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The real reason the Cowboys are likely to lose Byron Jones in free agency

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If Byron Jones leaves the Cowboys this year, you can look at last year’s offseason for the reason why.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason has been that they have three big-time free agents, and that they will likely only be able to keep two. Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones are the Three Amigos that will likely only be a Dynamic Duo by the start of the 2020 season. We know that Dak Prescott will be retained by the Cowboys, and there’s about a 95% surety that Amari Cooper will also don the Star when September comes. That leaves Byron Jones as the likely candidate for a new home. This prediction can be found all over the place.

The given reason for Jones being left out is generally that the contracts of Prescott and Cooper will eat up a big chunk of the Cowboys $77 million or so salary cap surplus, and the rest will be needed to fill out other parts of the roster. On the surface, this makes sense and can be called generally true. But there are other factors that have led to this current state of affairs. The Cowboys not being able to lock up either Prescott or Cooper before this point has likely cost them money as players like Russell Wilson and Michael Thomas have re-set the market for quarterbacks and receivers, respectively.

If you really want to nail a reason the Cowboys are in the state they are in concerning their big three, it’s better to look at other players on the roster. That’s just what The Ringer did and what they say makes a lot of sense.

If the above scenario plays out [Prescott, Cooper staying; Jones leaving], it would be misleading to say that Dallas is choosing Cooper over Jones. As contract talks stalled with some of their stars last year, the Cowboys handed out other deals that complicated matters. The difference between keeping or losing Jones doesn’t come down to a couple million more for Prescott. It’s what happens when you combine a Prescott deal with a six-year, $90 million extension for Ezekiel Elliott two years ahead of schedule and a five-year, $63.8 million contract for Jaylon Smith.

Indeed. The Cowboys caved to Elliott last offseason and now they are paying the price. There were scenarios where the Cowboys could have delayed an extension to Elliott for several years. Obviously that would have been a gamble because Elliott could have continued his holdout and you can’t get a comparable running back in replace him. But, what you could do, as most NFL teams are doing, is quit relying so much on a lead dog running back as a major part of your offense. It’s well-established that winning in the NFL no longer requires a 1,000-yard back being fed regularly to win. It’s not an end-all, be-all argument, but just look at the leading rushers on the last five Super Bowl winning teams.

Damien Williams - Chiefs - 498 yards
Sony Michel - Pats - 931
LaGarrette Blount - Eagles - 766
LaGarrette Blount - Pats - 1,161
Ronnie Hillman - Broncos - 863

Only one of then broke 1,000 yard and none of them were breaking the bank with their contracts. We’ll never know, but it would have been interesting to find out how the Cowboys would have performed for a few games with Tony Pollard as the lead back.

Then there’s the Jaylon Smith contract. Do you really want to extend an off-the-ball linebacker when you have to feed the mouths of a quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback, three of the most important positions in the modern game of football?

There are some smart parts of the Elliott and Smith contracts. The Elliott contract allows for an easy out in a few years when his prime seasons may be past, but he is near an $11 million salary cap hit for 2020. The Smith contract only starts to really blow up in the latter years, but for 2020 he is a $7.7 million cap hit. Some of that money could come in handy while trying to keep Byron Jones.

The Ringer sums it up nicely.

Dallas retained an off-ball linebacker and a star running back while failing to lock up an excellent quarterback and receiver duo for the long term, and the cumulative effect could mean that a reliable cornerback walks away. The Cowboys have the resources to retain most of their core, but retooling this roster to match what it’s been in recent years will be a challenge. Dallas is turning over a new leaf under head coach Mike McCarthy, but it may be lamenting the chances it’s already lost.