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.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
Cedrick Wilson: Cowboys WR Could Shine After a Year Off
The departure of Cole Beasley to Buffalo via free agency in March left a hole at the slot receiver position in Dallas. The team signed veteran Randall Cobb about a week later, but only to a one year deal. Names like Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns along with Cobb are looked at as the replacement for Beasley but don't forget about Cedrick Wilson.
Selected in the sixth round in 2018, Wilson was coming off an impressive and highly productive two-year career at Boise State. Tallying 139 receptions for 2,640 yards and 18 touchdowns in just 26 games.
When OTA's began last season, the rookie was already turning heads with his route running, ability to create separation and athleticism, but unfortunately, disaster happened not long afterward. Wilson would suffer a shoulder injury that placed him on injured reserve for 2018, the same shoulder he had issues with in college. A not so fairy tale beginning to an NFL career.
Although his time on the field was short-lived last summer, he definitely caught the eye of wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal.
"Ced's a savvy, smart football player. He picks things up really well. He applies them to the field. In terms of technique, he's one of the best if you watch him. His stance and start is really good. He comes off the ball with low pad level. He's eating up ground and then has a nack to make a big play over the top on a big post," Lal said.
Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb make up a very formidable receiving core, and adding a healthy Wilson to that could work wonders. His experience on the outside and the slot gives offensive coordinator Kellen Moore plenty of options. Slot receivers are usually harder to bump off the line with the extra few yards of cushion they get, giving them more options route wise seeing as they can go inside or out a lot easier than outside receivers. That's where Wilson's supreme route running can come into play. Also, with his ability to separate on the outside and beat corners deep, you can play him opposite Amari Cooper and put Cobb in the slot with a combination of either Gallup, Austin or Hurns in a four-wide receiver set, the possibilities are endless.
A setback can be a blessing in disguise if approached in the right manner. Wilson hasn't let the year off derail his focus on what he's trying to do in Dallas.
"Coming back off the rehab was tough in general. But definitely a year of just seeing how everything goes, the speed is definitely slowing down. Just getting back in the playbook and learning from older guys of what I need to do and doing what the coaches expect of me," Wilson said.
The competition won't be easy for Wilson, though, as other young up and coming receivers are fighting for roster spots as well. UDFA's (Undrafted Free Agents) Jon'Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton will also be fighting for snaps during mini-camp, with the former already making waves during OTA's. Reggie Davis has also turned a few heads in the summer, a fellow UDFA himself trying to find a home after bouncing around the league between four different teams since 2017.
It's all about health for Cedrick Wilson at this point. Can his shoulder hold up enough to allow his skill set to make a contribution to the Cowboys in 2019? The talent is there, along with the praises of his position coach, now it'll be interesting to see if this potential diamond in the rough can shine under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium.
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