The miserly Cowboys are pinching salary cap pennies wherever they can this offseason and even near the bottom of the roster. Linebackers Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard and Offensive Tackle Mitch Hyatt may now become unrestricted free agents as Dallas is declining to give them the possible restricted and exclusive rights tender offers.
Under the current CBA, players with only three accrued seasons in the NFL and no contract don't qualify automatically for true free agency. They are “restricted” in that their current team has a right to keep them on a one-year deal worth a set amount of money depending on the level of protection the team is willing to pay for.
Luke Gifford falls into this category in 2022. He was an undrafted free agent in 2019 and has appeared in at least six games or more for Dallas each of the last three years.
The lowest-level RFA tender this year was $2.4 million, giving the original team the right to match any contract that another club might offer. But with their salary cap already forcing tough choices to be made with star players, Dallas apparently doesn't feel tying up that much money in Gifford is worth the cost.
With many free agents already at linebacker such as Keanu Neal and Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys will supposedly be working on bringing Gifford back but on more affordable contract.
With only two accrued seasons or less, LB Francis Bernard and OT Mitch Hyatt qualify as “exclusive rights” free agents. This means Dallas only has to offer them the league minimum of $895k for two years of service. As long the Cowboys are offering these contracts, neither player has the ability to negotiate or sign anywhere else.
It's rare that a team doesn't tender its EFRAs given the low cost. It doesn't save any money, so Dallas' decision to allow Bernard and Hyatt become unrestricted free agents feels more like they're just deciding to let these guys go.
It's especially odd given the issues at both their positions. We already mentioned linebacker, where currently Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox are the only consequential players with contracts for next season. Bernard would seem a candidate to least compete for a backup role there.
Offensive tackle isn't quite so bad as Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Terence Steele, and Josh Ball are all signed up for 2022. Hyatt would be unlikely to make the 53-man roster but, after two years of development, you'd think he might be back as a camp body.
The coaches and front office know these players, and especially these lower-tier guys, better than we do. For whatever reasons the Cowboys aren't willing to utilize the RFA and EFRA tenders to retain them. For Francis Bernard and Mitch Hyatt, that probably means the end of their short runs in Dallas.
For Luke Gifford, it may not the end just yet. We'll see if he gets a chance to return and still compete for a role at linebacker.