Last week, I wrote in this space that now is the time for the Dallas Cowboys to push all their chips to the middle of the table and go big in this free agency period. They are a team that finished the season with a top 10 defense and an offense that is trending in the right direction after finishing in the top five back in 2016.
The Cowboys will go into free agency with about $53 million in cap space, with the potential to create another $14-22 million more through releases. Through restructures, they can create more room as needed by converting the base salaries to bonuses and moving the cap hits down the road a bit. The Cowboys will need to pay some of their own, but they'll have enough money to be players in free agency if they so choose.
And here are the five free agents that they should target.
1. Landon Collins, Safety, New York Giants
2018 was the first season in which New York Giants' Safety Landon Collins didn't play at least 15 games. He suffered a torn labrum in December and is potentially out until late Spring or early Summer. It was the first season of Collins' young career in which he didn't have an interception. Playing for a team like the Giants that weren't very good meant teams didn't have to throw a ton to force the issue, thus limiting opportunities for interceptions.
The benefit of signing Collins to upgrade the safety position is that he would immediately take Jeff Heath's role, leaving Xavier Woods to continue to man the free safety spot for the Dallas Cowboys. Continuity is a good thing.
While Earl Thomas might be the apple of many fans eye, he's beginning to get up there in age, while Collins just turned 25 years old. He still has a lot of football and a lot of good football ahead of him. Seeing how his medicals check out will be important as the labrum -- the cartilage in your shoulder joint -- is important to range of motion, flexibility, and would take a lot of impacts when tackling.
2. Earl Thomas, Safety, Seattle Seahawks
The Earl Thomas talk isn't going to go away until he's got a Star on his helmet or he's been signed by another team this offseason. In the NBA, they talk about "big fish" free agents, and Thomas will be one this offseason.
Yes, he's gotten older and yes, he's coming off of a season ending leg injury, but some of the things that Earl Thomas does best, are less about physical ability (though he has it) and more about mental capability. Thomas is one of the best free safeties in the NFL and has been so for a very long time (sorry for the Jason Garrett cliche).
His ability to play the ball in the air is as good as anyone in the NFL at the moment. We saw it first hand week three when the Dallas Cowboys traveled to Seattle and Thomas picked off Dak Prescott twice. He's had only one season in his career where he didn't pick off at least two passes, back in 2014. In only four games in the 2018 season, Earl Thomas had three interceptions.
Add Thomas to a defense that is young, hungry, and will likely improve from their stellar 2018 campaign and you have a defense that is able to compete with any of the top offenses in the NFL.
3. Trey Flowers, Defensive End, New England Patriots
The Dallas Cowboys, even with the stellar play of DeMarcus Lawrence and the improvements seen from Randy Gregory need some help along the defensive line. Trey Flowers has been a versatile player for the recently crowned Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
Over the last three seasons, Flowers had seven, 6.5 and 7.5 sacks a season. He only played one game his rookie year, but had been a dynamic pass rusher for the Patriots both inside and outside. He's also averaged around 20 quarterback hits a season for his career. Pro Football Focus credited Flowers with 64 total pressures, and was awarded the third highest grade of any edge player in the NFL.
It's unlikely that he's a player that would hit the free agent market, but should be a guy that Dallas pursues if he becomes available. The other side of the coin is that Flowers is likely set to make some major coin this offseason, which would likely price him out of their discussions. However, he's a guy they need to have a conversation with.
He can play all three downs for you and can bump inside in passing situations to allow Randy Gregory to get on the field.
Flowers won't turn 26 until August, which puts him still in his prime years.
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The Dallas Cowboys will have some money to spend, but how they spend it is going to be anyone's guess until we see who they bring in for free agent visits. One thing is certain, there are some really interesting players for the Cowboys to approach this offseason and if they want to can make a splash or two in March.
Should Cowboys Address TE Need Via Free Agency?
A season after Jason Witten's retirement, the Dallas Cowboys still have a need at tight end. Replacing a future Hall of Famer is no easy feat so it's only logical that it would take longer than a season to feel good about who's in at tight end.
The Cowboys currently have two tight ends who could be pretty serviceable going forward. Fourth round pick Dalton Schultz did a very solid job as the team's TE2, specially toward the second half of the season. He turned into a pretty good run blocker and despite only racking up 116 yards in 12 catches, he's a guy the Cowboys' offense could use even more in the future.
Also on the team is Blake Jarwin, who functioned as the Cowboys' main tight end for most of 2018. His performance against the New York Giants in week 17 made us wonder whether or not he could be an important target on the Cowboys' offense.
These two could very well have more in them than what we've seen. With a new offensive coordinator in town, tight end is a position the Cowboys could start using way more. As Bobby Belt pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago, Scott Linehan's offense doesn't benefit tight ends very much. Before we give a verdict on what Schultz and Jarwin can do, I'd like to see them work with Kellen Moore's offense.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Here's the thing. If the Cowboys are not taking a tight end in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, are they really upgrading what they already have? I'm not sure we'll be convinced about that if they draft a player for the position until the third or fourth round. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for the Cowboys drafting a TE in the second round, because I believe there are more pressing needs on the team. However, signing a veteran free agent might be the better option for upgrading the position.
Should a veteran TE be an option?
This year, there are quite a few interesting names in the tight end market. Veterans such as Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert and even Antonio Gates will be looking for a new team pretty soon. I know, that would be "getting older." But it could also mean getting better. Building a solid TE committee with a veteran leading Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz could be the way to go for this football team.
Eifert is a great tight end... when he's on the field. Durability is his biggest weakness, as he hasn't played more than 10 games since 2016. The Cowboys could take a risk on him and constantly rotate him with Jarwin and Schultz. It may be a huge risk, but it could pay off big time. If the price is right, Eifert should be targeted by the front office.
The 2018 Oakland Raiders had a season to forget, winning only four games. Even still, Jared Cook's season was impressive. He finished the year with 896 yards and multiple 100-yard games. The biggest issue with Cook is his age. He turns 32 in April. But hey, he's literally coming off from a career year.
Jesse James is a younger guy who could also be worth it. He's not an a potent receiver, but he gets it done in the passing game and is one hell of a blocker. James could be a legit, cheaper option for the Cowboys in free agency.
There are a lot of names out there the front office could look at. Charles Clay was just released by the Buffalo Bills and Nick Boyle will be looking for new job after new arrivals pushed him out of the Baltimore Ravens' roster just to mention a few names.
We'll see what the front office's plans are soon enough, but right now, I'd say tight end is a need the Dallas Cowboys should at least try to address in free agency instead of the NFL Draft.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Cornerback
Unlike other positions on their roster, cornerback appears ready to off the Dallas Cowboys stability in 2019. However, that doesn't mean the team can just ignore it this offseason. There are still a few decisions to be made.
Thanks to a shrewd move in April of last year, Dallas will be enjoying Byron Jones' services at a bargain. They picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and will be paying him just $6.3 million next season.
That's a steal for a Pro Bowl corner, who generally make more than double that amount in a single year. But the Cowboys are still left the decision of whether or not to give Jones a long-term deal now or wait until he hits free agency in 2020.
It's easy to say that they should enjoy the discount and worry about it next year. But then you risk a second Pro Bowl trip and the lure of the open market. Byron's asking price could only go up.
Of course, Dallas could then also have the option of using the franchise tag.
Keep in mind that Jones will turn 27 this September. Dallas could decide that it makes sense to play through the rookie deal this year, franchise him in 2020, and then reassess when he's about to turn 29 years old.
If they give Byron a long-term deal now then they'll have to pay him like one of the top corners in football. It may be wise to wait.
Another decision facing the Cowboys is if they think they can improve at the second starting position. It was an up-and-down year for Chidobe Awuzie, but he was playing his best toward the end of the season. Dallas could hope that a second year with Kris Richard's coaching, and just more general growth for a third-year player, will elevate Awuzie's game.
However, with plenty of cap space to work with, Dallas could pursue a solid veteran option and then allow Awuzie to play the nickel role. It would not only perhaps improve the CB2 position but also bolster depth overall.
Speaking of depth, Anthony Brown returns for the final year of his rookie deal. While never spectacular, Brown has been a gem as a former sixth-round pick with 29 career starts. He brings exceptional value and may even compete with Awuzie for the starting job.
While arguably the team's best young corner in 2017, Jourdan Lewis comes into this season with a lot of uncertainty. He fell out of favor last season, perhaps for not fitting the physical style that Richard likes. But he did manage to snag the game-clinching interception in Dallas' upset win over the New Orleans Saints.
If a scheme mismatch is the issue, the Cowboys could look to trade Lewis this offseason. He still has two years left on his rookie deal and was considered a first-round prospect by some in 2017. A cornerback-needy club might have more use for him than Dallas seems to.
If they did move Jourdan, the Cowboys might turn to Donovan Olumba to fill out the depth chart. He was one of their surprising performers in last year's training camp and spent the year on the practice squad. At 6'2", he has the size that the team seems to be looking for now in its corners.
More than likely, Dallas will ride with this group in 2019 with no big changes. I do think a Lewis trade is possible, especially with the Cowboys short on draft picks this year. But don't expect any major cap space or draft capital to go at one of the team's more solid positions.
With all the other work Dallas needs done this offseason, a little stability at cornerback is a luxury.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Center
Even with Dez Bryant's release and Jason Witten's retirement, the loss of Travis Frederick last season may have been the most damaging to the Dallas Cowboys. The team looks forward to getting their All-Pro center back in 2019 while also having a reliable backup still under contract.
Just within the last few weeks, Frederick has provided encouraging updates on his status for next year. It looks like he'll be able to participate in all offseason activities, but the Cowboys would settle for Week One. There appears to be plenty of cushion for that to happen.
Travis' absence in 2018 was seen in various ways. Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times, second-most in all the league, after just 32 and 25 times the previous two seasons. Part of that is missing Frederick's blocking ability, but also the way he would assist with reading the defense and making pre-snap adjustments.
Dallas would've loved having Frederick out there to help Guard Connor Williams, who worked with Travis throughout the offseason only to lose him in late August. It was not an easy way for the rookie to start his career.
We also saw issues in the run game. Even while Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing, short-yardage situations weren't as easy as they used to be. The Rams were able to neutralize the Cowboys' rushing attack in Dallas' playoff loss, something that Frederick might have helped overcome.
This isn't saying that Joe Looney did a bad job. On the contrary, Looney was more than adequate and helped keep Dallas from suffering far greater damage without Frederick.
After Joe's work in 2018, Dallas won't blink at keeping him on the $1 million salary he's due next year. It's a bargain for a backup of his quality, and especially given his versatility as an option at guard as well.
Not only are Frederick and Looney locked in for 2019, but Dallas also still has backup Adam Redmond under contract through next season. He was added after final cuts last year to be Looney's backup and should return to at least help the team through July and August.
With these guys already in place, there's no reason to think that Dallas will give much attention to the center position during the offseason.
At most, a mid-round draft pick might be used on a player who could potentially replace Looney in 2020 as the backup. Joe's contract ends next season, and he could be competitive for starting jobs with other teams at that point.
With lots of other concerns throughout the roster, Dallas is fortunate to have so much security at center. All signs are positive on Travis Frederick's return, and that is a huge boost to the team as it looks to push forward from last year's playoff run.
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