The Dallas Cowboys secondary is entering the 2018 season with high expectations, although we are still a long way from knowing exactly how this unit will be deployed. Now coached by former Seahawks DC Kris Richard, second-year players like Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie can build on solid rookie campaigns to become top starters.
For Lewis, so far this offseason, the first step of this process must be getting on the field. Playing in 15 games as the Cowboys third round pick in 2017, Lewis outplayed his draft status and became the steal Dallas always knew he could be.
Primarily lining up as an inside player at Michigan, Lewis was impressive in his transition to the next level while also learning how to play on the outside. The 5102 (5' 1 2/8") cornerback brought the same athletic cover skills and instincts to this "new" position.
These are certainly traits that Kris Richard will love to see, but so too is the trademark height and length of his former "Legion of Boom" defenses. Such has been the case for the Cowboys through OTAs and into this week's mini camp, where third-year Cornerback Anthony Brown has continued to impress out of the slot.
Understandably, Lewis will have a hard time keeping his job as a boundary corner over Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones. Drafted a round before Lewis in 2017, Awuzie recovered from injury in his rookie season to appear in 10 games. In Awuzie and Jones, the Cowboys have their ideal mold for two physical cornerbacks on the outside.
It is Jones' move from safety down to corner that was Richard's most immediate impact on his new secondary. His next act may very well have to be finding a spot for Jourdan Lewis.
Playing almost unnaturally poised as a sixth round rookie in 2016, the Cowboys working Anthony Brown back to form is far from a bad thing. Brown is the perfect depth piece for any secondary to have, capable of lining up anywhere and adding speed to a defense.
Already proving that he can do much of the same, the Cowboys will be making a mistake if Brown's continued progress stunts the growth of Lewis. Whether or not both players can coexist on the field at the same time will be another hurdle for both Richard and Rod Marinelli to handle, as Richard's Passing Game Coordinator responsibilities spill into the coverage assignments of the linebackers.
Favoring Nickel defenses that keep two linebackers on the field, Marinelli has been reluctant to play two cornerbacks like Lewis and Brown at the same time. Right now, these are two players competing for one spot.
Going from a potential fringe player on the roster to one regaining his confidence, Anthony Brown should be looked at as a great developing story for Dallas this season. As the true battle for roster spots begins in Oxnard for training camp though, Brown will have to put aside any previous praise if he's truly looking to hold off Jourdan Lewis from contributing for the Cowboys.
Cowboys OL Depth Could Be Bad News for Inexperienced TEs
This being the slowest portion of the NFL's year, there's no telling what Cowboys thoughts will cross our collective minds from now until training camp in Oxnard. Today, my mind has been on the rookie class, leading me first to Connor Williams and then the tight end position.
Connor Williams' starting spot as the Cowboys left guard will have next to no impact on the Cowboys final depth chart at tight end, but their approach to balancing the numbers at both positions is important.
Well before adding a new tight end to a roster that won't feature Jason Witten for the first time in 15 years, the Cowboys signed Offensive Tackle Cam Fleming and Guard Marcus Martin in free agency, while also giving a new contract to Guard Joe Looney.
These additions sure feel more significant than the 137th overall pick the Cowboys spent on Dalton Schultz, who caught just 55 passes in 40 games played at Stanford.
Schultz shouldn't feel too far behind his teammates in TE Coach Doug Nussmeire's room. Geoff Swaim's nine career catches covers the production of the other three TEs on the roster -- Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, and UDFA David Wells (San Diego State).
Regardless of which TEs make the final roster, the best thing they can do to get on the field for an offense seemingly moving to more open personnel is block in the running game. The Cowboys shouldn't shy away from establishing Running Back Ezekiel Elliott as their best offensive threat, even if opposing defenses know as much.
This is exactly the reasoning behind tightening up their suspect offensive line depth from 2017. A clear commitment to not only reintroducing Elliott through 16 games to the NFL, but protecting third-year Quarterback Dak Prescott, is potentially bad news for this hopeful group of Cowboys tight ends.
The Cowboys have used a player like Joe Looney as an extra lineman in lieu of a tight end plenty of times before, valuing this role and the swing ability from Looney enough to not only re-sign him but add another massive guard in Damien Mama too.
Mixing between spread looks and these "Jumbo" sets could be just the wrinkle the Cowboys need to maximize their talent on offense, of which they seemingly don't have much of at TE - something I have hard time believing changes in Oxnard.
Sure, Rico Gathers is a match up problem for defenders when in the pattern, and the type of red zone target Prescott could use, but the completeness of his game will call into question how much the Cowboys get out of him in 2018.
Geoff Swaim and Dalton Schultz feel like the only safe bets, as of right now, to make the Cowboys roster. With Swaim taking strides each year since 2015, and Schultz having enough blocking experience out of college, these two TEs may be the perfect solution for the Cowboys to carry maximum OL talent into the season.
Given their track record of finding ready-made linemen, and not-so-ready tight ends behind Witten, Cowboys Nation can only hope this is the right direction for the Cowboys offense to go.
Zack Martin Got Paid, Is DeMarcus Lawrence Next?
Zack Martin's new contract became official last week as the four-time All-Pro received the long-term deal he's been looking for. Per Todd Archer, his rookie fifth year option now turns into a seven-year deal for $93.41-million dollars with $40-million guaranteed (42.8%), including a $20-million dollar signing bonus.
The total deal for All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is seven years for $93.41 million and includes a $20 million signing bonus, according to a source. As Adam Schefter reported, the guaranteed money is $40 million. The Cowboys created around $3 million... https://t.co/q8ovYSiQRg
The Dallas Cowboys and Martin's representatives worked all off-season to come up with a deal that would make Zack the highest paid guard in the NFL going into his fifth season. And as much as anyone on the team, he deserves it.
He's started every game in his four-year career. He's 28 years old and this contract locks him up through his prime.
With Martin's deal done, the Dallas Cowboys front office can now turn its attention to the next wave of players that will be ready for big-time contracts.
Let's look at who that is and what they could demand.
KD Drummond from the Cowboys Wire on USA Today had a great piece outlining what this deal means for the 2018 and 2019 salary caps moving forward. Per his math, for 2018, this deal gives the Dallas Cowboys an extra $3 million this year, leaving their cap space at a little more than $14 million.
For 2019, the Dallas Cowboys will have a projected $50-million dollars in cap space. Cap Projections courtesy of OverTheCap.com. $50 million in 2019 is far from the cap hell that everyone wants to tell you about.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
Let's start this discussion by saying that the Dallas Cowboys don't have to do a single thing with DeMarcus Lawrence's contract to help them on the salary cap. His cap figure is locked in at $17 million for 2018 and as noted above, the Cowboys have a little more than $14 million in space.
Zack Martin was arguably the biggest offseason priority in 2018. The other player who could make that argument was Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who the team placed their franchise tag on this off-season.
With the franchise tag in place, Lawrence wasn't allowed to hit free agency, which would have definitely led to a bidding war for the All-Pro pass rusher's services.
The deadline to convert the franchise tag to a long-term deal is about a month away, which gives the Dallas Cowboys front office plenty of time to get a deal done with Lawrence.
If the Dallas Cowboys were to get an extension done, with some creative structuring of the contract they could cut his salary cap figure. If the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him again during the 2019 offseason, which is a real possibility, his guaranteed contract would be $20.4 million.
Let's look at Olivier Vernon's deal as a template for what DeMarcus Lawrence could get through a contract extension:
- In 2016, Vernon signed with the New York Giants in free agency a five-year, $85-million contract with $40-million guaranteed (47.1%) and a $20-million signing bonus.
- His year one cap figure was $13 million. A $1.75-million base salary, $7 million as a roster bonus, and $4 million as part of his prorated signing bonus that was spread out over the life of the contract.
Vernon had only one season with more than 10 sacks when he had 11.5 in his second year as a pro, but was consistently healthy. DeMarcus Lawrence had an elite season in 2017, but has had injury struggles throughout his career. 2017 was the first time he'd started all 16 games.
If you go to OverTheCap.com and look at the guaranteed portions of contracts for the top earning 4-3 defensive ends, you'll see that Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell and the Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett are the only players that come close. Their guaranteed money is at or just over $30-million dollars.
Vernon's deal was an above market value contract at the time, but could be the range that Lawrence and his representatives are looking at to get Tank paid.
Through the franchise tag alone, we're talking about a minimum of $37.4-million guaranteed that could go to Lawrence over the next two years. That would be just under Vernon's guaranteed numbers, and though Vernon's contract was above market value, that is probably where Lawrence's deal will have to start.
You can thank the New York Giants for paying Vernon above market value, which is probably leading to some of the contract negotiation difficulties between the Dallas Cowboys and Lawrence's representatives.
With all of that said, here's what I'd estimate Lawrence's deal to look like if it were to get signed before July 16th, when franchise tags become official for the 2018 season.
5 years for $90 million, $18 million per year, with $44-million guaranteed, and a $24-million signing bonus.
That would make him the highest paid 4-3 defensive end in NFL history, and if 2017 is any sign of future production, he's well worth it.
That may seem like a rich contract, but considering that Zack Martin just got $40-million guaranteed to play a position that is not nearly as valued as EDGE, it makes sense that Lawrence would get more.
The Dallas Cowboys may let him play this season on the franchise tag, but that would mean they will probably have to use it again next year to try to get a long-term deal negotiated with him in the 2019 off-season.
The sooner they get a deal done with Tank, the better as his play will only drive his contract up.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Dak Prescott is headed for a big payday. Remember, before the final eight games of the 2017 season, Prescott had led the Cowboys to an 18-6 record over his first 24 games. His 22-10 record, which includes the offense's late season meltdown, is still pretty impressive during a quarterback's first two years in the NFL.
Only one quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger had more wins in their first two seasons than Dak Prescott's 22: Russell Wilson. And we know the kind of defense the Seattle Seahawks were working with at the time.
Dak Prescott had a terrible second half of 2017, as did the rest of the offense, but don't let that cloud your judgment of what kind of player he is. Remember, in his rookie season he had the third highest passer rating behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan at 104.9.
Over the first eight games of 2017, his passer rating was 97.9 and he had a 16:4 touchdown to interception ratio. That includes the 68.8 passer rating in Denver when the entire team fell flat in the week two destruction at the hands of the Broncos.
He's a good quarterback and in 2018 he'll assuage all your concerns. Here's what I had to say about Dak Prescott's 2018 season.
Looking to the 2019 season, the time when 2016 rookies can begin negotiating contract extensions, it's likely Dak Prescott will get some big money to make him the Cowboys quarterback for the next 10 years.
There's no telling how rich the deal will be at this point, but we can guess that it will be somewhere between Derek Carr's $125 million (32% guaranteed) and Matt Ryan's $150 million total value (63% guaranteed).
Year three for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys will be huge to determine just where that contract should fit. Best case scenario for the Cowboys is that Prescott plays lights out en route to a deep playoff run and they reward him with a very rich contract.
If 2018 creates more questions, then a 2020 franchise tag could be in Prescott's future.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
With approximately $14 million in space this year and $50 million available to them in the 2019 salary cap, the Dallas Cowboys have the financial flexibility to hand out some long-term deals to some of their homegrown players.
As we know, this is the Dallas Cowboys' standard operating procedure: Draft well and then pay those draftees who earn a second contract. DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott have earned that second contract. The only question is, when will they get signed?
Dak Prescott’s Next Contract Looms Over Cowboys’ Financial Future
Even though his rookie contract goes through 2019, Quarterback Dak Prescott's next deal is already one of the key issues facing the Dallas Cowboys. Preparing for that second contract, which could highly expensive, is critical as the team deals with the rest of the roster and prepares for the future.
As a fourth-round pick Prescott's rookie deal is delightfully cheap. He counts just $726k and $816k against the salary cap over the next two seasons. You could hardly ask for better from a guy whose already been to a Pro Bowl.
But this financial grace period has a rapidly approaching end date. Dallas will soon have to pay Dak the standard for NFL quarterbacks, and the difference is staggering.
Consider what Jimmy Garoppolo just got from the 49ers; $137.5 million over five years. That's an average of $27.5 million per season.
And think about this; while Garoppolo may look like the second coming right now, he still hasn't accomplished what Dak Prescott already has.
Prescott has taken his team to the playoffs. He's gone to the Pro Bowl. His career passer rating puts him in the Top 10, between Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, on the NFL's all-time list.
Yes, last year was a step backward. But if Dak gets back to rookie form, and there's plenty of reason to think he will, then he will be able to use Garoppolo's deal as the floor in negotiations.
The scary reality here is that the Cowboys will no sooner get out from under Tony Romo's big contract then they probably have to get into a new one with Prescott. The last Romo's dead money, $8.9 million, finally drops off after 2018.
We know how Romo's cap hits, both while still playing and even after his release, have limited the Cowboys in free agency. That is an unnerving prospect for the future once Dak Prescott gets his next deal.
That's why you see the Cowboys eating all of Dez Bryant's dead money now. That's why they're potentially relying on so many recent draft picks like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Connor Williams and Michael Gallup to take on big roles for the next 3-4 years at their inexpensive rookie salaries.
That's why Cole Beasley (2019 free agent) probably won't be back next season, or why Sean Lee ($7 million cap relief) could easily be a cap casualty next year.
Clearly, Prescott's next contract hangs over everything.
Of course, nothing is certain. Prescott's sophomore slump may devolve into something more, and the conversation could quickly change.
But Dak doesn't have to be better than ever to earn the big money. He only has to get back to his rookie form; just do what he's already done.
With the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott hopefully back to their 2016 form and availability, Prescott should have the cushion to be the kind of QB that he was in that 13-3 season. And if he can get the Cowboys one step closer in the playoffs, such as an NFC Championship Game appearance, then Dallas will have no choice but to commit long-term.
While what the Niners gave Jimmy Garoppolo could be considered asinine for the lack of actual accomplishment so far, that doesn't matter in terms of market value. The bar has been raised, and Dak won't have to do much to clear it.
You know that Jerry and Stephen Jones see this as well as anybody, and every move the Cowboys make now is done with Dak's future deal in mind. That's the reality for any NFL team; dealing with the imbalance in QB compensation compared to the rest of the league.
Even if it's still two years away, they have to prepare for it as if it's guaranteed. Given what other QBs like Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Matt Stafford are making right now, Dak doesn't have to accomplish much more to make it happen.
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