During the 2012 draft, then-Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins was participating in a local draft party. When Dallas’ selection of Morris Claiborne was announced, Jenkins was reportedly upset and left sullen for the rest of the night. Entering the last year of his rookie deal, Jenkins saw the writing on the wall.
Though it usually goes unseen, we can be sure that other NFL players have had pretty bad reactions to what their teams do in the draft. Jenkins knew he’d at least get one more year in Dallas. But what if you’re the guy who may not even get past final cuts?
Here’s a look at some current Cowboys who may not be happy based on how the upcoming 2016 draft unfolds:
1. Terrance Williams, WR
Williams should already be feeling the heat from fellow veteran Brice Butler, whose strong play at the end of last year has many thinking he could challenge Williams for the starting job. If Dallas also drafts a wide receiver with an early pick it could put Williams in a similar mood as Jenkins last year.
Like Jenkins, Williams is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He has started most of his games in three years in Dallas and has solid production. Williams has an impressive highlight reel of circus catches but an equally frustrating collection of dropped passes, many of which have come on third-down.
With Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley already locked up in long-term deals, a decision by Dallas to draft a receiver high would be a pretty clear indication that they don’t plan on committing to Williams after this year. I don’t expect them to use their fourth-overall pick on a receiver but the 34th pick (second round) is very possible.
2. Rolando McClain, LB
In my most recent mock draft I have the Cowboys selecting UCLA’s Myles Jack with their first pick. While there are technically three starting linebacker positions in the defense, the reality is that adding Jack would be bad news for McClain’s long-term prospects.
Dallas employs a nickel scheme with just two linebackers on the field on a large number of their plays. McClain and Sean Lee have those spots now but Jack’s coverage ability is one of his strongest traits and where his elite potential really shines. He could supplant McClain in that role, or at least carve out a chunk of McClain’s snaps.
The Cowboys have yet to trust McClain enough to give him more than one-year deals, given his history of motivation issues and personal problems. If they take Jack then it’s likely they will not seek to re-sign McClain next offseason. If that has a negative impact on McClain’s motivation now, it could even accelerate the process of Jack taking over his jobs.
Most guys wouldn’t have to worry after having over 1,400 total yards but McFadden’s track record for injury and performance drop-offs after big years is a major red flag. If Dallas takes a running back with an early pick then it could mean trouble for McFadden, perhaps in the very near future.
Dallas signed veteran Alfred Morris to a two-year deal in March. This was probably a good thing for McFadden; someone they could trust to take some of the workload and keep McFadden running at high efficiency. Even if it turned out to be a 50/50 split of touches, both players stood to be highly productive behind the Cowboys’ elite offensive line.
If Dallas ends up with Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, or even if they take a runner with their second pick, it creates a crowded backfield and perhaps squeezes McFadden out. They’ve also re-signed Lance Dunbar and his niche role in the offense won’t be challenged by another player.
Unlike other positions where a rookie can use some grooming, running back is one where you’re compelled to get the young guy going as soon as possible. McFadden would not only be losing touches but could be released for an almost penalty-free $2 million in savings. That money may be needed if Dallas ends up keeping Brandon Carr next year.
Speaking of Carr, let’s address him and Claiborne together. If Jalen Ramsey falls to Dallas then most expect them to jump at it. But even if they were to trade down and get Vernon Hargreaves or some other top corner, or perhaps even if they get one in the second round, then it could spell trouble for one of the veterans.
You’ve heard these figures before but they bear repeating. If Carr is released outright then Dallas gets about $6 million in cap relief now. If they make him a June 1st cut then it goes up to $9 million and pushes the difference to next year. If Dallas adds a cornerback in the draft then it’s likely Carr will be released to help fund rookie deals and give the rookie a clear top-three role.
Claiborne’s fear will be more about losing playing time than losing a job. He is on a one-year deal for just $2.6 million, a relative bargain for even a solid reserve cornerback. Claiborne is no doubt hoping he can earn a nice extension with his play this year, but a highly-drafted rookie could take him off the field at times and limit his opportunities to earn it.
5. Gavin Escobar
After Dallas signed backup James Hanna to a three-year, $8 million deal many assumed that they aren’t planning to extend Escobar after this year. If they were to draft a player on top of that then it would almost assure Escobar will be gone next season.
If Escobar were to have a breakout season then Dallas still has flexibility to re-sign him. Jason Witten’s deal expires in 2017 and they could work out a transitional plan for next year. However, if they’ve added another significant talent at the position then it could create a logjam that forces Escobar to the open market.
6. Barry Church & J.J. Wilcox
Much like Carr and Claiborne, last year’s starting safeties have plenty to worry about during the draft. One of them could end up released, if not right after the draft then perhaps during the August cut downs.
Wilcox may have already lost his starting job. The talk out of Dallas is that they want second-year stud Byron Jones playing safety next year. It is assumed that Wilcox would be the one getting benched, being more inconsistent than Church. If Dallas drafts a cornerback then it means Jones’ move to safety is fairly decided.
Money could make Church the fall guy, though. Dallas can save a little over $4 million cutting Church and just around $1.7 million if they released Wilcox. If they were to add a rookie defensive back and then also elect to keep Brandon Carr around, Church’s cap savings are a big chunk that could be needed to pay rookie salaries.
There is always entanglement between the corners and safeties when figuring out your roster, and that’s especially true when plays have position flexibility. Byron Jones already has that and adding Ramsey would only further muddy the waters. The only certainty is that someone, for finances alone, would have to be released. Only the Cowboys know who they value most.
7. Tony Romo
Given the relationship between Romo and Jason Garrett I doubt anything happens at the QB position that Romo isn’t on board with. However, since I can’t be entirely positive about that, we have to mention the possibility.
If Dallas selects Jared Goff or Carson Wentz in the first round then you have to wonder how much time Romo has left. If he’s released next year there would still be over $19 million in dead money, albeit with about $5 million in savings from his actual cap hit.
Dallas may conclude that they’ve got about $24 million tied up in the QB position one way or another next year. That could all be with Romo’s contract, or it could be with Romo’s dead money about about $5 million that they’d be paying Wentz or Goff on a rookie deal. Then Romo’s deal would come off the books cleanly and open up tons of cap space for 2018.
It’s hard to imagine them keeping the rookie on the bench for more than two seasons. You want to give the kid time to prove himself before his rookie deal expires. Plus, if the apprenticeship lasts through 2017 and then Romo’s released, the dead money drops to just about $8 million with $14 million in savings.
Again, Romo may be fully on board with these plans. However, he could also be like many competitors who don’t believe in their own mortality. Romo likely wants to be a career Cowboy but watching his team draft a quarterback in the top five could threaten that goal.