary is going to be driven by. He is one of the best cover corners in the league, it is like EDGE. one of the premium positions, and he is slated to hit the open market as PFF’s third-highest ranked defensive player and their top rated cornerback. In not getting a deal done with him last offseason, the Cowboys gave him an opportunity to elevate his value. He has done exactly that. Now, he’s gonna cost someone.
#6 Amari Cooper
Now, it gets worse, at least from the Cowboys’ perspective. All the five pending free agents ahead of Cooper in the list are quarterbacks. That makes Cooper PFF’s best graded non-QB offensive free agent. That may be a mouthful, so let me offer a shorter and more concise way of saying it: His contract will be exorbitant.
PFF predicts five years and $100 million, $68M guaranteed. That brings him in above Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr. Make no mistake, that is what it is going to take. The question is whether he will shoot to exceed Julio Jones’ $22 million per year on an almost fully guaranteed, three-year deal. Jones, of course, is six years older than Cooper, so he has a lesser chance to get another big deal. But that is not Cooper’s problem. This is the second contract, and that is where NFL vets usually get the biggest payday.
This may also mean that Cobb suddenly has increased value as a more affordable insurance plan. Things start to get complicated when you have this much talent on expiring contracts.
#2 Dak Prescott
Allow me to take a stroll down memory lane. Just a bit less than a year ago, I did a piece about Prescott that included this bold statement:
So brace yourselves. It is entirely feasible that Prescott’s second contract will set a new record, perhaps pushing to the $35 million per year level. The precedent certainly exists.
Their were many who thought I was insane, or other things. Well, PFF thinks he is in line for a five year deal totaling $165 million ($33M/year) with $105 in guarantees. I think that will wind up being low. It is a year later, the prices have just gone up, and we could be talking about something approaching $40 million annually before this is all said and done.
It’s not worth the time to quote stats and W-L records, because that is not how this market works. (Although his stats and career W-L percentage argue in his favor, not against him.) The only important question is whether Prescott is a legitimate franchise QB. and the Cowboys have decided that he is. They now have to get a deal done with him. You can risk the other positions hitting free agency, but not your QB.
That may force a tag to be used, but remember the fun times last year when Ezekiel Elliott held out, only to wind up with a market-setting contract. Prescott has a holdout in his arsenal, and with a new head coach and, at the least, some new elements to incorporate in the offense, Dallas needs to get him under contract to be part of the full offseason program.
Currently, Russell Wilson is the highest paid player in the league at $35 million a year. Prescott has every right to demand to eclipse that mark. His talent and proven ability merit it. Just as importantly, them’s the unwritten rules. He is going for that all-important second contract, he’s a starting quarterback, so he gets to ask for the moon.
There is something else to consider. Six quarterbacks currently make $30 million a year or more. Only two are under 30, Carson Wentz at 28, and 26-year-old Jared Goff - both, of course, from Prescott’s draft class. Dak is also 26.
Oh, and those other four quarterbacks who are in the top five of PFF’s rankings? They are #1 Drew Brees, 41; #3 Tom Brady, 42 (yes, Dak is rated ahead of him on this list); #4 Philip Rivers, 38; and #5 Ryan Tannehill, who is going to cash in like Joe Flacco, 31.
Dak is not just very good. He is very young, and very likely to make it through a full five-year or longer contract.
This is one the Cowboys can’t bumble and mess up again.
Yes, again, because we all know that they could not come to an agreement with Prescott before the start of last season. The same applies to Cooper and Jones. Now, management has to juggle all three situations. Due to the expiring CBA, both a franchise and transition tag are available for use. But those are fraught with peril.
It is great to have a lot of talent. It can be a pain in the, er, neck to have to pay it all at once. That is the quandary the Cowboys are in.
It’s a good thing they have a lot of cap space. They certainly need it.