In a way, it almost feels like a rebuild season for the Dallas Cowboys. With a new coaching staff, so many changes lie ahead for this football team. But it’s not just the changing of the guard with the coaches that is significant, it is a Cowboys team that has 30 players entering free agency this season. Now, some of them are restricted or exclusive rights free agents, so nobody is worried too much about losing them, but if you remove those guys - that still leaves 24 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market in a little over a week. Of those players, 11 of them are starters/key rotational players on this football team. That’s essentially half your starting squad!
How did the Cowboys get themselves in such a mess? Well, breaking down all these free agents show a few commonalities with these players.
The epic 2016 NFL Draft
If you were a freshmen the year the Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, then let me be the first to say congratulations to the class of 2020. Four years go by in a hurry and just as some are about to get their diploma, several of the Cowboys rookie contracts are set to expire.
The legendary draft class of 2016 includes the following players who were still on the roster last season:
- Ezekiel Elliott (1st Round)
- Jaylon Smith (2nd Round)
- Maliek Collins (3rd Round)
- Dak Prescott (4th Round)
- Anthony Brown (6th Round)
- Kavon Frazier (6th Round)
Outside of Frazier, that is five starters from this draft. Now, the good news is that the Cowboys have already addressed the contracts of Elliott and Smith so you can check them off the list. As it appears now, Prescott is the only remaining player who is a shoe-in to return as we have come to grips that Collins and Brown will likely be priced out of Dallas.
Those fifth-year options from 2015
Being able to exercise a fifth-year option is a nice perk of a first-round draft pick, and every year teams are given that ability. Sometimes exercising that option is just a place holder for contract negotiations. For example, the team exercised Zack Martin’s fifth-year option a couple years ago, but then two months later he was signed to a six-year, $84 million deal.
Then there are other instances where teams may want to see that player perform another year before making a decision. For the Cowboys, they have two players that fall into that category. Byron Jones is their own 2015 draft pick that just finished up his fifth year, but they also now have Amari Cooper who was the Oakland Raiders 2015 first-rounder who had his fifth-year option exercised as well.
Just like that, the Cowboys have not one, but two important players who have expiring rookie deals from the 2015 draft class. Normally, the Cowboys like to get ahead of these things and get their players signed before they reach this point, but both Jones and Cooper had unique circumstances that saw their contracts play out. Jones was moved from safety to corner during his fourth year in the league and had an All-Pro performance his first full season at the position, but was that an anomaly? And Cooper ignited the Cowboys offense when he was acquired via trade, but was that repeatable?
The Cowboys were cautious when it came to committing to these two players and as a result, they’re both about to be among the highest paid free agents this offseason.
Those one-year rentals worked out better than expected
Credit the front office for doing a great job finding cheap free agents on low-risk, one-year deals to help plug holes on the roster. Randall Cobb, Kerry Hyder, Christian Covington, and Darian Thompson were all excellent free agent signings last offseason. You can then throw in the Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett trades and the front office deserves a chest bump as they got outstanding production compared to what they paid for it.
While all that is fine and dandy for the 2019 Cowboys, where does that leave them now? Suddenly, the idea of losing an 11.5 sack guy like Quinn doesn’t sit well. And did you know that Cobb’s 828 yards receiving last year was better than five of the eight seasons he played with Aaron Rodgers?
Initially, when the Cowboys got these veteran players, we didn’t think all that much about them, but now - we want them back.
Aye aye captain
Nobody is losing much sleep about the idea of losing Jason Witten, Sean Lee, or Jeff Heath, but it would be nice to have those guys on the roster for depth. All of them are savvy team captains who have earned their playing time in the NFL by maximizing their full potential. They don’t have the talent to currently be a star player, and most of us would agree we’d like to see younger guys get the reps, but these guys still have value.
When you go down the list of the Cowboys free agents, one might be inclined to be angry with the front office for allowing this to happen. Yes, in hindsight, the team would’ve been much better off signing guys like Prescott, Cooper, and Jones earlier to where they would now look like a bargain. Now, they’ve lollygagged too long and it’s going to be more expensive. However, when you look at the Cowboys problems, you have to tip your cap to this front office for doing such an outstanding job acquiring these players in the first place.
A fourth-round draft pick is about to be one of the highest paid players ever in the NFL. A first-round pick that didn’t even originally belong to the Cowboys is about to be extended. And if the Cowboys manage to pull off keeping Quinn, how’s that for a sixth-round investment?
The Cowboys put themselves in a little bit of a bind, but is it really a bad thing? Are the Eagles sweating over what to do with their 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor? Probably not. Are the Redskins and Giants feeling good about their investments towards Josh Norman and Alex Ogletree respectively (both have been released this offseason, with their team absorbing dead money hits). I would profess they do not.
The Cowboys front office isn’t perfect by any means, but the reason they have all these tough decisions is because they’ve been making great decisions. If a team has a good track record for making good front office decisions, then there’s a good chance more good decisions are coming. They got into this mess, they can get themselves out.