Cowboys' Offseason Guide Entering 2021 NFL Season

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2021

Cowboys' Offseason Guide Entering 2021 NFL Season

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys should be among the teams most thankful that 2020 is finally over. 

    Anything that could go wrong for the team did this season. From Dak Prescott's injury to players reportedly criticizing new head coach Mike McCarthy after a blowout loss, there were a lot more negatives than positives. 

    But the offseason brings a chance to get things going back in a positive direction. Prescott should return to the lineup (as long as they sign him), while McCarthy will have a full offseason to get everyone on the same page and get more players to fit what he wants to do. 

    There will be challenges. The Cowboys' cap situation isn't great and bringing back Prescott isn't a sure thing. There are hard decisions to be made going forward and becoming appreciably better outside of just getting healthy will take prudent decision-making from the front office. 

Priorities

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Not that the Cowboys got off to a great start, but watching the aftermath of losing Dak Prescott it's hard to say their first priority isn't getting their star quarterback under contract.

    The 27-year-old played this season on the one-year franchise tag, which turned out to be a relatively sunk cost given his ankle injury. 

    Now, owner Jerry Jones and Co. have a tougher decision to make. If they tag him for another year, it will cost $37.7 million for the season. It would also be the last year they could do so without an exorbitant price tag. But signing him to a longer deal means committing to a quarterback coming off a gruesome injury. 

    All things considered, that's probably the best option. Prescott was top five in the league in yards, touchdowns and QBR in 2019. He was on pace for another huge year in 2020 before the injury in Week 5. 

    After Prescott, the offensive and defensive lines are among the most important needs. The O-line struggled with injuries to Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins this season. While those guys should be back next season, Martin and Smith are 30 and Collins is coming off hip surgery. 

    The defensive line was an utter mess this season, especially against the run. Only the Bengals and Texans gave up more yards per rush attempt and that's with the Cowboys seeing more run plays than anyone but the Jaguars

    The secondary was nothing to get excited about, either. It gave up a 100.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks and had the second-lowest total of passes defended. 

Impending Free Agents

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    The following are notable free agents the team will need to either re-sign or replace. A full list can be found on Over The Cap: 

    • QB Dak Prescott
    • DT Tyrone Crawford
    • LB Sean Lee
    • QB Andy Dalton
    • LG Cam Erving
    • C Joe Looney
    • EDGE Aldon Smith
    • CB Jourdan Lewis
    • S Xavier Woods
    • CB Chidobe Awuzie

    The big one here is Prescott, but there are other notable names the Cowboys are going to need to make a decision on. Tyrone Crawford is at the end of a contract that paid him $9.1 million in 2020. He is reportedly mulling over retirement

    That could be the same story with Sean Lee. He struggled this season after returning on a one-year deal and will be 35 next season. 

    Both Cam Erving and Joe Looney were supposed to be part of the solution on the offensive line, but neither made much of an impact. O-line help is hard to find for cheap, though, so replacing them could be difficult. 

    Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Chidobe Awuzie were all part of the problem in the secondary to varying degrees. However, Woods was the most useful of the bunch, playing the second-most snaps of anyone on the defense at safety. However, even he gave up a passer rating of 141.2 when targeted this season.

    Given the cap restrictions the team will be under, none of these players outside of Prescott are "must-haves." The only way they should be coming back is under deals that are below market value to contend for playing time. 

Free-Agency Outlook

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Cap Space: $18.8 million, per Spotrac.

    That cap number is deceiving once you consider the space that will need to be cleared for a new Prescott deal. Whether it's by franchise tag or a long-term deal, it's going to cost the Cowboys more space than they presently have. 

    That being said, there's always flexibility in the NFL cap. Between contract renegotiations and the ability to cut players and only pay out their guaranteed money, there's always a bit of wiggle room. That's going to involve some hard decisions. 

    For instance, the most money they could ostensibly save in one move is cutting Tyron Smith to save $5.2 million against the cap. That would be a considerable step to getting some breathing room, but it comes at the cost of losing one of their best players over the last decade. 

    So, if the Cowboys end up buying at all on the free-agent market, it is going to be as a bargain hunter. They will need to target affordable veterans who are high-floor albeit low-ceiling guys or young players who were disappointments thus far. 

    An example would be the Tennessee Titans' DaQuan Jones. He'll be 30 next season but posted a respectable 67.7 grade from PFF while playing 63 percent of the team's snaps. He also offers some versatility as he lined up at nose tackle and 3-technique depending on the Titans' front. 

    His age and lack of flashy production will likely make him the affordable kind of option the Cowboys will be interested in.

Draft Preview

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Cowboys are projected to have the following draft picks at their disposal to improve the team: 

    • Round 1, pick 10
    • Round 2, pick 44
    • Round 3, pick 75
    • Round 4, pick 106
    • Round 6, pick 168
    • Round 7, pick 202

    One of the few good things about this season was the top-10 draft pick that came about as a result of the Cowboys' 6-10 record. 

    It should offer them the opportunity to add a blue-chip player to their roster. Unlike last year when they were able to get CeeDee Lamb to add to a position of strength, Dallas is in a position where addressing a need is a must with this pick. 

    It's likely this pick will be spent on the defensive side of the ball. The ultimate prize would be Patrick Surtain II, who has built a strong case as the top cornerback in the draft. However, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley is much more likely to be there and would also be a great running mate with Trevon Diggs on the other side. 

    The other likely option is edge-rusher. The Cowboys relied on Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory to rush the passer in 2020. That's a group that needs new blood.

    Kwity Paye out of Michigan is a physical marvel with developing tools that could make him a star. Miami's Gregory Rousseau opted out of the season, which may ultimately cause him to drop from his early draft stock. He could be available when Dallas is on the clock as well. 

    The team's second-rounder should prove valuable as well. They could either target a second-tier prospect at corner or edge, or address the offensive line. Samuel Cosmi of Texas and Alabama's Alex Leatherwood are two tackle prospects who would make suitable successors to Tyron Smith.