We're getting close to the time that teams start releasing players for performance and/or salary cap reasons. The business usually doesn't pick up until mid-late February but there is precedent for transactions happening almost immediately after the Super Bowl. I thought it was a good time to look over the Cowboys roster and see just who might be in the crosshairs.
Today we're going to organize the team into job security tiers. There will be a variety of factors; age, legacy, contract, performance, positional need, off-field issues, and others that will impact each player in different ways. Some will be obvious and others may be a little controversial. I hope you'll share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
So. without further ado...
TIER 1 - The Untouchables
Players: Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La'el Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones, Dan Bailey, Chris Jones
Analysis: Like I said, some things will be obvious. Witten will only stop being a Cowboy when he retires. The top three offensive linemen are all fixtures. Collins, Lawrence, Gregory, and Byron Jones are the top young prospects expected to part of the team's future. Sean Lee finally had a healthy season, was Pro Bowl alternate, and is back as your premiere defensive player. Bailey is a god among men and Chris Jones emerged as one of the top punters in the league last year.
Dez and Tyrone Crawford are in the same boat; players coming off down years but with too much financial investment to even consider releasing them. Beasley doesn't have the status of those two but is in a similar situation. He just got a new deal last offseason and wouldn't provide any cap relief if released. His value will likely increase with Romo's return and he's still useful as a backup punt returner.
Speaking of Tony, you probably knew this already but there's just no way you can cut him right now due to the salary cap. Releasing Romo now would increase his cap hit, already at $20 million, up to $31 million. Next year is the first point when you can even consider it as the dead money would finally result in about $5 million in cap relief and more if split over two years (as a post-June cut).
This may seem like a reach for Escobar but he's a former second-round pick entering the final year of his rookie deal. Given that James Hanna is a free agent it's hard to see a way that Dallas would part ways now. If anything, maybe they'd try to trade him to a team that needs more of a receiving option and potential starter. He's still young and could have value to a team that scouted him highly in 2013. That said, I just don't see how he's not back next year.
Finally, let's look at Scandrick. Dallas would only save about $2 million by releasing the 29-year-old (as of February 10th). Even though he's coming off a major knee injury, Scandrick is still your top corner and that $2 million is a pittance compared to what he's worth with a successful rehab and return. When you consider the uncertainty throughout the secondary with Morris Claiborne's free agency, Brandon Carr's potential release, and Byron Jones perhaps moving to safety, there is just far potential for disaster without Scandrick than that $2 million is worth.
Tier 2 - The Slightly Touchables
Players: Jameil Showers, Darren McFadden, Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim, Doug Free, Chaz Green, Ryan Russell, David Irving, Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar, Damien Wilson, Terrance Mitchell, Deji Olatoye, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox
Analysis: This list probably seems like a bit of a hodgepodge, but remember that these rankings are about players' likelihood to be released and/or not re-signed. Also, remember that we're only talking who will makes it to the start of training camp and not who will be on the 2016 Week One roster. That's how you can have a guy like Showers on the same list as McFadden. I've got Showers here because he's under contract and makes for a nice camp body and scout team player when preparing for mobile quarterbacks.
If anything changes for McFadden it will likely be getting a raise after his big year. The only reason he's not an "Untouchable" is the potential that Dallas brings in a future stud through the draft or a big free agent signing such as Lamar Miller. McFadden has almost no guaranteed money on his deal and would provide $2 million in cap relief if released. It's highly unlikely given his value but can't be completely dismissed in the cold business of NFL cap management.
I know it seems like I listed every wide receiver we have but there's a reason for that. All of these guys are under contract and cheap, and you could really extend this logic to Swaim at tight end. There's really no reason to cut them now as all will make the training camp competition even stronger. Even Street, who struggled a lot last year, is still just a third-year player. Whitehead's value is increased by being incumbent return specialist and that he started to find a niche role in the offense toward to the end of the year.
It may seem unfair to even put Terrance Williams on this list, and not up there with Escobar in Tier 1, but that's all about what else is going on at the position. If Dallas drafts a receiver in the early rounds, perhaps even at fourth overall, then they may decide to cut Williams and let him try and find work elsewhere. Butler's emergence late last season puts that on the table.
At offensive tackle, Doug Free could be released for $2.5 million cap relief but then you get into the same question as we discussed with Orlando Scandrick; is replacing him really worth the money? Chaz Green's injury last year did not give Dallas a chance to really look at him and feel confident that he could start in 2016. In fact, there's talk he may wind up at guard. Also, it's hard to see Dallas spending another high pick at offensive line given all they've invested there already and other needs. I think Dallas will ride with Free for one more year and hope Green sticks as the swing tackle.
The defensive linemen, linebackers, and cornerbacks listed are all in the same situation; young backups with cap-friendly deals who have no real reason for release. Some have proposed that Dallas might draft a linebacker high this year but that really doesn't hurt Hitchens, Gachkar, or Wilson. They would still be key backups and then there's the possibility that Rolando McClain won't return. Even if Dallas adds a new starter in the draft, another opening may still be there in the starting lineup. Gachkar is a little rich at $1.9 million this year and $1.3 saved if released, but he may be the best of the bunch and is a special teams leader.
Lastly we get to the much-maligned starting safeties. Let's set the stage; both are entering the final years of their contracts. Church is due to make $3.25 million and would save $2.75 million if released. Wilcox is only due about $850k on the final year of his rookie deal. Both have been highly criticized after last season, for good reason, and many would like to wish them well in their future endeavors.
Byron Jones plays a huge part in what Dallas chooses to do at safety. Do they make him a full-time safety, where his athleticism makes him an ideal "center field" coverage man and allow the other safety to play more down in the box? If so, that really increases Church's value and potential. Dallas could not only hope for improved safety play by having guys in more ideal roles but then utilize Wilcox as a versatile backup and special teams ace, upgrading their depth over restricted free agent Jeff Heath. This is seems a likely outcome.
However, there's also the potential that Dallas elects to use Jones at cornerback in light of the holes there. His size and athleticism are suited to covering the bigger wide receivers of the modern era. If they go this route than Dallas may have to consider releasing Church so they can spend some of that money on the upgrades. Keep in mind, however, that 37 safeties in the NFL make more money per year than Church. He makes just a third of what guys like Eric Berry and Earl Thomas are bringing in. That's attractive value for any team.
The symbiotic nature of corners and safeties, which is greatly increased by Jones' potential to land at either spot, also means ripples at corner could still affect Church's security. If Dallas figures out a way to negotiate a lower salary with Brandon Carr, for example, does that mean Church gets cut for cap money? There are just so many ways it could go. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Dallas will look to retain as much talent as possible so that they can add to the base rather than create new holes to fill.
~ ~ ~
That's it for today. Tomorrow we'll hit the rest of the roster and dive deep into some of the biggest hot-button topics such as Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Lance Dunbar, and Carr and Claiborne's futures. Stay tuned!
(Part 2 is now published. Click HERE to read!)
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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