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!)
Travis Frederick Regains Strength in Hands, Influence in Cowboys OL Room
The Dallas Cowboys are coming off their most impressive win of the season, keeping playoff hopes alive on the road with a 27-20 victory at the Philadelphia Eagles. Entering the hostile home of the defending Super Bowl champions with three previous road losses already on their record, the Cowboys performance on Sunday night was truly about getting back to their roots. In their second week with Marc Colombo as the Offensive Line Coach, the Cowboys rushed for 171 yards and protected Dak Prescott very well. It was revealed after the game that Frederick was on a coaches headset with Colombo and his new assistant Hudson Houck.
Travis Frederick just told @BenRogers on @1053thefan that Marc Columbo has him on a coaches headset now helping him and Hudson Houck. That's a smart move from Columbo. Smartest guy on the line
The anchor of the Cowboys offensive line since being drafted in 2013, Frederick is regarded as the smartest linemen on the team. It's his mental edge that's made up for a slight lack of size at the position, regarded as one of the worst first round picks in his draft because of this oversight.
Not only is Frederick a welcome addition to the Cowboys brain trust at offensive line, but he did receive some great news on his battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) that's kept him out this season. Frederick was placed on injured reserve on October 6th, announcing publicly his GBS diagnosis on August 22nd.
Frederick has a long way to go before he's playing football again, not eligible to do so until week 14 at home against the Eagles. Regaining feeling in his hands is about the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee getting as healthy as possible away from football. If a return to the Cowboys is possible through his recovery, the team would of course welcome Frederick.
Travis Frederick regains sensation in his hands: "There is some light at the end of the tunnel" https://t.co/wvQhB6KUQp
What Frederick has gained in upper body strength, he must remain patient for in the lower body. While pointing out that over 95% of patients make a full recovery from GBS, Frederick is still waiting to feel sensations in his feet.
The Cowboys have been optimistic that Frederick's condition was caught early enough for a full recovery to be probable.
Dallas' schedule doesn't get any easier following their uplifting win. Returning to the site of last year's demoralizing loss at the Falcons, Frederick likely wishes he could make a miraculous return just a bit more this week.
To make matters worse, Left Tackle Tyron Smith did not practice on Wednesday due to back spasms. It's unknown if rookie Connor Williams will reclaim his starting left guard spot on Sunday, or if Xavier Su'a-Filo has earned another opportunity.
Despite the patchwork nature of a Cowboys offensive line once regarded as the best in the league, and still vital to the entire team's success, Dallas has an abundance of hope that Sunday in Atlanta can be much better than 2017. This starts with Frederick's strength to fight GBS and attempt to rejoin his teammates, wisely given some added game day influence on them by Colombo.
If elevating their level of play up front was all it took for the Cowboys to play up to their potential and pull off an upset on prime time last week, the NFC East is certainly still within reach for a team that must now sustain the level of play on offense to match what this defense has given all season.
Cowboys LB Named NFC Defensive Player of the Week Against Eagles
You already knew that Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker, had a great night last Sunday in Philadelphia. Apparently the rest of the football world agreed, and now he's been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
The award is the first of what could be many for Leighton, who has emerged as a defensive leader for the Cowboys. He's been playing more in the absence of veteran Sean Lee, who has been battling hamstring issues all season.
THE. WOLF. HUNTER. Congratulations to #DallasCowboys rookie LB @VanderEsch38 on being named NFC Defensive Player of the Week! → https://t.co/XeSTt2tIpX
This is the second Player of the Week award for a Dallas Cowboys this season. Kicker Brett Maher won the Special Teams version in Week 4 after going 4-for-4 and hitting a game winner over the Detroit Lions.
The Defensive Player award hasn't gone to a Cowboys since Week of 2017, when DeMarcus Lawrence put up three sacks against the Arizona Cardinals.
Leighton's recognition is also well-earned. He led Dallas with 13 tackles and an interception in a pivotal road victory against a division rival. In what was arguably a "must-win" game for the Cowboys, their first-round pick stepped up and stood out.
A few more games like this, and Vander Esch could be in the running for the Defensive Rookie of the Year. But even above personal accolades, Leighton's play could help the Cowboys make a push in the NFC East.
If nothing else, he's making that first-round pick look smarter every week.
Legendary Cowboys Quarterback Backs Dak Prescott
Things have not gone well for Dak Prescott this season. His play has been up and down and he hasn't given the team or Cowboys Nation much reason to believe that he's the future at the quarterback position for the Dallas Cowboys. Speaking to 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas today, Legendary Dallas Cowboys Quarterback, Ring of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Roger Staubach offered support for the Cowboys current quarterback, Dak Prescott.
Staubach had this to say when asked about Dak Prescott.
Roger Staubach on @1053thefan said #Dak is a part of the problem with the #Cowboys offense, but he is not the problem.
Roger Staubach didn't start in the NFL until the third year of his career and thinks that's a good time for the quarterback to make the jump. At this point, we are 40 games into Dak Prescott's NFL career and we can see some of the things that he's good at as well as some of the things that he struggles with.
As Staubach points out, Dak Prescott has the intangibles that you look for in a quarterback, even if his play hasn't been what you'd want at the position. Roger admits that Dak shoulders some of the blame for the offensive woes of the last 16 games, but realizes that there are many reasons for the Cowboys offensive failures this season.
Roger Staubach believes that the Dallas Cowboys can win with Dak Prescott as their starting quarterback despite some of the flaws that have crept up over the last 16 games. He's not wrong.
Staubach's pretty accurate in his assessment that there's been more good than bad. If you look at the first 24 games of Dak Prescott's career, he was really good. Through the last 16 games, he's struggled at times. So technically there's been more good than bad. The problem is that over the last 16 games, there's been more bad than good. The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" league and lately Dak hasn't done much. We can debate all day on how much of the struggles Prescott's faced are on him, but everyone should be willing to admit that some of the struggles are on him.
It's plausible that the confidence in Prescott that Jerry Jones has comes from Roger's belief that the Cowboys can win games with Dak Prescott at quarterback; and they have. In Prescott's career, the Dallas Cowboys are 25-15. Though wins are a team stat and not a quarterback stat, it just goes as evidence that Dak Prescott can be a winning quarterback in the National Football League.
Dak has some flaws, but the offense and its play caller haven't helped Prescott much this season. We should be critical of Prescott because he has a big pay day coming, if you believe Jerry Jones. While Dak has some flaws, he also has some traits that can make him a good quarterback in the NFL with the right coaching situation behind him. 2018 may be running out of time for the Dallas Cowboys and their playoff prospects, but the Cowboys have time before they have to make a decision on Prescott.
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