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
With DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended for the first four games of the year, Crawford and Irving will be two of several players competing for a starting role during those early games.
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.
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.