It is, except for a couple of teams about to play in Miami, a very slow time of the year for the NFL. It’s true even for teams like the Dallas Cowboys that have changed head coaches and the bulk of their staff. That is just about completely wrapped up for them. Now, with the scouting combine almost a month away and free agency not starting until March 18th, there is really not much for them to do.
Except, you know, the biggest thing. That is trying to get their own free agents signed. While they obviously will allow quite a few go on to test the market, there are three names that are seen as keys: QB Dak Prescott, WR Amari Cooper, and CB Byron Jones. Recently, Jerry Jones indicated that DE Robert Quinn should not be excluded from consideration.
Obviously, that is a lot of contracts to try and sort out if you want to keep all four. At the moment, the indications are that the team would prefer to do so. That presents some rather significant challenges for Dallas to overcome.
Many assume that the biggest issue is the cap space involved. However, the Cowboys currently have the fifth most space in the league according to Over the Cap. They have $79 million available, before they do any restructuring or release any current players. And Dallas has proven itself to be exceedingly adroit in finding the space it needs, no matter what.
They still have to fit everything into the arcane accounting rules involved, and that space will have to be managed with a bit more care this year.
No, this really comes down to reaching an agreement with the players. Prescott and Cooper both could have gotten new deals last offseason, but chose to bet on themselves. Now those have paid off and are about to be cashed in, but it may not be very soon. Here’s why.
All four play high value positions
Not all positions on an NFL roster are valued the same. QB, WR, CB, and EDGE are probably four of the top five most valuable, with OT probably rounding out the group. That is going to make these positions more costly. As mentioned before, this is going to take some real massaging if the Cowboys want to bring back all four.
The real issue here isn’t what the price tag is going to be. It is who is going to pay it.
All four are also near the top of their respective free agent groups
Therein lies the rub. The quartet are not just any free agents. In just about any ranking you use, they are at the very top. That is the conclusion of Pro Football Focus, which we have already covered. Just to get another viewpoint, I also looked at the rankings from Walter Football. Here is where the two sites have each player in his position group.
Free agent positional rankings
Yeah. These are prime free agents.
That just makes waiting to test the market more attractive
It is applicable for the players, but even more so for their agents. The representation is primarily, even solely, concerned with maximizing the income for their clients, and thereby themselves. Their job is to not let things like wanting to play with their current team or coaches cloud things. One of the ways to do that is to set one team against another to get those offers up.
When you are dealing with players at or near the top of their position, that means the goal is to set the market. The team wants to get a deal done before other contracts create a higher floor. Whether we like it or not, the determinant is not the performance or statistical value of a given player. When players are at the top of the market like these, it is all about being number one, at least until the next contract is done for someone else.
That is going to create a lot of pressure, especially when you look at some of the other names out there. Take quarterback for instance. Joining Prescott on the free agent market are Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers, all of whom have quite impressive resumes, and Ryan Tannehill, who made himself a ton of money quarterbacking the Tennessee Titans to the AFC Championship game. While the first three all might mull retirement, if one or more seek to continue playing, they will be expecting top dollar, at least on a per year basis.
For quarterbacks, that is likely going to mean figures starting at the $35 million level. Even Tannehill, who will likely be somewhat less, will create some upward pressure.
The Cowboys may be forced to play a game of tag
Due to the CBA expiring after this season, the Cowboys have both a franchise and a transition tag available. They are expected to employ both if something cannot be worked out by the March 10th deadline to use the tags, at least for Prescott and Cooper.
That doesn’t mean that they will then have the players locked up, however. The players have to sign the tag for them to go into effect. That could mean a holdout. We saw how that all worked out last season when Ezekiel Elliott did just that, even though he was still under contract. It led to a last minute, blockbuster deal that set the record for running back contracts.
It would be a worst case scenario, since the players would miss out on so much needed work learning whatever changes are involved with the new coaching staff. A somewhat better situation would involve one or both players signing the tag with the understanding that it is to buy time to work out an acceptable long-term contract. But they can still start a holdout at any time if the progress is not deemed sufficient. It is the only real leverage they have, but the Elliott experience shows that the team is likely to cave.
However the use of the tags play out, acrimony will flow, but any practice and preparation lost as a result is probably more concerning for the coming season.
The Cowboys could also let the players hit free agency, but that risks losing them to a team that is willing to set the market high. For Prescott and Cooper, at least, that is pretty untenable.
Obviously, Dallas hopes to work something out before it all comes to that. But it is going to take some impressive and very costly numbers to get that done. It will be unsettling to watch until things are sorted out. And there is no guarantee that it will all work out for the best.