Cowboys' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2021

Cowboys' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys already crossed a Dak Prescott extension off their offseason to-do list, but with the kickoff of free-agency right around the corner, there's little time to celebrate.

    The legal tampering period begins Monday, while free agency officially starts Wednesday. Now that Prescott is set to play in Dallas for the foreseeable future, it's time for Jerry Jones and Co. to get to work on putting together a roster that can not just win the NFC East but win some playoff games as well.

    Prescott's brand new four-year, $160 million contract took a large chunk of the money Dallas had to spend this offseason, but there's still some left over for the Cowboys to address some needs.

    Below is a look at how much money the Cowboys are working with, who on the roster is set to hit the open market, their biggest needs and potential targets to watch.

Cap Situation

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    2021 NFL Cap: $182.5 Million

    Cap Space: $20.7 million, per Spotrac

    It was vital for the Cowboys to come to terms on an agreement with Prescott for multiple reasons, but this season's cap situation was chief among them. The salary cap across the league took a hit because of the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Last season the number was $198.2 million. This year, the limit is set at $182.5 million for each team before cap rollover is applied.

    That leaves the Cowboys with just over $20 million to spend on the open market. While Prescott's big contract pays him a ton over the next four years, it only costs the team $22.2 million from a cap perspective this season.

    As opposed to the $37.7 million another year under the tag would've cost, the Cowboys can thank their quarterback's new deal for all the cap space they have. The figure puts them right around league average in terms of cap space.

    DeMarcus Lawrence ($25 million) and Amari Cooper ($22 million) join Prescott as the most expensive players on the payroll.

Notable Free Agents

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
    • 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

    There is no Byron Jones on this year's list of impending free agents. The Cowboys could lose all of their free agents set to hit the market and none of them would be a huge blow.

    There are some pieces they should be looking to bring back, even if just for some continuity. Aldon Smith played his first season after being suspended for four years. He showed some of the athleticism that made him a premier edge rusher with five sacks.

    He's no longer an elite option, but he would make sense as a cheaper veteran to bring back and play opposite Lawrence on the defensive line.

    The secondary will be another area to watch as they have a potential mass exodus on their hands. Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Chidobe Awuzie will all be looking for new contracts after playing major roles in a bad secondary last season.

    Even though Dallas surrendered a 100.4 quarterback rating to opposing passers last season, it can be difficult to replace that many veterans in one offseason. Just ask the Vikings.

Biggest Needs

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    After a disappointing 6-10 campaign in 2020, there's no shortage of needs heading into the offseason. Many exist on the defense, though. The offense was crippled by injuries on the offensive line and to Prescott.

    Those should correct themselves with time to heal and get back on the same page, but these needs might need to be addressed with the team's free-agency budget.


    Defensive Tackle

    The Cowboys' defense was atrocious last season. Firing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan should help. There were so many times they just weren't gap-sound, but finding some additional help at defensive tackle should help with that as well.

    Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill were probably asked to do more than they should have given their youth. They should continue to be in the rotation as there is time to get better. But players like Antwaun Woods and Tyrone Crawford can't be counted on to fill the need at defensive tackle.

    They don't even have to find guys who can push the pocket. That would be nice, but some run-stuffers who can make life easier for the linebackers would be huge for the defense moving forward.



    This is a need that might end up getting addressed in the draft. Both Patrick Surtain II and Caleb Farley would make sense as targets with the 10th pick, but it's still worth mentioning as a huge need.

    Trevon Diggs had a strong rookie season, but the Cowboys were clearly still missing Byron Jones last season. This secondary needs retooled. That process started last season when they drafted Diggs, but it needs to continue, and finding either an outside or slot corner in free agency would speed up that process.



    The root of the issue with the Cowboys' run defense was like the chicken and the egg last season. Were the linebackers out of position because the defensive tackles were bad? Or were the defensive tackles made to look bad because the linebackers were out of position?

    Regardless, the Cowboys will need to give Dan Quinn some new linebackers to work with. Sean Lee's contract is expiring, and he was a shell of himself last season. Jaylon Smith could still be a cap casualty, and Leighton Vander Esch was ranked 53rd among linebackers on PFF.

Top Targets

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    While working with a somewhat limited budget, the Cowboys' top targets aren't likely to be the biggest names on the market.

    For instance, bringing back Aldon Smith and hoping to get Randy Gregory on the field is going to be the more cost-effective way to address the defensive end position.

    Likewise, Dalvin Tomlinson would be a great addition to address the defensive tackle problem. But he's likely to command a deal that pays him more than $10 million per season. It's much more likely they target someone like Jurrell Casey, who is coming off an injury and is 31.

    That's some risk, but it could pay off in a big way. The five-time Pro Bowler is strong against the run and would be a veteran presence in a group that will likely play some older players.

    The cornerback market is abundant with options, albeit flawed ones. Cornerback tends to be one of the most volatile positions from year-to-year. Xavier Rhodes is a perfect example. He allowed an 81.5 completion percentage in 2019, left Minnesota and allowed just 51.9 percent of his targets to be caught with Indianapolis.

    The market is littered with corners who have had mixed results, including their own Chidobe Awuzie, Washington Football Team's Ronald Darby and 49ers corner and former TCU standout Jason Verrett. 

    The biggest names in the off-ball linebacker market have already been spoken for. Lavonte David is going back to Tampa while Matt Milano re-upped with the Bills. However, Jayon Brown or K.J. Wright would be worth talking to if they hit the market.