Perhaps no team in the NFL has a bigger internal free agent issue in 2021 than the Dallas Cowboys. Dak Prescott’s future will be the team’s dominant story this offseason, but along with the starting quarterback are multiple starters on defense and other key roleplayers.
The Cowboys are desperate this offseason to get back to playoff contention. While coaching staff changes and new talent from free agency and the draft are a huge part of this, retaining players from last year is also part of the equation.
We all know who the top priority is in the Cowboys’ 2021 crop of free agents, but what about the 20-plus players after him? Let’s quickly run through the list and discuss their prospects.
1. QB Dak Prescott
Dallas’ entire offseason strategy hinges on the contract negotiations with Prescott. Either a new long-term deal or a second franchise tag will come with significant cost to the salary cap, which is expected to be lower in 2021 as fallout from the revenue losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another franchise tag would be significantly more expensive in 2021 than the first year of a new multi-year contract. The Cowboys could structure a long-term deal so that the early years give them some relief against the cap as they navigate the league-wide reduction in spending power.
Obviously, the less Dallas has invested in Dak is more that they can put into other parts of the roster. That isn’t to say Prescott should take less money for the good of the team, especially after a major injury, but rather than it provides ample motivation for the Cowboys to agree to a long-term deal and achieve the extra flexibility.
Make no mistake; Dak Prescott is the top free agent quarterback in 2021 and perhaps the top player from all positions in the NFL. The next-best passers available are the likes of Philip Rivers, Mitch Trubisky, and even Dallas’ backup QB Andy Dalton.
2. DE Aldon Smith
Smith’s comeback in 2020 after a five-year absence from the NFL was a great story. While he’s now 31 going into free agency, Aldon’s reduced NFL mileage and 5.0 sacks last season still make him an intriguing option for teams needing a pass rusher.
Jerry Jones recently said that he wants Smith back with the Cowboys next season. True, Aldon’s productivity in 2020 trailed off after a hot start. But that may have had a lot to do with his long layoff from the game and limitations offseason prep work due to the pandemic.
The Cowboys do have some options already under contract. DeMarcus Lawrence is a franchise fixture at one DE spot and Randy Gregory looked very good once he rejoined the team midway through the year. They also have prospects in Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, and Ron’Dell Carter to work with.
Still, Aldon Smith could be an even better player in 2021 with additional physical and mental conditioning work. He still flashed the same raw skills that made him an elite pass rusher at the start of his career. When a player is coming back from a long absence due to injury, Year 2 is usually when they fully return to form.
3. CB Chidobe Awuzie
While he hasn’t been everything you’d want from a 2nd-round draft pick, Awuzie has been a starter in 42 of the 49 games he’s played in since 2017. He is still one of Dallas’ top defensive backs and could be a useful piece going forward.
Back when he was drafted, Chido sounded a superior version of Orlando Scandrick as a playmaking slot corner. To his credit, Awuzie has had one interception in each of his four seasons. But also like Scandrick, Awuzie has occasional lapses in coverage and gets his hands on a lot of balls without finishing the catch.
The Cowboys could be looking at a massive overhaul in the secondary with Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all free agents this year. But there is a solid foundation already in place with Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Donovan Wilson for 2021. There’s also Reggie Robinson, a 4th-round pick last year, that could be a factor.
Of the free agent defensive backs Awuzie has the strongest case to return. He could be a good fallback option if Dallas comes up empty for a new CB2 in the offseason and would add to the competition at slot corner. He could also be a potential contender at safety if they decide to finally make that switch.
4. S Xavier Woods
Woods appeared like a long-term answer at safety after the 2018 season. But after failing to build on the potential in 2019 and regressing last year, now Xavier is on very shaky ground as his rookie contract expires with the Cowboys.
Not helping matters is that Woods was completely outclassed in 2020 by Donovan Wilson, who was making all of those game-changing plays that we saw from Xavier in 2018. The only thing Woods got attention for in 2020 were public comments in October admitting to his lack of effort and accusing teammates of the same.
Ironically, Woods’ recent struggles could make it easier for him to return to Dallas. Now that his market value has taken a big hit, Xavier may have to accept much less to find work in 2021.
The Cowboys could lowball Woods with a deal that would alliow him to compete to keep his starting job or at least be a versatile backup. Xavier may also like the idea of playing for Dan Quinn and perhaps getting back to the things he was doing under Kris Richard from 2018-2019.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Dallas lets Woods go; just another late-round draft pick who didn’t pan out. But I think this is a 50/50 possibility and will be equally unsurprised if Xavier does come back for a shot at redemption.
5. CB Jourdan Lewis
It’s fitting to have Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods all grouped together here given their similar situations. All products of the woeful 2017 draft class, they haven’t washed out as quickly as Taco Charlton did but have been disappointments over their first four seasons.
Lewis has had the most puzzling career of the three so far. At times he’s made you a fan with ballhawk potential and willing tackling, but other games he’s looked truly inept in coverage.
Jourdan’s development issues may be partially the fault of former DB Coach Kris Richard, who seemed dismissive of Lewis due to his lack of size and kept him buried on the depth chart. It was Lewis’ undeniable playmaking ability that eventually forced more playing time.
But Lewis didn’t capitalize on those increased opportunities. Instead, more time on the field exposed more of his deficiencies.
It also may not help Jourdan that Kris Richard’s former supervisor, Dan Quinn, is now the defensive coordinator in Dallas. If Quinn shares Richard’s views on CB size then Lewis may not have much hope of returning.
If Lewis does get a new deal from the Cowboys it could be with the goal of making him into a free safety. But it’s easy to see Jourdan’s future prospects being elsewhere in the NFL after the lack of progress in Dallas.
6. DE/DT Tyrone Crawford
2021 has finally brought an end to one of the worst contracts on the Cowboys’ roster in recent history. But while Crawford was never worth the $9-10 million that he was counting against Dallas’ salary cap, he has been a solid roleplayer who could handle multiple roles throughout the defensive line.
Tyrone has spent nine seasons in Dallas and 2020 may have been his last. The Cowboys have younger options at both DE and DT and a fresh offseason to acquire more talent.
Especially hurting Crawford is recent talk that the Cowboys want to bring back Gerald McCoy and Aldon Smith, which would create a numbers crunch at both defensive line positions. Investing in those two veterans on top of their young prospects would likely leave Tyrone without a spot.
As much as Crawford’s contract made him a target for criticism over the last 5-6 years he’s still be a consistently reliable, competent player. But with a new coaching staff in place and a brand new regime coming on defense, it’s hard to see Tyrone getting a 10th season with the Cowboys.
7. QB Andy Dalton
Dalton did exactly what you wanted as the veteran backup QB in 2020. Had the offensive line not been in shambles and the defense somewhat solvent, we saw clear evidence that Andy was good enough to keep the Cowboys competitive.
Like many starting-quality quarterbacks, Dalton is never going to be a guy who can come in and make his teammates better. He needs the right circumstances to succeed and the Cowboys may offer that in 2021 if they can get Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins back to regular playing status.
But with them we also hope to get back Dak Prescott and never see Dalton on the field again. So, could there be a market for Dalton to start elsewhere in 2021?
I see Dalton right now much like Alex Smith during the later years of his career. If a team has a solid offense but just needs a stable presence at QB then Andy might be a good short-term option. With many current starters like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers all potentially retiring there may be a need for a band-aid at QB that Andy Dalton could fill.
If not, I would be more than happy to see him return to Dallas for another year in our emergency kit.
8. WR Cedrick Wilson (RFA)
While he may not have made a lot of plays in 2020, Wilson flashed his potential in the few opportunities he could get behind Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb. But while depth and special teams play are meaningful, Cedrick’s greatest value may be what he offers in the future.
Wilson is someone that Dallas could re-sign now on the cheap to prepare for the potential loss of Michael Gallup in 2022. It’s hard to see the Cowboys paying Gallup the kind of money he projects to require as a free agent when they already have Cooper and Lamb to lean on.
Given that Wilson is also a potential kick and punt return man for you, keeping him around makes sense on multiple levels. It’s an investment that helps you now but could prove especially shrewd next year.
9. CB C.J. Goodwin
Whether it was recovering that onside kick against Atlanta, catching a lateral pass from Cedrick Wilson and nearly taking it to the house, stopping punts a the goal line, or silencing return men as a gunner in coverage, Goodwin was a true weapon on special teams in 2020. Had it not been for the Cowboys’ poor season overall he very easily could’ve made the Pro Bowl and perhaps should have anyway.
The biggest threat to Goodwin’s return in 2021 is that he turns 31 next month. Dallas may want to use his roster spot on a younger player, and especially one who offers more value on offense or defense instead of being just a pure specialist.
But Goodwin did everything he could to make that a difficult decision for the Cowboys. If John Fassel pounds the table for him, expect to see C.J. back with Dallas for his incredible value in the third phase of the game.
10. G/C Joe Looney
Looney came back on a one-year deal in 2020, likely because the Cowboys were already aware of the impending loss of Travis Frederick to retirement. But with Tyler Biadasz now the projected starter at center and Connor McGovern in place as a versatile interior line backup, could the veteran Looney be left out in the cold?
There will always be a place for guys like Joe; capable of playing either guard or center and having plenty of starting experience. He’s still just 30 years old and in his relative prime for an offensive lineman.
The Cowboys could easily justify bringing him back after all of their o-line tumult in 2020. His $2.4 million cap hit last year was a bargain given the role he played, so a similar type of deal this year is not hard to imagine.
11. LS L.P. Ladouceur
Though he turns 40 this March, Ladouceur remains as good as they come for his long-snapping ability. As long as he wants to keep playing the Cowboys will likely keep giving him a shiny new one-year deal every season.
Coming back in 2021 would be significant for L.P. as he would be able to break the franchise record for games played. His 253 career games is just behind the current leader, Jason Witten, at 255 games.
12. DT Antwaun Woods (RFA)
The Cowboys keep trying to upgrade at defensive tackle but keep coming back to Woods as their most reliable player. His ability to play at either DT position makes him an attractive rotation piece going forward.
Dallas would love to see their young prospects Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore blossom into a starting duo 2021. But if injuries or stunted development wreck that plan then having a guy like Woods in the queue could reap rewards.
13. LB Sean Lee
There was a time when having Lee’s name so far down a list like this would’ve been blasphemy. But Sean’s impact on the field has waned in these later years and he may be retiring in 2021, having teased it the last few years and now turning 35 in July.
The Cowboys have concerns to LB given Leighton Vander Esch’s health, Jaylon Smith’s major decline in 2020, and a lack of proven depth outside of Lee and Joe Thomas. They would likely welcome Sean back if The General wants to give it another year, but I still expect him to retire and hopefully move into a coaching role.
14. LB Joe Thomas
Thomas’ value to the Cowboys as a backup linebacker would go up if Sean Lee does leave and is already substantive as is. He’s another guy whose age could start becoming an issue as he turns 30 this year, but Thomas should be inexpensive to re-sign and provided good depth at a position where Dallas always seems to need it.
15. WR Noah Brown
Brown got more opportunities in 2020 than he had in the three years before and showed why the Cowboys have kept bringing him back. Unless his old coach from Ohio State offers him a job in Jacksonville, Noah would be a good re-signing for depth and special teams play in Dallas.
16. OL Cam Erving
Brought in to be the veteran swing tackle in 2020, this former 1st-round pick had a great opportunity with both La’el Collins and Tyron Smith missing nearly all of the season. But Erving could barely stay healthy himself and may now have been surpassed by younger options. Dallas will likely stick with Brandon Knight and Terence Steele in 2021 and perhaps invest in OT in the draft, leaving Erving looking for a new gig elsewhere.
17. TE Blake Bell
Though Dalton Schultz stepped into the starting role after Blake Jarwin’s injury, the veteran Bell got a few chances to shine and showed he could contribute both as a receiver and blocker. The Cowboys could feel very good about their TE group in 2021 if they bring back all three of these players.
18. LB Justin March
March has been one of the most active special teams players for Dallas the last few years. However, he’s never been able to break through at linebacker and will turn 28 this summer. The Cowboys may decide to move on to the likes of Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, and younger players with upside but March could at least get another chance to compete.
19. DE Ron’Dell Carter (ERFA)
One of the hottest undrafted free agents in 2020, Carter signed with Dallas and made the practice squad only to get poached by the Colts a few weeks later. Indianapolis eventually waived Carter in November and the Cowboys brought him back. With Carter being an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, all Dallas has to do is tender an offer to keep him and there’s no reason to think they won’t.
20. RB/FB Sewo Olonilua (ERFA)
Another undrafted rookie last year, Olonilua spent most of 2020 on the practice squad but got called up a few times during the year for backup duties. He should return in 2021 as a competitor at RB, FB, and special teams.
21. DT Eli Ankou
Last November the Cowboys traded a 7th-round pick to acquire Ankou from the Houston Texans. He played in seven games as Dallas was riddled with DT injuries and other issues. The Cowboys clearly think there’s something in Ankou, who turns 27 this year, if they were willing to give up a draft pick to get him. Expect him back in 2021 to compete for a depth role.
22. WR Malik Turner (RFA)
Dallas claimed Turner off waivers in September to help with special teams depth. Given that he was inactive in most of team’s games in 2020 it’s hard to assess his value going forward.
23. OT Greg Senat (RFA)
Dallas signed Senat off the Browns’ practice squad last October and he was active for 10 games as a backup, but only playing on three offensive snaps all year. He will likely be in training camp this year but anything beyond that would be a surprise.