Cowboys' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2021

Cowboys' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys have taken care of objective No. 1 this offseason by locking up Dak Prescott to a four-year contract. Now, the work begins of putting a team around him that can win on a budget. 

    As expected, the quarterback's contract wipes out the majority of the Cowboys' cap space. Spotrac put the new figure at $4.5 million. While that seems bleak, the long-term deal was a much cheaper alternative to the franchise tag. 

    Had the Cowboys used the franchise tag, it would have cost them $37.7 million. Now, he'll only cost them $22.2 million

    Obviously, the team has work to do to clear some space. There are still cuts and restructures required to give them some spending money, and every dollar they spend the rest of the offseason is going to have to be done with prudence. 

    These three players should be at the top of the list to bring to Dallas with the limited resources it is going to be working with.

DE Aldon Smith

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    There are a few key questions the Cowboys need to ask themselves when prioritizing free agents this offseason. The first is if they can pay less than market value for a player and the second is whether the acquisition helps them win now. 

    The answer on both fronts for Aldon Smith is a resounding yes. 

    After a four-year absence from the league following an indefinite suspension, the 31-year-old signed with Dallas and showed signs of being the same dominant force he was before his absence. He finished the season with five sacks and was the 50th-rated edge-defender by PFF

    Those aren't jaw-dropping numbers by any means, but it's a respectable level of play. The Cowboys need someone who can push the pocket opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Smith can do that, and his age and suspension are likely to drive down his cost. 

    In a radio spot with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas (via Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk), Dallas owner Jerry Jones expressed his interest in bringing the Missouri product back.

    Smith is the perfect veteran stopgap who can help the Cowboys defense be the best it can be next season without breaking the bank. 

CB Richard Sherman

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    This is another example of the Cowboys finding short-term value to give them the best chance at competing next season.

    There's risk involved, though. Richard Sherman only played five games in 2020 and will be 33 next season. However, four of those give games were late in the season so he showed he has moved on from the calf injury that claimed most of his campaign. 

    Bringing in the cornerback would offer the Cowboys a player who clearly believes in new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who worked with Sherman in Seattle before becoming head coach with the Atlanta Falcons

    "He's a great leader of men—that's why he got the job as a head coach—and as the coordinator, he's going to do a great job of bringing the best out of these guys," Sherman told Vaughn McClure of ESPN in 2019. "He's a great motivator. He's obviously very technical."

    Dallas is set to lose three key members from last year's secondary in Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. While they all had varying levels of play, it's still tough to replace that many members of a unit. 

    Bringing in Sherman, who is familiar with the system Quinn will be installing, is a good step even if the veteran doesn't end up playing up to his reputation. 

S Keanu Neal

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Sticking with the theme of free agents with a Dan Quinn connection, Keanu Neal makes a lot of sense for Dallas. The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in Atlanta, but there's reason to believe his best football could still be in front of him. 

    That's because a lot of the 25-year-old's struggles have come because of injuries. After amassing 222 total tackles, 14 passes defended and eight forced fumbles in his first two seasons, he missed large portions of his next two seasons with an Achilles injury and an ACL tear. 

    That's a red flag, but it's one that could also point toward his potential to improve. Neal came back healthy last season and had 100 tackles in 15 games with nine tackles for a loss. Given another year of recovery and health, he could be even better over the next few seasons. 

    The Florida product is at his best playing a traditional strong safety role. He's familiar with Quinn and has proved to be productive in his system, and it would allow the Cowboys to move Donovan Wilson into a free safety role while Xavier Woods walks. 

    The result could be a secondary that features both Sherman and Neal, giving the Cowboys two new members of the secondary who understand Quinn's vision for the defense at bargain prices.