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Cowboys, NFL wandering in the fog

The lack of data makes everything more risky.

AFC Wild Card: Tennesee Titans Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s been a while since I rolled out a military analogy to discuss the Dallas Cowboys. I used to do that a lot, but got away from it because football is a game, after all. Still, this strange offseason just begs to bring up one in particular, what is called the “fog of war”. What it means is that in a conflict between armed forces, decisions have to be made on limited, and at times nearly nonexistent, information. That is not a reliable path to victory. It is why things like scouting, intelligence gathering, analysis, and reconnaissance are so vital for the military. The actual battle can be won or lost before it even starts depending on how well those things are done. And since the opponent is not exactly trying to telegraph what their next move is, sometimes you can just wind up blundering almost blindly about, like you are in a dense fog.

Well, thanks primarily to the lingering issues from COVID, a thick blanket of uncertainty has descended on the entire NFL. It impacts the entire offseason. And just like in the comparison that started this article, how well teams cope will greatly affect their coming seasons.

First, consider the 500 lb gorilla riding the elephant around the room. The salary cap is still to be determined, but all indications are that it is going to be less than last season, probably winding up at $180 million or a little more. This is something that was truly unexpected before the virus hit. For years teams had planned on an ever-increasing cap to help them manage their contracts. While there has always been a need to manipulate things with restructures and releasing players to fit under the cap, that just got badly exacerbated. Suddenly, big contracts from a year or two back are much more difficult to deal with. See, for instance, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. While we experience a bit of schadenfreude over those, the Cowboys have their own to deal with. The most vexing one is that of Jaylon Smith. It is a bit of an open question as to how he can be “fixed” after a very confusing and disappointing 2020 season. He still has four years to run on the deal that was seen by many as too lucrative to give to an off-ball linebacker in the first place. The team could cut him to save space, or restructure him. But the latter makes it more cap-expensive to part ways in the future.

And of course there is the Dak Prescott negotiation, which will take up a lot of cap space this year. We won’t belabor the arguments involved in that, but it is just another level of uncertainty, very much self-imposed, that Dallas has to deal with.

Free agency is directly tied to cap space, and it is rapidly approaching. The lowered cap means that there is just a lot less money to spend for all teams. It has been posited that this could lead to a lot of this year’s free agents being willing to settle for smaller, one-year deals to get past the current lower cap situation. Expectations are that new deals for the rights to broadcast and stream NFL games will lead to a rapid increase after this year. Additionally, there is a realistic hope that we will see full stadiums again this fall, which also will help get the cap back up. So this should be a year when there are a lot more mercenary, bargain one-year free agents signed.

Arguing against that is the bigger than expected contract J.J. Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals. It is effectively a two-year deal for more than just about anyone predicted.

It just seems mathematically impossible for there to be many deals like that handed out. However, there should be a few more. That still is going to leave a lot of talent out there that would normally be demanding bigger deals than they will likely get. It should play right into Stephen Jones’ parsimonious hands. With more cuts likely in the next few weeks, the pool of available talent will just grow while the deals should shrink fairly noticeably.

Still, we just don’t know right now.

Meanwhile, the draft is going to be a real case of severely limited information to work with. The NFL Combine was effectively cancelled, leaving the much less reliable pro days around the country to try and make up the slack. We already saw the league having to deal with no in-person visits from draft prospects last year, and now the virtual alternatives have been constricted.

This makes the analogy this article started with even more apropos. Scouting departments now have to do even more work, and teams that have better networks to gather information on eligible players will have an advantage. With less reliable measurements to deal with, video analysis of players is now by far the most important tool they have. Recent history gives us some hope that the Cowboys can do well, but it remains a big challenge.

All this is affecting the draft in significant ways, at least as far as predicting what will happen. We’ve seen long time draft guru Todd McShay predict that the Cowboys will go on the clock with no defensive players taken before them. That seems like an ideal outcome for Dallas, given how much defensive help they need. Part of McShay’s reasoning involves his belief that a staggering five quarterbacks will be taken in the first nine selections. Most other mocks come to a similar conclusion, although four seems to be a more common assumption. Pro Football Network’s AJ Schulte is in that camp, with his seven-round mock having the first four picks all QBs.

In any case, if the prognosticators are close, that is going to push some great talent down to the Cowboys to snatch at ten, or to serve as bait to make a trade more attractive to teams coming after them. Making the perhaps too optimistic assumption that they don’t blow the Prescott situation, this will have an indirect benefit to them in the long run, as it would be truly unprecedented for four NFL starting caliber quarterbacks to emerge from this draft class. Some teams are going to make a bad pick, leaving them in the boat the Philadelphia Eagles find themselves in, to pick a team totally at random. Given that they may well be in the mix to take one themselves, depending on just how much faith they have in Jalen Hurts, it could just put them back on the quarterback carousel in another couple of years.

The fog of this year’s offseason has settled over the entire league. All teams face the same challenges, with just their needs varying. How well the Cowboys navigate through it will have a tremendous impact on the next several seasons.