Dallas Cowboys Guide to the 2017 Free-Agent Market
Over the past few years, the Cowboys have taken a much different approach towards free agency. In the late 2000s, the team was consistently one of the league's biggest spenders in free agency. The draft was more of an afterthought as Dallas tried to load up their team with premier players on the league's opening day.
But since Will McClay and Stephen Jones have taken over more control of roster construction, the Cowboys have become more frugal participants in free agency. No longer attracted to the high-priced players, the team now waits until the second or third wave of free agency before making any moves. Last year, Jones told fans not to get excited about free agency, because it often leads to "good players" getting "paid like they're great players," and "average players" getting "paid like they're good players."
With that said, the Cowboys have their work cut out for them in this free-agent market. The team has 22 pending free agents, 12 of which started at some point in 2016. But to make matters worse, the Cowboys are currently $11 million dollars over the salary cap before free agency even begins. Surely, the team will need to deal with Tony Romo's contract, but that will only save them a few million. Cuts and restructuring of contracts will come, but it will leave very little space for the team to make moves in free agency.
The Cowboys don't have any massive holes, but there are spots that need an upgrade or additional depth. Here are some of the positions that Dallas may choose to attack in free agency and some names that could make sense at each position.
With Tony Romo likely to leave the team during the offseason via trade or outright release, the Cowboys will have a need for a backup quarterback going into the 2017 offseason. But Romo isn't the only one who is likely to leave, as Kellen Moore and Mark Sanchez are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March. A once crowded quarterback room may look awfully lonely for Dak Prescott by the start of the league's new year.
With money likely to be tight for the Cowboys and a general manager who promised to fix the defense, it's not logical to think that they will offer some of the more premier quarterbacks big contracts. Players such as Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley will not be on the Cowboys' radar.
Instead, expect them to target older veterans to help Dak Prescott. One name that stands out is recently released Josh McCown. When Kellen Moore was injured in training camp, the Cowboys searched frantically to find a suitable backup quarterback to Tony Romo. One of the players Dallas tried to trade for was McCown, but they were too reluctant to give up a high pick for the veteran. However, he was released last week by the Browns, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the Cowboys decided to bring in the veteran quarterback.
The Cowboys have one of the best running backs in the league in Ezekiel Elliott, but the depth behind him is nonexistent. Dallas had the second most rushing attempts in 2016, so identifying a capable backup running back is an important goal for the team this offseason. What also makes the running back position an underrated need in 2017 is the ongoing investigation of Ezekiel Elliott. While nothing is likely to come of the matter, it is important that the Cowboys cover themselves, whether it be in free agency or in the draft.
Backups Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar are both scheduled to become free agents on March 9, and Alfred Morris, the only other running back under contract, just isn't capable of being a backup running back any longer. Morris averaged only 3.5 yards per carry and is essentially useless on passing downs. At 28, Morris is down to his last season or two in the NFL.
If the Cowboys do decide to look to free agency to find their backup running back, they will have options. But much like the quarterback situation, the Cowboys likely won't spend much on a backup. Instead, they will likely try to save as many resources for defense as possible. That'll rule out players such as Le'Veon Bell, Latavius Murray and Eddie Lacy if one of those three hits the open market.
One of the more intriguing options is Bengals' Rex Burkhead. A highly athletic runner, he was trapped behind Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill as the third back on the roster. His best football comes when he's running wide zone and playing on third downs. He likely won't see any offers to be a starter, but being a backup on the Cowboys on a one- or two-year deal may be enough to entice the former Nebraska product.
Of the three skill positions, the Cowboys' biggest need entering free agency is at the wide receiver position. Outside receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler are both scheduled to enter free agency, and with the market paying $6-7 million for average receivers, it's likely that the Cowboys will lose both players.
In 2016, two former Bengals set the market for secondary receivers. Marvin Jones received a five-year deal, worth $40 million with $20 million guaranteed. In the same offseason, Mohammad Sanu signed a five-year deal as well, worth $32.5 million with $14 million fully guaranteed. With Williams' stats easily matching both of those players, it wouldn't be shocking to see him get a similar deal. If Williams sees those type of offers from other teams, the Cowboys will be forced to dig into free agency to find another outside receiver.
The top two receivers entering free agency are Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor. Both players are expected to receive more than $10 million dollars annually from teams looking for No. 1 receivers. Again, the Cowboys aren't expected to be players in the early portion of free agency, so it's unlikely to even see the team visit the agents of either player.
However, expect the Cowboys to be players in the deeper portions in free agency as they try to replace Williams and/or Butler. The Cowboys could target older, stopgap players until they can find a long-term solution in the draft. When looking at players that could potentially fit with Dallas, it's important to note the type of player they are looking for in a Z receiver. Since 2008, the Cowboys haven't had a receiver play opposite their X receiver that has measured under 6'2". On the outside, they are looking for big receivers who can block on the edge and make plays on the sideline.
The Z receiver in the Cowboys' offense isn't a frequently targeted receiver. No Dallas Z receiver in the past 10 years has eclipsed 70 receptions or 1,000 yards in a single season. That position just doesn't see a ton of action. Their main job is to hold up on the edges in the run game.
For this reason, expect the Cowboys to target a veteran player, such as Brandon LaFell or Rod Streater. Either player could hold down the fort until they draft a future starter. LaFell makes sense, as he is one of the better blockers in the league, and at 30 years old, he's likely to be one of the cheaper options in free agency.
It's no secret that one of the Cowboys biggest needs on their entire roster is on the defensive line. The team hasn't been able to find a reliable pass rush from the outside since the release of DeMarcus Ware in the spring of 2014. Speaking of Ware, it's been speculated that a possible reunion could be in place, but at Ware's age and given his injury history, that doesn't seem likely.
Instead, the Cowboys are far more likely to add lesser known rushers via free agency, as they did last year with Benson Mayowa, than spend big money on some of the top rushers. While it's not expected that players such as Chandler Jones or Jason Pierre-Paul would hit free agency, it's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would even entertain the idea of those players. With Dallas implementing such a heavy rotation across the defensive line, it is really not reasonable to expect them to pay $14 million per year on one single rusher.
Instead of chasing the top pass rushers or older players, the Cowboys will turn their attention to younger, possibly less proven players. One such player that could intrigue Dallas in free agency is former Detroit Lions' edge-rusher Devin Taylor. At 6'7", 267 pounds, Taylor has the ideal size to be a base left end in the Cowboys' defense. In limited snaps in the past two seasons, he's accumulated 11.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. In the final rankings in the NFL1000, Taylor finished as the 30th defensive end in the league, above both of Dallas' left defensive ends David Irving and Tyrone Crawford.
According to Spotrac, Taylor's market value should be right around $7 million dollars annually. That may be a bit pricey for the Cowboys, but it may not be a bad deal for proven, 27-year-old rusher. If that deal proves to be a bit too expensive for Dallas, the team may have no other choice but to swing for home runs in the deeper portions of free agency. An example of this would be a player such as Dion Jordan from Miami.
In his four-year career, Jordan has been suspended a total of 22 games for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. But his talent and likely low price tag may be enough to convince the team if they feel confident enough about his character. During the 2013 draft, the Cowboys graded Jordan as the No. 1 defensive end and the third overall player in the entire class. If the team could bring him in on a team-friendly, prove-it deal, it wouldn't be shocking to see them take a chance on the former Oregon Duck.
Expect the Cowboys to be highly patient overall during free agency, but if they do decide to pay decent money for one single player, expect it to be for a proven edge-rusher.
Outside of defensive end, the Cowboys' biggest area of concern entering free agency is at the cornerback position. Both starting cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are set to hit free agency in March, and only second-year rookie Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick remain under contract.
Over the past few years, the Cowboys have adopted a different philosophy in terms of what type of corner the team is looking for. Dallas is no longer in search of smaller cornerbacks but prefers players who are at least 5'11" but more specifically have arm lengths that equal 32 inches or longer. The team wants physical corners who can press at the line of scrimmage and aren't afraid to stick their nose in run support. Speed isn't a crucial factor as the team often plays in the Cover 2 defense, preventing big plays over top.
With an incredibly deep and talented cornerback class ahead of the team in April's draft, it's unlikely the Cowboys will pay up for an elite player in free agency. That type of strategy just hasn't worked out for them in the past. Players such as Trumaine Johnson, A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore will all likely exceed the Cowboys' price range.
Instead, look for the Cowboys to take chances on players who hit their physical threshold and are younger. In recent years, the Cowboys have avoided older players in free agency in favor of younger, less proven players with upside. Players that fit that bill in 2017 could be New England Patriots' Logan Ryan or the Broncos' Kayvon Webster.
Much like the cornerback position, the Cowboys' safeties have two key players set to hit the free-agent market in Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. In the last three seasons, both players have combined to play 5,745 snaps on defense and on special teams. That's a lot of snaps that could walk out of the door in a month. It's quite likely that one, if not both, decides to pursue better opportunities elsewhere in free agency.
If that does occur, the Cowboys will need to bring in one safety, whether that be in free agency or the draft. Byron Jones is the team's starter at the free safety position, but if Church and Wilcox leave, the team would need to find a true strong safety. Jeff Heath recently signed a new contract with Dallas, but he projects better as a backup free safety. The team did draft strong safety Kavon Frazier in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, but it's unreasonable to expect him to be the opening day starter in 2017 after playing only 36 snaps in his rookie year.
Who would the Cowboys target in free agency if the team happened to lose both Wilcox and Church? Due to their limited resources, you can essentially rule out the top safeties, which would include Eric Berry and Tony Jefferson. Another one that you can rule out is Matt Elam. In the 2013 draft, the Cowboys had the former first-round pick completely off their board. It's highly unlikely the team would even consider bringing him in, regardless of the price.
One name that may make sense is former Texans' safety D.J. Swearinger. Back in 2015, he was released by the Texans, and the Cowboys considered claiming him, but with Church and Wilcox on the active roster, it was hard to justify a third strong safety type on the team. In the 2013 draft, the Cowboys gave Swearinger a third-round grade but slightly preferred J.J. Wilcox over him. If Dallas loses one of their two safeties, it wouldn't be all that surprising if they had some interest in the former safety from South Carolina.
Swearinger played for the Cardinals in 2016 as a reserve but was quite productive in the snaps he played. He accumulated 64 total tackles, including two sacks and three interceptions. Swearinger is a true in-the-box safety and an enforcer. But his liability in pass coverage can often get him in trouble. His best role is on early downs in the box where he can then be replaced on obvious passing downs by a player who is better in coverage.
Other names that the Cowboys could consider may be former Rams' T.J. McDonald or New England Patriot Duron Harmon. It's expected that the Cowboys will bring back one of their two free agents at safety, but if they need to dip into free agency, the market will be awfully thin after the top few players are gone.