Time’s fun when you’re having flies, or something like that. We are about to hit some key dates for the NFL. They are particularly crucial for the Dallas Cowboys this year, because they have a rather extraordinarily long list of their own free agents to sort out. Some of the decisions involved are going to be a bit trying for us in the fan base. While we can’t know for sure, it is very likely that things are about to start happening - in a hurry.
First, those key dates. Thursday, March 12, is the deadline for using the franchise and transition tag after being extended by the NFL from March 10th. Because this is the last year of the current CBA, teams have the ability to use both, but there is a big caveat there. The proposed new CBA has gone to the NFLPA membership for a vote, and the deadline for that is also on the 12th. If the new deal is approved, then any team that used both would have to rescind one. Then on the 18th, free agency officially begins.
For the Cowboys, that means the pressure is on to get things done. As both Jerry and Stephen Jones have said, deadlines make deals.
It all starts with the big domino, Dak Prescott. The team, including new head coach Mike McCarthy, has committed to him as the franchise quarterback. They either have to get his new deal done or use a tag on him.
Right behind him is Amari Cooper. While there have been some reports that the team might consider giving him the Byron Jones treatment and let him enter free agency, that just seems highly unlikely. He would be the first target for the transition tag (assuming they can still use it), or, if Prescott accepts a new contract, the franchise tag would become a tool to buy time with him. However, there are also reports that things have been going better with Cooper’s negotiations. It is possible the team could wrap things up with him first, which both complicates things in trying to figure out what the team could do elsewhere and offers the chance to simplify things just by clearing one item off the free agent to-do list.
It does seem likely that we will have some idea of what is happening to both the top two priorities on Thursday. That gives Dallas until the 18th to try and sign as many of their other free agents as possible before they hit the market.
After those top two players, Robert Quinn looks like the next priority, assuming that Byron Jones is indeed going to be allowed to test the waters in free agency. Based on reports, multiple teams are lining up to bid on Jones, so he is almost certainly going to be playing elsewhere. If things come together for both Prescott and Cooper, Quinn might be a candidate for a tag, but it would seem at the moment that they would work more on getting a deal done with him. That is if they choose to, of course.
Then comes all the rest. With so many remaining free agents, the Cowboys can’t sign them all, but will need to wrap up some of them to set up for their own pursuit of outside free agents and then the draft. A couple of restricted free agents, tight end Blake Jarwin and backup quarterback Cooper Rush, are reportedly being tendered qualifying offers and are expected to be signed.
We don’t know how the staff has prioritized the remaining names, but some that should get considered are Antwaun Woods, an exclusive rights free agent that the team has control over, and Randall Cobb, who appears to have a lot of support from McCarthy as a target. There also seems to be a desire to work out an affordable deal with Sean Lee.
The rest are largely a matter of guesswork. We know the Cowboys like to keep their own when possible, but with so many players and having to get things done under a cap that could go up with a new CBA, there is a lot of accounting manipulation that goes along with it. Just as an example of the factors involved in each decision, Jeff Heath is still a valued player as both a safety and special teams ace, but he might elect to try his luck in free agency to see if he can get a bigger payday. And the team may have other ideas in both free agency and the draft to fill that particular hole.
In any case, the next ten days or so are likely to see a lot of action or at least reports of what is being offered by the team. Things are about to get very busy.