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Setting the scene for the Cowboys’ 2021 offseason roster moves (Part I - Offense)

Before we talk free agency and the draft, let’s figure out what they already have, and where the real holes are.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Free agency and then the draft are looming for the NFL. With all the problems the Dallas Cowboys had last season, they need to get things right to have a better performance this year. Before the official free agent signings start coming and the draft rolls around, we need to take a look at where the roster stands. Most of the players next season will be familiar faces, after all. This is an attempt to identify where they will need to take action, and what kind is most likely. First, we’ll look at the offense, and also the specialists.

Specialists

This one is pretty easy so let’s get it out of the way before diving into the offense.

They’ll probably re-sign LP Ladouceur, keep Greg Zuerlein and Hunter Niswander, and release Chris Jones. While there is always the option for Ladouceur to retire, he seems to want to come back. Given that he still is Mr. Perfect, it should be the logical choice for the team. And in a year when there is an ever so slight need to find some additional cap space, Jones’ release frees up $2 million. Assuming Ladouceur signs for the same veteran minimum deal he did last season, that nets the Cowboys about $1 million in space. This kind of tradeoff will be in play with a lot of other roster decisions, but this one is spelled out because it is so easy to explain and has so few parts involved.

Quarterback

Expect them to re-sign Dak Prescott to a multi-year deal, keep Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci, and release Cooper Rush. Andy Dalton will be way to expensive to even start a conversation about bringing him back. If you somehow haven’t noticed, that contract situation for Prescott is somewhat important for the team to resolve. Without revisiting the whole debate, the assumption here is that Dallas (meaning the Jones family) has no choice but to get a deal done. If he was to play on the franchise tag again, it not only hamstrings the Cowboys in managing the cap, it would possibly lead to his departure in 2022, putting the team back in the market for a starter. Electing to part ways with him is even worse, since they are not going to find a better QB (to head off one argument, Deshaun Watson is probably a wash in that respect) either in free agency, a trade, or the draft. With a four-year deal (the most likely outcome despite what ownership prefers), they can reduce the cap hit from the $37 million the tag would entail to something around $10 million less.

This all assumes that the recent reports of concerns about his injured ankle do not indicate a real problem. If he is unable to recover enough to return, then try to find a happy place in your mind to escape to during this season.

Gilbert looked pretty good in his appearance against the Pittsburgh Steelers and may be a long-term backup. Unfortunately, DiNucci was pretty much the exact opposite, with PFF grading him the worst starting QB of the season in his one game. But how could you expect more out of a seventh-round developmental pick? Cooper Rush can be released, although they probably would like to keep him around as a bit of insurance should DiNucci not show any development. If they do release Cooper and need a fourth arm in camp, they can add that after the draft.

Running back/fullback

With Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and Rico Dowdle all under contract, there isn’t much to do here. They will probably add a late round/UDFA back in the draft, but that may not even be necessary.

That leaves them with a decision between Jamize Olawale and Sewo Olonilua at fullback. It just seems hard to justify carrying two candidates on the roster, even this early. Olawale sat last year as a COVID opt-out, which makes a decision more uncertain. Unless they were to designate Olawale a post June 1 cut, he actually saves them less cap space than Olonilua. Since they may need that designation for other purposes, Olonilua may wind up an early release.

Tight end

Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz give the Cowboys a solid one-two punch at the position. With Blake Bell a free agent, that opens up spots for Cole Hikutini and Sean McKeon to at least get a shot through training camp. Bell was good last year, but there are better places to spend free agent dollars. As with running back, they may be looking at what is available on day three of the draft or in the UDFA pool to carry another into camp.

Wide receiver

They are set with the starting trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb. Some have suggested trading Gallup or even Cooper away and relying on the usual WR depth in the draft, but assuming Prescott is back and healthy, the established chemistry with all three is enough to make making a change here undesirable.

Depth is another issue. Noah Brown is a free agent and Cedrick Wilson is a restricted free agent. That means they can probably re-sign Wilson if they chose, and the market may not be too high to bring Brown back. Once again, the question arises about where to put your resources. The concerns about finding enough cap space to do all the necessary things may make one or both harder to bring back for the team.

Outside of the previously listed players, they have Jon’Vea Johnson, Stephen Guidry, and Aaron Parker under contract. WR depth is now a concern. As mentioned, finding good ones on day two and three of the draft is almost always possible. They proved that with Gallup. Look to see them grab one or possibly even two that way, then add more as UDFAs, since in the past they have carried a lot of wide receivers into camp. Those first-year rookies are cheap, and that is not an insignificant consideration.

Offensive tackle

Now things really get murky. We know about the injury issues of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins last year. Smith now has a history of missing time for five consecutive years, and we can’t rule out the possibility of retirement for him. And if Collins’ own injury was not enough of a concern, this popped up over the weekend.

This was a little odd, because most seemed to be totally unaware of any rumors to that effect. This supposed reassurance actually just raised questions.

Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele certainly gained valuable experience filling in, but neither were exactly starting caliber even by the end of the season. The need to have quality OTs was brutally illustrated by how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers absolutely abused the backups the Kansas City Chiefs were forced to field in the championship. With all the uncertainty surrounding Smith and Collins, OT suddenly is looking like one of the positions Dallas may need to spend some premium draft capital, perhaps even the tenth overall pick. It is perhaps the only position on offense that would warrant a look at available free agents in most years. But good OTs are one of the most expensive commodities out there. They might try to sign what they think is one of their bargain-bin specials, but this is not the way.

The Cowboys also have Isaac Alarcon and William Sweet under contract. Alarcon is intriguing, but still a project that will likely take more than a year to bear fruit. This is one position on offense that needs serious attention in the draft.

Interior offensive line

Guard seems to be in good shape, providing Zack Martin has no setbacks. Connor Williams turned out to be the most reliable player on the line, and Connor McGovern’s extensive use should make him a better backup. The question is whether Tyler Biadasz is the starter they need at center. He had somewhat mixed reviews in his games before he was injured. But Joe Looney will almost certainly be too expensive to bring back as a free agent. That leaves Adam Redmond as a backup center. The bodies are there, but the quality is unproven.

This is a place that we may see a bit of an unexpected draft pick, especially if there is a mid-to-late-round candidate who can play both center and guard. Like tackle, we may also see a third or fourth wave low cost signing here.

If you’ve been keeping track, you may note that the only time free agents were even mentioned as an option here were the Cowboys’ own, or when they would likely be down to that bottom of the barrel they seem to like. On offense, there are just no obvious places that the team needs to go out and sign high value outside veteran talent. The relatively few holes they need to fill seem much more likely to be addressed through the draft.

The picture on defense is very different. The holes are much more numerous, and there are definitely places a veteran could be a big help. We’ll dive into that in the second part of this analysis soon.