When the Cowboys declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Leighton Vander Esch’s contract a few weeks ago, they ensured their 2018 first-round pick could hit unrestricted free agency in 2022 absent a new deal this year.
That decision upped the total number of players playing on expiring contracts this year to 34. Those 34 players are a motley crew of soon-to-be free agents.
All six players remaining from the 2018 draft class. Vander Esch’s declined option means he’ll be joining Connor Williams, Michael Gallup, Dorance Armstrong, and Dalton Schultz as players entering the final year of their rookie contracts. Cedric Wilson, also a 2018 pick, is already playing on a one-year contract. Do the Cowboys want to work out an early deal with any of them, or will they let them hit free agency first to gauge their value?
The Cowboys signed a small army of veterans to one-year deals this year, which makes those nine players feel a little bit like one-year rentals.
11 players on veteran contracts are playing out the final year of their contracts. Two of them (Randy Gregory and Noah Brown) were drafted by the Cowboys and have spent their entire NFL career in Dallas. So far.
Three players are former Cowboys UDFAs (Steven Parker, Brandon Knight, Luke Gifford) who are all on their first contracts with the Cowboys and will all be restricted free agents
Five players are exclusive rights free agent. All five (Ron’Dell Carter, Francis Bernard, Hunter Niswander, Aaron Parker, Mitch Hyatt) have no more than two accrued seasons in the NFL and may only sign with the Cowboys, provided the Cowboys extend a minimum qualifying offer to the player. So if the Cowboys want to keep any of them, they can keep those ERFAs for the veteran minimum for another year at least.
Here’s a summary table of all 34 players who could carry some kind of free agent designation after the 2021 season.
|Player||Pos.||Cap Hit 2021||Type|
|2018 draft class|
|Leighton Vander Esch||LB||$2,961,945||UFA|
|Veterans on expiring contracts|
|Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA)|
The first hurdle for many of the 34 players in the table above is the 53-man roster, and not all of them will make it. There’s a good chance that half of the players listed won’t make final roster cuts in September. But that still leaves the Cowboys with around 17 players who’ll be playing on expiring contracts this year. After the season, and if the players are not re-signed by the Cowboys, they could provide the Cowboys with one final return on their contracts: compensatory draft picks.
So how many players on this list will the Cowboys keep beyond 2021?
From the 2018 draft class, it’s likely Connor Williams and Dalton Schultz get re-signed, along with Leighton Vander Esch (if he can stay healthy). Dorance Armstrong and Cedric Wilson will likely have to make room for younger players with more upside. The big question mark is Michael Gallup. Gallup is not going to command superstar money, but he’s not going to come cheap either. Do the Cowboys want to keep the band together at WR, and at what price?
From the veterans on expiring contracts, Randy Gregory is probably the only one the Cowboys would look to keep. Gregory came on very strong in the second half of last season, as John Owning explains.
Since Week 7 (his first game), Randy Gregory ranks 2nd in pass-rush productivity (11.4) among EDGEs with at least 35 pass-rush snaps, as he's accumulated 14 pressures & 2 sacks in 70 PR snaps, per PFF.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 27, 2020
Safe to say Randy G has exceeded expectations since his return. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/behbtza46U
Another performance like this in 2021 will see a sharp increase Gregory’s value over the $1 million he’s scheduled to make this year. How much will the Cowboys be willing to invest to keep Gregory?
One-year “Rentals”: Anybody’s guess how many will stick around. LS Jake McQuaide would be a good bet, perhaps P Bryan Anger. And with the money the Cowboys have invested in him, Keanu Neal should be a long-term option as well, but don’t counting on it.
Former UDFAs & ERFAs: It’s going to be an uphill struggle for all of these guys, but maybe there’s a surprise or two among this group.
In total, I have about seven of those 34 players back on the team in 2022. Over to you: How many of the 34 players above do you think the Cowboys will keep beyond 2021?