Some may still be focused on Peyton Manning's legacy and Cam Newton's petulance, but for many NFL fans our eyes are already looking ahead to offseason business. Monday was the first day that teams could begin waiving players and we've already seen a few cuts by the Eagles, Falcons, and Saints. More moves are sure to come and, of course, we're all waiting for the first news to come out of Dallas.
Today I thought we'd go through the important dates on the NFL calendar over the next few months and see what we have to look forward to. Some of these moves are purely speculation, obviously, but isn't that what makes this time of year so much fun?
February 8th – Waivers Begin
Teams may now release players within the 2016 “contract year.” They may also designate up to two players as “post-June 1st” cuts to split the dead money over the next two seasons.
The big focus for a potential Cowboys release is cornerback Brandon Carr. He could be released for about $6.5 million in cap savings if cut outright and $9 million if done with the June 1st tag. It seems a foregone conclusion that Carr will be released if he does not accept a pay cut the way Doug Free did in 2013. Carr was unwilling to do this last year but may be more motivated now that he turns 30 in May.
Barry Church is the only other key player with potential to be released. The last figure I saw was $4.25 million off the cap. That would go about halfway to paying the salary of a top-tier free agent safety, such as Eric Berry, if Dallas is looking to upgrade the position. However, I could also see Dallas electing to keep Church at a relatively low salary and seeing how he performs with Byron Jones as his new partner.
Also possible right now are contract restructurings and Dallas has several candidates for that. Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and Dez Bryant all seem likely to have their deals reworked and projections are up to about $25 million in cap room gained from those moves. Jason Witten is another candidate though a little less assured due to age. Although they also have big contracts with movable money, Tony Romo and Sean Lee seem unlikely for restructure due to concerns about their health and longevity.
February 16 – Franchise Tagging Begins
It seems highly unlikely that Dallas will use the franchise tag on any of their 2016 free agents. It would pay anywhere from $12-$15 million for guys like Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, neither of whom has earned that kind of payday. No other free agent is even close to matching their level contribution or potential for next year.
February 23 – NFL Scouting Combine
Cowboys fans will likely be more interested in this year's Combine than others with the fourth overall pick to consider. It hasn't been since 2011 that Dallas had the potential to land any of the draft's biggest names and it is sure to create added excitement and chatter around the event. All of the debates we're having now about rookie quarterbacks and “need versus talent” will only be amplified.
March 9 – Free Agency Opens
Though negotiations can begin about 48 hours prior, the market truly opens at 4:00 pm EST on Wednesday, March 9th. Given the potential for cap space that we discussed above, Dallas could be major players in this year's free agency. It will be the first time in several years that they've had the cap flexibility to do so.
Topping the list for Dallas' free agent targets will likely be defensive players. They should add at least one defensive back, either at corner or safety, and may be looking for one of each. Defensive line will also be a focus as they look to continue rehabbing their pass rush. If they don't bring Rolando McClain back then a replacement there, or a talented upgrade on the strongside, could be in the cards.
On offense their targets may be a younger running back to pair with Darren McFadden or an upgrade at their number-two receiver. Some certainly want a better right tackle than Doug Free but the draft is more likely for that than free agency, especially with Chaz Green in the mix. A new veteran at backup quarterback, such as the much-discussed Robert Griffin III or Johnny Highball, will also be a focus.
As for the Cowboys' own free agents, most of them could go either way for staying or leaving. I think McClain has decent potential to come back on an incentive-heavy deal but could also see them looking for more consistency and reliability. Hardy wasn't worth the headaches in 2015 but maybe they feel like they've weathered the storm and could get him now at a bargain. Morris Claiborne is an interesting case and it's tough to tell what his market value will be or the team's remaining value in him.
March 20-23 – NFL Annual Meeting
Could we figure out what a catch is? That would be lovely.
April 22 – Deadline for RFA's to Sign Offers
Guard Ronald Leary and safety Jeff Heath are the only restricted free agents Dallas has this year. Both were undrafted so the original pick tender, likely about $1.5 million in 2016, doesn't do much good if they're trying to hang on to Leary. They would have to give him the 2nd-round pick tender of about $2.5 million, which isn't a bad price for a talented and system-familiar backup. Heath could get the original pick tender due to his experience and special teams value, but may also be squeezed out if J.J. Wilcox is moving to the bench.
April 28-30 – This Little Thing Called “The Draft”
We'll have such a better sense of what Dallas' needs are after free agency. Those pining for Jalen Ramsey today will move on if Dallas signs Eric Berry and Josh Norman. Bringing back Hardy would likely rule out Joey Bosa. And if RG3 does wind up a Cowboy, wouldn't that suggest they may not take a quarterback at number four?
It promises to be a fun offseason. Dallas has a lot of moving parts and, thankfully, the financial flexibility to cover their bases and even upgrade from last season. Will the disastrous 2015 season push Jerry Jones into making some more desperate moves than in recent years? Will he stay the course with Jason Garrett's patience and process? Time will tell.