Remember the date: March 10th.
Officially, it marks the deadline for teams to place a franchise tag on a player. Unofficially, it could reveal whether or not Byron Jones will continue playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Any player who is not tagged will be allowed to enter free agency the following week, opening the door for players to shop their services to all 32 NFL teams. There is a good chance Jones is one of those players.
The Cowboys have some important decisions to make, with three of the team’s biggest stars: Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones all entering free agency. The team must decide if any of these players are worth allocating a good chunk of their salary cap resources over the next several years. The front office certainly has choices, and one of those choices is to buy themselves a little time by slapping the franchise tag on a player of their choosing. The franchise tag price for each of these respective players are as follows (values courtesy of overthecap.com):
Who gets the tag has been debated quite a bit ever since it was clear all these players were hitting free agency at once. For the Cowboys, their decision will likely be based on which selection provides them the best flexibility financially when it comes to attacking their long-term plans.
Right now they have a ceiling price for what they’re willing to pay each of these players. If the team and a player are closer than we think, the tag may not be that beneficial as getting a deal completed without it could come to fruition before free agency officially begins. Conversely, if both sides are far apart, then tagging may serve little purpose as the possibility of an extension may seem unrealistic. Where the tag works nicely is when the team knows a deal is eminent, but the extra time aids in negotiation to wiggle the price down a bit.
If you were to try to assign a player to each of these situations, the Cowboys plans may look like this:
- Extend Dak Prescott
- Tag Amari Cooper
- Part ways with Byron Jones
It should be evident that Prescott is getting extended eventually. The devil is in the details and right now that’s the only thing holding things up. The Cowboys are committed to him. You can essentially say the same thing when it comes to Cooper. They wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t intend on keeping him, and everything he’s done since joining the team only further validates the team’s decision to go big in acquiring him.
The same level of confidence cannot be said for Jones. Don’t get me wrong - he’s a very good cornerback. Those harping on his lack of interceptions tend to overlook just how much he smothers receivers. He has done a fantastic job of defending the pass.
The Cowboys should probably keep this guy, but if not he'll be highly coveted pic.twitter.com/ARiNvOUAfc— Billy M (@BillyM_91) February 14, 2020
While the Cowboys should make a good push to retain him, we have to prepare ourselves for the very real possibility that he’s played his last game with Dallas. The reason for this is simple math - Byron Jones has his price, and the Cowboys have theirs.
Jones has been a great bargain for the Cowboys over his rookie deal that included a fifth-year option, costing the team just under $15 million for those five years. While $15 million for five years is great value, $15 million for each year is not. And that could be what he’s looking at as he’s entering an offseason where there are bound to be some teams vying for his services. One team has already made it clear they’re coming after him.
It’s very possible the front office has already conceded that they’re going to lose him in free agency. We haven’t heard any talk about negotiations with his representatives, and what we have heard hasn’t been very favorable. Vice President of Player Personnel Will McClay gave the kiss of death “figure out his financial value” spiel when discussing Jones’ future in Dallas.
Will McClay on Cowboys No. 1 CB Byron Jones, who is an unrestricted free agent: “He’s a starting caliber NFL corner. He’s a really good player. We have to figure out his financial value and if it fits for us.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 22, 2020
Sure, it’s just speculation and attempting to read the tea leaves, but these appear to be the words used to describe every well-respected free agent that has eventually left in free agency.
McClay’s words are important because the Cowboys are very consistent about how they do business. The players they value significantly, they keep. The ones they don’t, they don’t. That’s not to say Jones isn’t valued, but his value may not include making him one of the highest paid corners in the league. They may let some other team do that while they collect a compensatory pick and make other plans at corner.
And what could those other plans be? The draft. It’s always the draft.
Similarly to what they did in 2017 when they let both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne leave in free agency, the Cowboys may have a feel for what the riches of the 2020 NFL draft will bring. And those riches could fall with the cornerback position as the team attempts to land a starting cornerback on a cheap, four-year rookie deal. They tried that with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis three years ago, and they could go at it again this year.
On Friday, the Mothership published a recent mock draft roundup for the Cowboys 17th overall pick. While the predictions were heavy at safety, the cornerback position came in second as a couple good candidates make the list:
David Helman, Co-host of The Draft Show, DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer:
Kristian Fulton, Cornerback, LSU
”It’s impossible to know what team needs look like in April, but it’s a good bet the Cowboys will need help in the secondary. If they don’t like the value of the safety spot at pick No. 17, perhaps they could take one of the best cover corners in the draft. Fulton was impressive throughout 2019 despite playing through injury, and he could help fill the void at cornerback if Byron Jones leaves in free agency.”
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report:
C.J. Henderson, Cornerback, Florida
”A feisty, fast cornerback, Henderson has excellent ball skills and the instincts to be a major factor playing the ball in the pros. He’s never going to win awards for tackling skills, but like Deion Sanders always said, you’re not paying cornerbacks to tackle.”
The Cowboys got great contribution from their 27th overall pick in 2015, but that’s not reason to overpay in order to keep him. If they found a quality replacement in the draft, it helps the team financially. Players like Prescott and Cooper can be extended without concern, and they may even be able to make a play at edge rusher Robert Quinn.
Ultimately, it would be nice to keep Jones, but the business side of football always takes precedence, and this looks like one of those times where letting him walk is the right move.