We still have a few NFL games left to play, but for most teams, the NFL offseason has already arrived. That includes the Dallas Cowboys who so far have been busy altering their defensive coaching staff. Soon, though, attention will turn to the first big event of the offseason, NFL free agency. As of today, that is scheduled to begin on March 17th.
The Cowboys, like other teams, will have to navigate the new reality of the salary cap. Because of COVID reducing revenues in 2020, the salary cap will contract. No one is sure yet where it will end up, but it can’t go below $175 millions, and some estimates have it landing at $180 million.
Over The Cap currently has a page up with the base salary cap at $176 million, and have the Cowboys with $14 million of cap space. Spotrac has a $175 million cap page, and the Cowboys have $17 million in cap space.
The problem for the Cowboys is that they still have to sign Dak Prescott, and that will likely eat up a lot of contract space. Of course, the Cowboys can free up space by releasing players or restructuring contracts. While the $14-$17 million estimate doesn’t seem like a lot of cap space to work with for signing quality free agents, there is a mitigating factor. The Cowboys rank 12th in amount of current cap space across the NFL. Besides a group of six teams that are flush with cap space, most teams are about at the Cowboys level or worse, in some cases, much worse.
That means that after that group of six teams snap up some of the big names, other big names are going to have to settle for lesser contracts than they would have to in other years. Teams are going to backload contracts, or players are going to take one-year cheap deals in order to hit free agency again next year.
All of that is a long way of saying that just because a free agent is ranked highly, and in a normal year might be out of the Cowboys range, this year could be different. Players might take cheaper deals to hit free agency again next year, or they might have to settle for lesser contracts once the initial burst of money is gone.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the top safeties available. The Cowboys starting safety, Xavier Woods, is a free agent and hasn’t locked down a return with his play. The Cowboys may want to look elsewhere to pair someone with Donovan Wilson. Preferably someone who is adept at playing centerfield and man that spot in Dan Quinn’s Cover 1/Cover 3 heavy scheme.
9. Justin Simmons, S
2020 team: Denver Broncos | Age entering 2021 season: 27
Simmons intercepted a career-high five passes as the Broncos’ franchise player in 2020. His 16 interceptions since the start of the 2016 season are tied for the fifth most in the NFL over that period. And Pro Football Focus credited him with 28 defensive stops in each of the past two seasons, meaning he is a factor both as a playmaker and as defender near the line of scrimmage.
It’s hard to imagine the Broncos letting Simmons get away, especially after franchise-tagging him last year. He obviously would be a dream fit for the Cowboys, but would also be the one safety to command a huge contract. The Broncos salary cap situation is about equal to the Cowboys.
29. Marcus Williams, S
2020 team: New Orleans Saints | Age entering 2021 season: 24
Unfortunately known for his missed tackle in the 2017 Minneapolis Miracle, Williams developed into a reliable playmaker in the back end of the Saints’ defense. He has intercepted 13 passes in his four seasons, better than all but seven defenders whose primary position was safety over that span.
The Saints are in cap hell. They are going to be shedding players left and right. It’s a good possibility Williams would hit the market.
32. John Johnson III, S
2020 team: Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2021 season: 25
Johnson has had an up-and-down career since the Rams made him a third-round draft pick in 2017, but he played a big role in the Rams’ defensive resurgence in 2020 and appears to have helped himself in a contract year. He missed 10 games in 2019 because of injuries but otherwise has appeared in all 16 games for each of the other three seasons of his career.
The Rams are another team with cap issues, but not nearly to the level of the Saints. Johnson had a remarkable 2020; PFF had him as their highest-graded NFC safety.
33. Marcus Maye, S
2020 team: New York Jets | Age entering 2021 season: 28
A four-year starter, Maye set career highs with 11 passes defended and two forced fumbles, to go along with two interceptions, in 2020. He has shown a level of position versatility that the Jets utilize well; Pro Football Focus has charted Maye as a traditional free safety, as a box safety and in the slot corner position during various points of his career.
Maye is someone who has been talked about a few times on these pages. But the Jets are one of the few teams with a ton of cash on hand and would be able to sign Maye back if they wanted.
36. Anthony Harris, S
2020 team: Minnesota Vikings | Age entering 2021 season: 29
The Vikings made Harris a surprise target of their franchise tag after a six-interception season in 2019. Like the rest of the Vikings’ defense, Harris did not match his previous year’s performance and finished without a single interception. But he remains a smart and savvy defensive back with experience in a successful defense.
The Vikings have cap issues too, and they had a defense that cratered in 2020. Will they move on?
This is a pretty decent year for the Cowboys to lock up a safety in free agency. There is some top talent available and not all of them are going to get big contracts. Who is your favorite free agent safety for the Cowboys to pursue?