The Dallas Cowboys currently have 26 players with contracts deals that will expire after the 2016 season. That may not seem like a big deal in early July, when there are 90 guys on the roster. However, the list is much more significant than you might assume.
Only six of the 26 players are unknowns; prospects signed to one-year deals for camp bodies or as projects. The other 20 were all on last year's team, and seven of them were starters at some point during 2015.
Here's a quick rundown of the defensive players with expiring contracts and what being in a contract year could mean for them this season:
Josh Thomas, CB
Originally a fifth-round pick of Dallas in 2011 who didn't make it past final cuts as a rookie, Thomas finally became a Cowboy late last year when Dallas needed healthy bodies to finish the season. Dallas re-signed the cornerback last March to a one-year, veteran minimum deal.
Much as he only joined the team last year due to injuries, Josh Thomas will likely only stick around this season under the same circumstances. Dallas will hope to be four deep at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Deji Olatoye. If they keep a fifth corner at all it would be a younger prospect they wish to protect.
Jack Crawford, DE/DT
David Irving, DE/DT
Turning just 23 in August, Irving will welcome whatever spotlight he can get before next year's free agency. His size and versatility are valuable but ultimately teams want to see it proven on the field. Irving could easily be your starting strongside DE for the first four weeks.
Crawford sat in free agency for a few weeks before finally re-signing with Dallas in early April. He's been a reliable rotation player for two seasons and will almost certainly make this year's team for the same role. He could also push for the strongside job, though I imagine they will give younger players the first crack at it.
The exposure at DE could be even more critical for both players this year as there could be a reduction in opportunities at tackle. Cedric Thornton should be a superior pass rusher to the departed Nick Hayden and may stay on the field in more passing downs, reducing the snaps for "tweeners" like Irving and Crawford.
Deji Olatoye, CB
Olatoye is seemingly walking in as the number-four corner, having no real competition that has yet emerged. If his trajectory continues from last season then he could be pushing for a contract extention.
Spending the first half of the year on the Cowboys' practice squad, Olatoye impressed his way onto the roster in November and eventually started a game when Morris Claiborne suffered one of his annual injuries. He had an endzone interception that day in Buffalo, one of only two picks by Dallas corners all season.
With Claiborne never far from IR and Orlando Scandrick also coming back from injury, Olatoye could be looking at significant playing time this year. At the least, he should gets enough opportunities to prove to Dallas if they want to keep him beyond 2016.
After two injury-filled seasons McClain will hope to hang on as a primary backup at defensive tackle. However, any health-related setbacks or performance issues could cost him his job fairly quickly.
Dallas can save $1 million by cutting McClain this year. That may not sound like a lot but they add up quickly, and become very valuable with the league's carryover policy for unused cap space.
If rookie Maliek Collins can make a quick recovery from his foot surgery or a guy like Rodney Coe can emerge from shadows, McClain could be squeezed out. Even if McClain makes the team, 2016 is likely the veteran's last year in Dallas.
Andrew Gachkar, LB
Viewed as more of a special teams ace and reserve when he joined the team last year as a free agent, Gachkar showed he could perform on defense when opportunity arose. He now enters 2016 with a strong chance to earn a starting job, even if it's only temporary.
Gachkar was already a potential candidate to start as the strongside linebacker. Now, thanks to Rolando McClain's 10-game suspension for substance violation, he could also be contending for the middle LB spot.
Listed at just 224 pounds, Gachkar isn't ideally built for either of those roles. He makes more sense on paper as Sean Lee's backup on the weakside. However, ultimately it comes down to who does the best job of recognizing plays and executing their assignment. Even if he's undersized, Gachkar may push past his competition on mental acuity.
Turning 28 later this year, Gachkar may have a tough time getting re-signed with Dallas. Younger guys like Anthony Hitchens and Mark Nzeocha could force him out, not to mention Jaylon Smith hopefully debuting next season. Gachkar will be grateful for whatever playing time he can get now to hopefully get him some market interest next offseason.
Barry Church, S
J.J. Wilcox, S
There are so many links between them this year that it makes sense to discuss Church and Wilcox together. Both could be gone after this season, and perhaps one of them won't even make it to Week One.
Byron Jones seems to have been moved to safety full time and will almost certainly be a starter. Also, right now all signs are that Church will retain his starting job without much open competition from Wilcox.
That could obviously change if Wilcox stands out in training camp. Dallas could save a little over $4 million off the cap if they release Church, compared to just roughly $1.5 million for Wilcox. That's a pretty clear tiebreaker.
Granted, they may not cut either one. Assuming Church is starting then Wilcox becomes a relatively cheap backup with loads of starting experience. Dallas did just re-sign Jeff Heath to a four-year deal but it was for backup and special teams purposes only. Unless he just goes in the tank over losing his starting job, Wilcox should still be the front-runner for the primary backup job at safety.
Barry Church will be 29 when the next offseason begins. That's not an ideal age for defensive backs but still young enough that Dallas might give him a one or two-year extension. If Byron Jones excels as a rangy free safety, Church could get to stay closer to the line of scrimmage and plays to his strengths like never before.
Dallas signed McClain to a one-year deal with several million in incentives. Now that the 10-game suspension has come, you have to wonder if McClain will even get to earn his base salary.
For all his incredible talent and prototypical size, McClain's motivation issues and other personal problems have all but derailed his career. Dallas could easily view this latest incident as the last straw, with the opportunity to send a message to the roster far more valuable than the six games that McClain would be eligible for.
On the other hand, getting McClain back on the roster in November could be welcomed if the team is in position for a playoff run. For all his issues, McClain does usually show up to play when he's active. He would still be second-best linebacker on the team.
Even if Dallas sticks with Rolando for the rest of 2016, it's hard to imagine they will continue the relationship beyond this season. Jaylon Smith will ideally be healthy and ready to take on the middle LB role. Even if Smith doesn't pan out, guys like Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson could be factors. There will also be a whole new free agency and draft process to work with.
Again, two players from the same position whose fates are directly intertwined. Although they are at different ages and stages of their careers, Carr and Claiborne both face significant pressure going into their contract years.
Dallas did not give Claiborne the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, which would have paid him between $8-$10 million this year. Still, they brought him back with a modest $2.7 million contract and the chance to try and save his career. To his credit, Claiborne doesn't seem to be bitter about this and is saying all the right things about his motivation and need for redemption.
Unfortunately, we've heard all of this before from Claiborne. His body needs to finally cooperate with his spirit.
Unlike Claiborne, Brandon Carr's body never lets him down. He's about as healthy and durable as any cornerback I've ever seen, having never missed a game in eight NFL seasons. The problem with Carr is the natural regression of age and having never been an ideal fit for Rod Marinelli's scheme.
Ideally, Claiborne will have his best season and earn the starting job across from Orlando Scandrick. Carr will then serve as the third corner, with Scandrick playing in the slot when all three are on the field. Injuries have prevented us from seeing this full trio on the field very often, but it still appears to be the best Dallas has for 2016.
Given his age, Carr is likely a goner next offseason regardless of what happens this year. It's Claiborne who's in the real "contract year," hoping to earn a long-term deal with Dallas or some other team with a breakout season. He's still young enough to make it happen and has all of the motivation you can ask for.
Cowboys Late-Round Rookies Will Struggle to Make 2019 Roster
Being picked in the later rounds of the NFL Draft is no guarantee of a roster spot, but the Dallas Cowboys have had a good run lately of finding talent on Day 3. For this 2019 class, however, even talent may not be enough. The success of past drafts has loaded the roster, and will make it hard for this year's late-round rookies to get through final cuts.
Starting with CB Michael Jackson and DE Joe Jackson in the fifth round, these newcomers may be hoping just to make the practice squad in 2019. The group includes safety Donovan Wilson, RB Mike Weber, and DE Jalen Jelks.
Over the past few years, Dallas has found some significant contributors with their Day 3 draftees. Safety Xavier Woods and CB Anthony Brown, both 6th-round picks, should both have major roles in the secondary this year. Geoff Swaim, a former 7th-rounder, was the starting TE last year before injury.
Another 6th-round safety, Kavon Frazier, has been a solid reserve and special teamer for three seasons. RB Darius Jackson and TE Rico Gathers are also still here from that 2016 draft and competing for jobs. So is WR Noah Brown, a 2017 7th-round pick.
But also with these success have come plenty of failed picks. Going back to just 2017, only Brown and Woods remain from the five players drafted in those last two rounds. CB Marquez White and DTs Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell didn't last long, and only Ivie remains in the NFL (Kansas City) at this time.
This new crop of 2019 rookies has an even taller order than those past draft classes. They're up against the good picks from recent years, who still have youth and cheap contracts but also a few years of valuable experience. It's the best of both worlds for the Cowboys, but a daunting hurdle for this year's rookies to get over.
Of the players drafted in the 5th-7th rounds in 2019, RB Mike Weber has the best shot at making the 53-man roster. The Cowboys didn't keep Rod Smith or sign any other veterans to back up Ezekiel Elliott, creating open competition throughout the remainder of the depth chart.
One spot will go to 4th-round rookie Tony Pollard, who should at least be a gadget player and return specialist if not the primary backup. But Weber has a good chance of being the third man, competing with similarly inexperienced players like Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn.
The key for Weber may simply be staying healthy. Injuries were an issue for him in college and he already had his first professional scare with a knee injury during mini-camp, which thankfully came back benign. However, more missed time could have Dallas looking for a more reliable option.
One scenario which could hurt Weber's chances is the possibility that the Cowboys keep just Elliott and Pollard on the 53, then utilize fullback Jamize Olawale as an emergency third RB. With his proven offensive skills from the Raiders, Olawale could get them through a game in a pinch. Zeke's durability makes this an acceptable risk.
If that happens, Weber, Jackson, or Chunn will be hoping to stick around on the practice squad and be ready in case of an injury. It would still be a positive outcome for a 7th-round pick like Weber, but it's not the same as making the official roster.
The player with the next-best odds of making the team this year is safety Donovan Wilson, who many considered a steal in the sixth round. With Kavon Frazier entering the final year of his rookie deal, Dallas might be willing to cut him loose and go with the younger player with a fresh, new four-year contract.
But even if the Cowboys like Wilson over Frazier, he's also got to worry about Darian Thompson. Taken in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft by the Giants, Thompson may have higher upside and has already been getting work in practice before Frazier, Wilson, or other safety prospects.
The situation is even worse for other rookies. Michael Jackson has to hope that the Cowboys either keep more than four cornerbacks, which they didn't last year, or that Jourdan Lewis gets traded. He also has to worry about Donovan Olumba, who nearly made the team last year and is back with a season of practice squad experience.
Joe Jackson is also feeling a number crunch at defensive end, as is 7th-round pick Jalen Jelks. The Cowboys have loaded up at DE this year, adding veteran Robert Quinn and Kerry Hyder to the returning cast of DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, and Dorance Armstrong. There's also Randy Gregory still floating around out there, hoping for reinstatement before the season begins.
One idea I've seen floated is that Jelks could get converted to strong-side linebacker, in the mold of former Dallas roleplayer Kyle Wilber (credit to @KDDrummondNFL). This would make a lot of sense given Jelks' physical makeup and the opportunity at LB, where he'd be competing with Chris Covington for the sixth roster spot.
~ ~ ~
All of these players will have an opportunity. They weren't drafted for nothing; Dallas will inherently root for them after investing picks to acquire them. But a spot with this team, or even in the league, is far from guaranteed for any late-round rookies.
Will someone from this group will emerge as the next Xavier Woods? Or will they join the many who spent only one or two offseasons with the team and then quickly faded from memory?
Every year's rookies face this question, but this 2019 group will have a harder time than most of avoiding the discard pile.
Is Amari Cooper the Most Important Contract for Cowboys to Finalize?
Most of the offseason contract chatter, once DeMarcus Lawrence's contract was signed, began to focus on the next group of stars due for big-time money, most notably Quarterback Dak Prescott. For good reason as the quarterback is generally regarded as the most important player on the team. While Prescott has been important to the team's success over the last three seasons, few players made as much of an impact on the 2018 Dallas Cowboys than Amari Cooper.
The Dallas Cowboys front office is working on deals for Prescott and Cooper. Both will get new contracts at some point before they're scheduled to hit free agency in March of 2020, but one could argue that getting Amari Cooper's deal done is more important than Dak Prescott's.
Prior to the arrival of Amari Cooper, the Dallas Cowboys offense struggled and was inconsistent. In the seven games prior to the trade that brought Cooper to Dallas, the Cowboys went 3-4 and scored more than 20 points only three times. In wins over the New York Giants, Detroit Lions, and Jacksonville Jaguars they averaged 28.67 points per game, highlighted by a 40 point outburst against the Jaguars in week six. In their four losses on the season they averaged 13.5 points per game. Over the first seven games, they averaged 20 points per game.
In the nine games, the Dallas Cowboys played with Amari Cooper, the Cowboys averaged 22 points per game. They scored more than 20 points in all but three games; losses to the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts and a win over the New Orleans Saints.
If you remove the 40 point game against the Jaguars from the scoring average over the first seven games and the shutout loss to the Colts from the scoring average over the final nine games, the scoring average changes dramatically. Without the Jaguars game, the Cowboys only averaged 16.67 points per game in the other six contests, decreasing their scoring average by more than three points per game. Conversely, if you remove the shutout loss to the Colts from the scoring average over the last nine games, the Cowboys averaged 24.87 points per game. That's nearly a three-point difference.
Even if you remove the best (week 17 against the Giants) and worst (week 15 against the Colts) games of the final nine games from the scoring average, the Cowboys averaged 23.3 points per game. removing the best (week six against the Jaguars) and worst (week one against the Panthers) games from the first half of the season, the Dallas Cowboys averaged only 18.4 points per game in the other five games.
So Amari Cooper was worth between two and 4.9 points per game. That may not seem like a lot, but that's a huge difference in a league where so many games come down to a single score.
The impact offense as a whole is noticeable, but what about on Dak Prescott.
Dak Prescott only averaged 202 passing yards per game and had a passer rating of 87.4 with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions in the first seven games prior to Amari Cooper's arrival. Prescott only completed 62.14% of his passes in the first seven games of the season.
Over the final nine games of the season, Dak averaged 274 passing yards a game, threw for 14 touchdowns and only threw four interceptions. Prescott had a passer rating of 103 and completed 71% of his passes.
In the first half of the season, Prescott only had a passer rating over 100 two times, while he had a passer rating under 90 three times. Over the final nine games with Amari, Prescott had a passer rating over 100 six times and had only two games with a passer rating under 90.
Not only did Amari Cooper make a significant impact on the passing game, but the running game led by Ezekiel Elliott saw a dramatic increase in his production once Amari Cooper arrived.
In the first seven games of the season, Ezekiel Elliott averaged only 19 carries a game and 88.4 yards rushing per game. He was averaging 4.69 yards per carry. Through the air, Elliott caught 3.6 passes per game for only 25 yards with seven yards per reception.
After Cooper's arrival, Elliott got more opportunities and found more room to run as well. he averaged 21.5 carries per game, rushed for 101.9 yards per game. He more than doubled his receptions per game with 6.5 and averaged 49 yards receiving per game, nearly doubling his first half of the season totals.
It's no coincidence that the run and pass games saw increased production after bringing in one of the better young receivers in the NFL. The overall impact of Amari Cooper led to the Dallas Cowboys going on a 7-2 run to finish the season to win the NFC East. Prior to the trade, the team looked dead in the water. After the trade Dak Prescott looked like a completely different quarterback. The team was hitting big plays, converting on third downs, and scoring tons of points on the way to winning lots of games.
Dak Prescott is going to get his contract finalized, of that, I have no doubt. While I feel good about his upward trajectory as a player, I feel a lot better about it knowing that Amari Cooper is about to get a contract too.
Amari Cooper is an excellent talent. His route running precision makes opposing defensive backs look foolish and the separation he creates makes a quarterback's job that much easier. Cooper is like having Cole Beasley in Dez Bryant's body with sub-4.4 speed.
Just turning 25 years old, Amari Cooper is one of the bright young stars at the wide receiver position and is about to enter his prime. Unlike players like Dez Bryant, who rely on physicality and athleticism, Cooper is going to age much more gracefully as route running is one of those things that doesn't drop off near as quickly as athleticism. Just look at Jason Witten.
The Dallas Cowboys need to not mess around with Amari Cooper. Because having him for his prime and for the same timeframe that you are extending your franchise quarterback will make the next six years of their respective careers much more productive. The best way to take care of your franchise quarterback is to give him an offensive line to protect him. The second best way is to give him a wide receiver that can get open for him.
Amari Cooper is a quarterback's best friend and will be worth every penny he gets in a contract extension. In the Cowboys 2018 run to the playoffs, there were few players as important to that success as Amari Cooper. In this offseason of contract extensions and signings, few still, are as important to the Cowboys success as Amari Cooper.
Get him signed, so he can go play football.
Could Cowboys Have Another “Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey” Debate?
The debate over "Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey" for from the 2016 NFL Draft has never really stopped in Dallas. From before that draft until now, Cowboys fans still argue over which player the team should have taken. For the team, could they face that question again in the next few years?
A little over three years ago, the Cowboys drafted Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. In so doing, they also snubbed Ramsey; the cornerback expected to become a Cowboy and wound up going with the fifth pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Where you stand on this issue likely has a lot to do with how you value running backs. Some argued in 2016, and still do, that no RB is worth that high of a pick or paying top dollar for in future years. You've seen plenty of those opinions this offseason as talk of a long-term contract extension for Elliott has heated up.
Those same folks would have loved for Dallas to take Jalen Ramsey, who instantly became one of the NFL's top corners. And in 2021, with both players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, they would probably rather see the Cowboys let Elliott walk away and use that money to add an elite player at a position like cornerback.
We mention Ramsey here because of his very public feud with Jacksonville over his contract. The team reportedly informed him they would wait until next year to do a long-term extension, and Ramsey made it known through social media that he was going to drive the price up. Given his known issues with Jaguars' VP Tom Coughlin, it could lead to a parting of ways.
If Jalen Ramsey hit the open market, and still want to be a Cowboy, could the CB end up in Dallas after all?
Let's hypothesize that both Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey have to play 2020 on their fifth-year options. Now the Cowboys are having to decide if they want give Zeke a long-term deal, the franchise tag, or just let him go.
How does the prospect of potentially signing Ramsey, or some other elite talent at another position, sway Dallas' thinking? Could they decide that the best bang for their buck is to spend roughly $15 million per year at RB or at CB, OT, or somewhere else?
The Cowboys already have a Pro Bowl corner in Byron Jones but there's still a lot of uncertainty at the other starting position. Neither Chidobe Awuzie or Jourdan Lewis have been consistent enough and both will have expiring contracts in 2021.
Ezekiel Elliott will turn 26 that year. He will have five seasons of workhorse mileage. And this is the same Cowboys team that decided to let DeMarco Murray walk away a few years ago.
Of course, Elliott trumps Murray in almost every way. He's been elite every season so far, not just one, and has been far more durable. Assuming personal conduct issues don't remain a problem, Zeke will be much harder to let go of than DeMarco was.
However, the salary cap forces teams to think about the entire roster when making personnel decisions. Even if you can justify paying Elliott huge money, that means less for someone else. And even if it makes sense for a year or two, what about when Zeke is creeping closer to 30 years old?
Again, I mentioned Ramsey here because of the intrigue with his contract situation in Jacksonville and connection to Dallas from the 2016 draft. It would be quite ironic if the Cowboys, five years later, were again having to decide between the same two players.
But Jalen exemplifies a greater issue that Dallas faces in the coming years. Does it make sense to tie up so much money at running back and weaken yourself at other positions?
While RBs as special as Ezekiel Elliott don't grow on trees, it's still one of the easiest positions to fill. Assuming the Cowboys still have one of the NFL's top offensive lines in a few years, they will be tempted to try and get solid rushing production with a much cheaper ball carrier.
When Dallas let DeMarco Murray go and then drafted Ezekiel Elliott a year later, some thought it could be the start of a new trend in roster management. Draft a RB high, get 4-5 years out of him, and then let somebody else pay him the big money. Rinse and repeat.
But then Zeke came along and has been the stuff of legends. If he has a long-term career in Dallas, he will be right there with Emmitt and Dorsett in the top-three of all time Cowboys running backs.
Elliott isn't just highly productive but brings personality and excitement. Guys like that are hard to let go of; they are as valuable for marketing as they are on the field.
That said, a lot can change in the next year or two. More issues with the league office, or a major injury, could have a dramatic effect on how we see Elliott's long-term value. It may make the decision much easier.
But assuming Zeke remains as valuable as ever, the Dallas Cowboys could be facing another major quandary between the running back and other elite players like Jalen Ramsey. What most helps the team win, and what has the most value over multiple seasons?
Hopefully, Ezekiel Elliott keeps playing well enough to keep the debate going.
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