Draft season is heating up. The Dallas Cowboys have a projected ten picks this year, including six in the first four rounds. The draft has long been their preferred vehicle for building the roster. With so many needs they need to address, especially on defense, they will need to use them wisely. But before we get to the draft in a couple of months, free agency will come. They need to be just as thoughtful about that as the draft. They also need to reconsider their typical aversion to investing some cap space there.
Last year, they were actually active in free agency. It just didn’t work out well for them. Greg Zuerlein, Aldon Smith, and Andy Dalton were the best signings. But they saw Gerald McCoy get injured before training camp was even in full swing, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was released before the season started, and Dontari Poe was an outright failure on the field, getting cut once rookie Neville Gallimore started to step up. They also ended up trading away and under-achieving Everson Griffen. Still, there was ample evidence that free agency is a valid way of helping to construct a winning roster. None is more obvious than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They brought Tom Brady, Ndamukong Suh, and Rob Gronkowski on board on their way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in their own stadium.
There is a problem looming for the Cowboys, however. The salary cap is expected to be less, with a current floor of $180 million for the eventual figure. At the moment, Dallas only has $19.35 million in space to work with, according to the current cap figures from Over the Cap. They are expected to need most of that to re-sign Dak Prescott. It is far preferable to get a multi-year deal completed for him, since playing him on the franchise tag would mean a hit of $37 million, forcing them to generate more space through restructuring and releases just to get that done. With a four-year deal, for instance, they can greatly reduce that hit this season through putting a lot of the money into a signing bonus.
However, as Field Yates of ESPN points out, restructuring is just going to be a way of life for many NFL teams this year.
With the salary cap likely to go down this offseason, expect NFL teams to rely quite a bit on base salary to signing bonus conversions to create 2021 cap space.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 22, 2021
An explainer on how those work, plus the upside and downside for the team and the player involved ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/Bea56xZ9z6
The Cowboys actually are in a better position than most. They have the twelfth most space in the league at this point. A somewhat staggering thirteen teams are in the hole according to OTC, with the bottom four being the Kansas City Chiefs at minus $23 million, the Los Angeles Rams $34 million in arrears, the Philadelphia Eagles down $43 million, and the New Orleans Saints bringing up the rear with a shortfall of an amazing $69.5 million. And those figures reflect the higher floor the NFL and NFLPA agreed to.
While a handful of teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, and New York Jets have enough space to go out and sign whoever they want, most of the league is facing some very real limitations in what they can do in free agency. That could be very beneficial to Dallas, since the numbers should lead to a depressing of the money free agents can demand. Through restructuring, some releases, and that Prescott deal, the Cowboys can free up $50 million or more in space. It also has to be factored in that the cap will almost certainly go up a lot after 2022, when the new broadcast rights deals are done. The NFL is reportedly looking for a 100% increase in the value of those deals, and while that may just be a starting point for negotiations, it will certainly be a large increase. That makes those restructures a lot easier to absorb down the road.
They have long had an approach of using free agency to fill the obvious holes on the roster before the draft to make need less of a driving factor when they go on the clock. That will likely still influence them in their approach to free agency.
They also could try to trade for some players, but this will focus strictly on free agency.
So taking all that into account, where are they likely to address those holes, and what kind of player, in terms of likely cost, might they try to acquire? We can basically rule out the top names, but there are plenty of second- and third-tier players that could still help them. Here are some possible options.
It is very likely they will sign McCoy again if he is fully recovered. He was signed last year for three years with an average of $6 million per year. It would likely be much the same for a new deal, and they could reduce that hit for this year by making a chunk of the money a signing bonus.
They may still want to double-dip here, or they may not get a new contract done with McCoy. If there is a preferred signing for me from outside the team, it would be Suh. He was on a one-year rental with the Bucs for $8 million. He was certainly productive for them with six sacks, 27 tackles, and a forced fumble, plus was generally disruptive up the middle on passing downs. However, he is one player that will likely still get attention from multiple teams, including Tampa Bay. That may still make him too expensive for Stephen Jones’ parsimonious nature.
A possible, more palatable option, might be Johnathan Hankins. He only had one sack last year with the Las Vegas Raiders, but matched Suh’s tackle total. And at 340 pounds, he might finally give the Cowboys that true 1-tech they have lacked. The run defense was dismal for Dallas last season, and Hankins might be a real solution on early downs. He also only was making an average of $4.25 million a year with them, so he would likely be available for a very reasonable price.
Failing someone like that, the Cowboys will have to go to the bargain bin again. That would include re-signing Antwaun Woods, who only cost them $750,000 last season. The team seems to like him, but clearly he doesn’t upgrade anything.
You may not want to hear this, but one of the best options in free agency for Dallas is one of their own, Xavier Woods. He is ranked by PFF as the sixth best free agent on the market at the position. But he, like Donovan Wilson, is more a strong safety than the centerfielder the team needs.
Assuming the team wants to address that, look for them to go for a lower cost player who showed those free safety traits, and there are a ton of safeties on the market that commanded less than $2 million a year. This is a position that should be a placeholder for the draft, and the team has to be prepared to cut ties if they find the free safety they need in the draft. That is the risk of bargain shopping in free agency, and the tendencies of the team have long been to do just that for this position.
However, there is another out-of-the box option that has been floated on social media. Richard Sherman has deep ties to Dan Quinn, and may be amenable to changing positions from cornerback. This would be a more costly option, since he pulled down over $10 million a year with the San Francisco 49ers. It could depend on just how much influence Quinn will have on free agency decisions. It is rather intriguing.
Sherman could also be a way to address his old position for the Cowboys, with the same caveats on meeting his price. It does seem unlikely that the team will re-sign either Chidobe Awuzie or Jourdan Lewis. However, we don’t know how strong the preference for bringing back their own still is. They may be most likely to bring back C.J. Godwin, but that is for his special teams contributions more than as a corner.
This is one position the the Cowboys have been willing to spend on in the past, but it is also a place they feel like they have been burned. This is just one that is rather hard to predict, but a couple of young players that they might want to try to make a run at are Shaquil Griffen and Desmond King. It will depend on how the bidding develops for their talents, but if one of those makes it through the first wave of signings, Dallas would be wise to take a long, hard look.
They also might look at another, longer-tenured corner to provide some veteran presence in the room. That is one thing Sherman would be valued for, but they might have to look at some others that won’t be demanding as much.
In any case, they have to sign at least one cornerback, and this is a position where they definitely have to think about double-dipping.
This is a tough one, because they have their two starters from last year, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, both under contract. Neither had a good season. There is some talk on social media about releasing Smith as a post June 1 cut, which would increase their cap space. Predicting that is not part of this piece, but if it should eventuate, the need to sign a linebacker goes way up.
What they don’t need is to go looking for one in the first wave, and probably not in the second. The team has overinvested in the position badly of late, and they cannot afford to do that again. The good news is that there are a ton of likely affordable options out there. The bad news is that a lot of them saw very little playing time.
This seems like as much a crapshoot as with any position they can look at in free agency. And they might just eschew the whole thing if they think they have something already in Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard. They also could bring back Justin March or Joe Thomas. It is just a very uncertain situation.
There is even more uncertainty here with the health problems last year for Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. We simply do not know the true status of their recoveries, and Smith has not played a full season in five years. He might well consider retirement, too.
If they feel they can’t rely on one or even both of those, this becomes another place to look for help in free agency. Terence Steele and Brandon Knight both gained invaluable playing experience and looked to be improving as the season progressed. They still do not seem like the players the team wants to hang their hat on.
Decent OTs are not cheap, much less good ones. The supply may not be very good, either. Just consider that Cameron Fleming made at least one list as a top ten OL option. Dallas may have few options besides trying to make it work with their own players.
So there are three positions that look like the Cowboys have to address, and two that are maybes. They will possibly bring in a few others, but these are the biggest needs. We can hope that the team will be more aggressive in free agency than usual, but that is certainly an open question. And it almost all will depend on costs.