Earlier today we listed the defensive players whose contracts will expiring in 2016.
Now, here are the offensive players with expiring contracts and what being in a contract year could mean for them this season:
Charles Brown, OT
Dallas never had to find out how good or bad Brown was last year as Tyron Smith and Doug Free stayed healthy. They still must have thought enough of what he did in practice to bring him back on another one-year deal to compete for the swing tackle job again.
Brown’s main competition will be second-year tackle Chaz Green. After somewhat of an injury redshirt rookie season, Green will get his first real offseason with the team and will get every opportunity to earn the job. If he doesn’t, Dallas will likely stick with Brown again as the veteran band-aid.
Rod Smith, RB/FB
Trying to make the conversion from runner to blocker, Rod Smith has an intriguing opportunity to find a niche in Dallas. Last year’s starting fullback, Tyler Clutts, was not re-signed. Rod will be competing with Keith Smith, trying to make his own conversion from linebacker.
If Rod Smith can show enough as a blocker to be utilized, his experience as ball-carrier will give the fullback position a new dynamic. I’ve missed the days when we had a guy like Richie Anderson, who was a threat to make plays with the ball in his hands. I’m rooting for Rod over Keither based on that potential new wrinkle for the offense.
Kellen Moore, QB
If they’d never actually had to play, guys like Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel might still be the backups here in Dallas. Unlike most other position, a reserve quarterback’s best chance to stick around may be going unnoticed.
Barring poor play in any appearances he makes this year, Moore’s attractiveness to the Cowboys will increase by virtue of increased time in the system. Having been recently burned by more prototypical veteran QBs who looked great on paper, Dallas’ comfort level with Moore will give him a major edge over other outside options.
Moore’s biggest threat will be the development from Dak Prescott, taken in the fourth round of this last draft. The Cowboys will not hesitate to hand the job to Prescott once they feel he’s ready. 2017 may be a little soon for that, though. Kellen Moore certainly hopes so.
A breakout 2015 season was cut short last year when Dunbar suffered torn knee ligaments in a Week 4 game. He had already amassed 21 catches in less than a quarter of the season. Clearly, Dallas thought enough of Dunbar’s brief work sample to re-sign him last Spring to a one-year deal.
As a 27-year-old speed back who already has trouble staying healthy, Dunbar’s 2017 free agency will not be pretty. He would likely need a monster year to keep the Cowboys interested, but he’s already facing a late start to the season from the PUP list. Dunbar also will likely loses touches, even in the receiving game, to Ezekiel Elliott.
Obviously, Dallas wasn’t sure they’d be drafting Elliott when they re-signed Dunbar. His ongoing recovery and potential for PUP list does give the Cowboys a nice insurance policy, of sorts, as they can keep him on the side for over half the season. Still, barring an injury to Elliott, it’s hard to see where Dunbar will get enough opportunities to earn another contract here.
Gavin Escobar, TE
I think the writing is already on the wall for Escobar. When Dallas signed James Hanna to a three-year deal paying him about $2.75 million each season, that said volumes about Escobar’s status with the team. Dallas clearly sees Hanna as their number-two tight end going forward.
Escobar will likely start the year on the PUP list as he continues to recover from a major Achilles injury. With opportunities already very limited for reserve tight ends in our offense, it’s doubtful he’ll get many looks and should finish this season quietly. I imagine Escobar and his agent will hope that he can earn a chance elsewhere, likely with some team who remembers him from the 2013 draft process.
Leary’s status with the team has been talked about extensively this offseason. They used their Restricted Free Agent rights on Leary and are paying him $2.5 million to be a backup this year.
Obviously, Leary would like to have been able to find a long-term deal and probably more money elsewhere. Dallas’ use of the RFA tender added a second-round pick to the price a team would’ve had to pay to sign Leary, which was clearly more than anyone was willing to give.
Despite this, it would be premature to say that Leary will finish the year in Dallas. He is still a potential trade chip and the Cowboys may use him to cover a weakness at another position. Injuries and other incidents between now and September, or even up through this year’s trade deadline, leave Leary’s future in question.
Darren McFadden, RB
Talking about McFadden’s 2017 prospects is probably flawed, given how uncertain his 2016 status is. Of everyone on this list, McFadden could be the least likely to make this year’s team.
Along with drafting Ezekiel Elliott as the fourth-overall pick, Dallas signed veteran Alfred Morris. They also spent a sixth-round pick on running back Darius Jackson. Throw in Lance Dunbar’s potential return and Rod Smith’s ability to play RB and you can see why McFadden would become expendable.
As said before, Dallas probably didn’t expect to draft a new starting RB when they signed Morris and re-signed Dunbar. Even though McFadden was the #4 rusher in the NFL last year, you can’t let that cloud the issue. After what we’ve seen the last two years with McFadden and DeMarco Murray, it stands to reason Dallas’ offensive line is most deserving of the credit.
Dallas can get back $2 million in cap room by releasing McFadden. If they are of the mind that the blocking is the key in the rushing production, that money could have more real value than the player. Unless there’s an injury or Alfred Morris has a bad camp and preseason, right now I don’t think McFadden will be on the 2016 roster.
How much will Butler and Williams be competing for the number-two receiver position? Only the coaches know for sure. Given that both are unrestricted free agents after this year, it stands to reason that they will get an equal opportunity so that Dallas can best assess their long-term potential.
Williams may have the edge as the incumbent starter and the only guy to build a rapport with Tony Romo. However, Butler’s speed could make him more of a unique toy for the offense that gives Romo more options. Butler stretching the field would also open things up underneath for Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Gavin Escobar.
This will easily be the biggest position battle on offense and perhaps on the team as a whole. The winner will be a starter and the loser will drop to #4 on the depth chart with Beasley locked in as your slot receiver. The stakes are high, not only for 2016 but for both players’ impending free agency and the goal of earning a big contract here or elsewhere.