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Looking through past contracts might give us a clue as to which player the Cowboys sign next

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Outside of their star quarterback, the Cowboys don’t have a lot of looming business ahead of them.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This time a year ago, the Dallas Cowboys had many players who were entering the final year of their rookie contracts. This included most of their 2016 draft class that featured key players like Dak Prescott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown. Ezekiel Elliott was also drafted in 2016, but the team had exercised his fifth-year option, so he wasn’t far behind. Speaking of fifth-year options, a couple of 2015 draft picks were also entering a contract year in the form of Byron Jones and Amari Cooper. In short, the Cowboys had a lot of big decisions ahead of them.

Fast forward to now, and most of those decisions have been addressed, with the lone exception being Prescott. Of course, that’s a big exception.

Over this past year, the Cowboys kicked things off by signing La’el Collins, Jaylon Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott prior to the 2019 season, although it took a little bit of a Zeke holdout to get his deal done. They followed it up this offseason by re-signing Cooper and Brown. For the most part, the team is pretty set with locking down their own stars.

That’s good news because when you take into account the team’s future investment into Prescott, they don’t have a lot of extra funds lying around. All that points to the team being rather frugal when it comes to players they’ll be offering contracts to down the road. Any thoughts on which players that might be?

In order to predict the future, it’s always good to take a look at the past to see if there are any patterns to how the Cowboys operate. Over the past 10 years, there have been 26 draft picks who have played through their rookie contract with the team. Let’s take a look at what happened to those players.

Of those players, 12 (46%) of them (in yellow) left in free agency. For whatever reason, the Cowboys chose not to sign them to second contracts. Looking at the 14 players they kept, they can be broken down into the following groups:

  • Seven players signed at least a year before their contract was up
  • Four players re-signed after four years
  • Two players signed after having the franchised tag placed on them

If you’re doing the math at home, the leaves just one other player - Dak Prescott, who has played through his rookie deal, however, has yet to receive a second contract beyond the franchise tag.

There are a few trends that may be helpful in figuring how the Cowboys operate. If there is a player the team loves, they usually make up their mind early as half of the players they’ve re-signed have all been extended early. In some cases, these were easy decisions as four of them had already established themselves as All-Pro players. The other three were coming off great seasons - Sean Lee (104 tackles, four interceptions), Tyrone Crawford (five sacks), and Jaylon Smith (121 tackles). The front office saw an opportunity to get ahead of things and reacted quickly.

When it comes to the players they re-signed after four years, all of these instances (James Hanna, Kyle Wilber, Terrance Williams, and Anthony Brown) are players who signed what many believed were “team-friendly” deals to remain with the team.

The final three consist of the players the team has franchise tagged. Two of them eventually received new deals, with Prescott still waiting for his.

So, what does that mean for the future?

Looking at the 2017 draft class who still remain with the team, there are three players of particular interest - Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods. Unless something happens over the next month or so, none of these players are getting extended early. If things follow suit to what has happened in the past, then for any of these players to receive a second contract from Dallas it’s going to take them agreeing to a team-friendly. Many observers have come to terms with the fact that the upcoming season could be the final year for any one of these guys, however, the player most likely to stick around may depend on whose services will command the least amount of attention in free agency.

For the 2018 draft class, all of their first three picks should be in consideration for a possible extension. Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, and Michael Gallup have all demonstrated themselves to be good players. Would the Cowboys be interested in going after one of these guys a year early?

Keeping Gallup around would be great, but the Cowboys already have a lot of resources tied up in their wide receivers as Amari Cooper just got a five-year, $100 million deal, and they just drafted CeeDee Lamb 17th overall. It would appear that he will price himself out of Dallas if he keeps playing the way he has been. Of course, some of us thought the same thing when it came to La’el Collins, yet the Cowboys extended him.

Williams is a guy that could be an early-extend candidate, but the team keeps re-loading their interior offensive line with young prospects. We’re not even certain he’s going to be the team’s starting left guard this season as last year’s third-round pick Connor McGovern may be the team’s future starter.

Vander Esch is a first-round pick so the front office will exercise his fifth-year option this offseason; don’t expect anything to happen with him any time sooner than the summer of 2022. By then, things should be more clear as to what the team has at the linebacker position, and most of Jaylon Smith’s guaranteed money will be off the books.

Which player do you think is the next to be offered a second contract?