If you asked a Cowboys fan to name their top five Dallas free agents, I assume that few would mention guard Ronald Leary.
He spent of most of last year on the bench and will be a restricted free agent. Dallas has all the leverage and can likely hold on to Leary for a modest one-year deal using the second-round RFA tender, which in 2016 is likely to pay around $2.5 million. Given Leary’s experience and proven ability, that is a bargain price for a reliable backup.
However, if you look at the big picture, you have to wonder if it’s the right thing to do.
2015 – Leary Loses Job to La’el Collins
Despite starting for last year’s division-winning team and helping DeMarco Murray have a record-breaking season, Leary enters this offseason somewhat forgotten after losing his starting job to La’el Collins. A groin injury led to him being inactive in Week 3 and allowed Collins to take over, a move that the Cowboys front office was probably not too disappointed to have to make.
After going undrafted due to an unresolved legal issue, Collins was a rare first-round talent that Dallas was able to add in free agency. Collins was brought in to be part of the team’s long-term future, leaving no room for Leary to have the same opportunity.
Dallas certainly didn’t do wrong by Leary in giving the job to Collins last year.
After Tony Romo’s injury and the piled-up losses it was no time to worry about veteran loyalty. Though I doubt they’d have given the job back to Leary even if the team was in contention, there was certainly no reason to do it with nothing to play for. Those game reps will serve Collins very well next year and Dallas was right to keep the rookie on the field.
However, that then leads me to this question: should the Cowboys show Ronald Leary some compassion now?
2016 – Leary’s RFA Status
Since he was originally undrafted himself, Leary won’t earn the Cowboys any compensation if they use the low-end RFA tender of what should be around $1.5 million. Therefore, the only way Dallas can use his restricted status to their advantage is with the roughly $2.5 million second-round tender. That means a team who signs Leary would have to surrender a second-round pick to the Cowboys.
In Leary’s case, and especially given the position he plays, it would almost certainly take him out of consideration for any other clubs.
There is plenty to like about Leary on paper.
He will turn just 27 in April and has been part of one of the NFL’s best offensive lines the last two years. He shouldn’t be expensive after what happened in 2015. There has always been the fear that degenerative knee issues would eventually cut his career short but so far Leary has not shown signs of problems there. I could definitely see a team giving him a modest contract if he was on the open market.
However, no team is going to give up a second-round pick for an interior lineman with bad knees. Even if without the health issue, Leary plays a position that typically is less valued throughout the league than most others.
Traditionally, though this has shifted a bit in recent years, some of a draft’s premiere guard and center prospects weren’t even getting picked until the second round. If a team needs a guard then they will likely feel they can use their second round pick to take someone younger, with more upside, and without the injury concern.
Do the Cowboys owe Leary the chance to get a multi-year deal and an opportunity to start with another team? If the rare fortune of getting La’el Collins had never come to them, the Cowboys would likely be considering giving Leary a three or four-year deal themselves.
This may be his last shot to make a real NFL payday, having played for less than $500K each of the last three years.
Though the NFL is a business, players are often sold on the idea of team pride and family within the organization. It’s easy for front offices to forget all that during the offseason but players never forget. Franchises can develop reputations for being player-friendly or cold-hearted, and those reps can come back to bite you when trying to lure free agents.
The Cowboys certainly won’t be wrong if they decide to use the restricted tender to hold on to Leary. It’s a provision that the players collectively-bargained to allow and teams have every right to use it. Leary will be a fantastic backup for the price and you can’t blame a team for making shrewd roster moves.
However, is this a time that they should act with their hearts over their heads? They have just 10 days until the March 9th deadline to decide.