With the Cowboys’ coaching staff more or less complete under Mike McCarthy, the team is now transitioning into draft mode and planning what they’re going to do in free agency. There are a lot of moving parts to this, especially with so many Cowboys players with contracts set to expire, but here’s a blueprint of impact moves they could make to put themselves in the best position come draft time.
Cowboys’ pending free agents
Pay Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper - This is a combo deal given how great these two have been together compared to how their individual production was prior to playing together. And based on everything we’ve heard from Prescott, Cooper, the Joneses, and Will McClay, these deals are going to happen. So make it happen already.
Franchise tag Byron Jones - Byron Jones has been to this secondary what DeMarcus Lawrence was to the defensive line when he was tagged, which is to say incredibly talented and a bit underrated. With a draft class full of talented cornerbacks, it makes sense for the Cowboys to try and get one and see if they can groom him into a starter at a cheaper cost. Over the Cap projects that the franchise tag for cornerbacks this year will be just under $16.5 million, so Dallas can hold onto Jones for one more year at least and see if they can’t get similar production from a rookie or even Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
Don’t break the bank for Robert Quinn - Quinn was undoubtedly great in 2019 but he’ll be 30 at the start of next season and is almost guaranteed to see at least a slight decline in production. And while the war between pass rush and coverage may never end, Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis makes a strong argument for coverage being more important. While keeping Quinn would obviously be ideal, the Cowboys shouldn’t break the bank for him and could find other options in free agency or the draft. Remember, they got Quinn for a sixth round pick and only paid him $10 million this year after he earned a sack-related incentive.
Keep Randall Cobb - This one seems like a certainty with McCarthy coming to town. Cobb had a resurgence last year and had previously spent his whole career under McCarthy. A new deal should be practically done by now.
Offer Antwaun Woods - As an exclusive rights free agent, the Cowboys can offer Woods a one-year deal at league minimum and Woods will be unable to negotiate with any other teams. Given Woods’ production the last two years and his increasing value in Mike Nolan’s multiple 4-3 defense, keeping him at a minimum cost is a steal.
Place a second round tender on Blake Jarwin - If the Cowboys think Jarwin really can be the future at the position, then obviously they’ll offer a bigger deal; but as a restricted free agent, Dallas can give Jarwin a one-year deal worth just over $3 million and if any other teams want to sign him, they’d have to give up their second-round pick, a trade that the Cowboys would be thrilled to take given they spent zero draft capital to acquire Jarwin. More likely, though, is that they hold onto Jarwin and see how he grows under McCarthy and Kellen Moore.
Keep the legacies - Here I’m referring to Jason Witten, Sean Lee, and LP Ladouceur. Obviously this depends on several factors, most notably if these older players opt to return for another year, but their leadership and experience is invaluable.
Re-sign Kai Forbath, but bring in competition - It was a small sample size, but Forbath was perfect through three games in Dallas. It makes sense to hold onto him, but that also shouldn’t deter the Cowboys from bringing in competition.
Cap casualties and restructure candidates
Restructure Tyrone Crawford - The Cowboys could cut Crawford altogether and save just over a million dollars, but his versatility should come in handy as this defensive line changes up its technique a bit. Restructuring him helps create a bit of room while still holding onto his services. And what luck, Crawford seems willing to do so.
Restructure DeMarcus Lawrence - This is probably bound to happen at some point given the huge deal Tank signed last offseason, and it is an option the Cowboys could explore. With Lawrence set up to become one of the defense’s leaders going forward, helping them clear some space would be a good move to that end.
Restructure one of the offensive linemen - It seems like this happens every offseason now, but the Cowboys could restructure one of the deals for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, or Travis Frederick, all of whom have shown a willingness to do that in the past.
Cut Chris Jones - Jones had the 12th highest paying contract on the team in 2019 and finished dead last in the NFL in yards per punt. His best days are well behind him, and cutting the soon-to-be 31 year old would save $1.4 million.
Free agent targets
TE Tyler Eifert - Whether the Cowboys return Jarwin and/or Witten next year, they should still look to add other options at the position as well. Eifert was once an ascendant star at tight end, but injuries and the overall terribleness of the Bengals hampered him. Still, he had 436 yards and three touchdowns in 2019 as the backup tight end. He could be an under the radar bargain bin addition in Dallas, where he’d join his brother in law; Jaylon Smith tried to recruit him last offseason as well.
Any of these four DTs - Under Nolan and Jim Tomsula, the Cowboys are looking to get bigger in the trenches. There are four big names and even bigger bodies set to enter free agency: Jordan Phillips, DJ Reader, Danny Shelton, and Javon Hargrave. Spotrac currently has both Reader and Hargrave in line for a contract worth well over $12 million annually, though. Phillips, who NFL.com named the Bills’ unsung hero in 2019, could potentially see himself in a bidding war as well. And Shelton just had his most productive year in a similar role to what he’d see in Dallas. It’s unlikely that all four of these guys will get mega contracts, especially with other notable names entering free agency, so the Cowboys could very well be in the mix for one of them.
EDGE Kyler Fackrell - If Quinn doesn’t return to Dallas, they’ll likely be on the lookout for another edge rusher they can get on a low-risk, high-reward kind of deal. Fackrell fits that bill. A third-round pick by the Packers in 2016 (McCarthy connection), Fackrell blossomed into a star pass rusher in his third year, racking up 10.5 sacks in 2018. He was reduced to a reserve role in 2019 with the signings of Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, and the drafting of Rashan Gary in the first round likely means the Packers don’t have Fackrell in their plans moving forward. Flying under the radar, Fackrell would function well in Nolan’s multiple 4-3 as a stand up defensive end, a role he’s familiar with already.
LB AJ Klein - While Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith should be the present and future at the linebacker position, it’d help to have a starting-caliber linebacker for depth, especially if Nolan wants to use Smith more as a pass rusher. Klein worked under Nolan directly the last three years in New Orleans, where he developed into a starter and finished third on the team in tackles in both 2018 and 2019. Unless he gets big money offers elsewhere, Klein could seek to continue playing for Nolan in Dallas.
S Anthony Harris - Could the Cowboys finally prioritize the safety position in free agency? Perhaps, and Harris would be a great get. After going undrafted in 2015, Harris found a reserve role with the Vikings and grew into a starter at the strong safety role. He’s gotten better each year, and tallied six interceptions in 2019 while allowing a meager 44.2 passer rating when targeted. And with George Edwards, the only defensive coordinator he’s known in the pro game, joining the Cowboys staff, they might have the inside track to land him even if it means shelling out some cash.
With the Cowboys currently projected to have nearly $78 million in cap space before extensions and restructurings, there’s enough wiggle room to accomplish all of these tasks and still have room to add depth and pay their draft picks and undrafted free agents. And if Dallas can do all of this, it’ll leave them without any gaping holes entering the draft.
Sure, they could benefit from drafting a tight end or a receiver to develop behind Cobb, or a cornerback or safety or a big nose tackle. And all of those options are still available, but by following this blueprint they wouldn’t be forced to prioritize one position over another and risk reaching on a prospect.
And it could also potentially give the Cowboys an even better roster than the one they felt so strongly about heading into 2019.