The Dallas Cowboys have 17 unrestricted free agents this year, even though you might have only known about one. From their franchise quarterback whose contract negotiations have driven the fanbase crazy to the team’s longest-tenured player, this 2021 free agent group offers plenty of intrigue.
Free agency continues to be a wild mix of emotions for Cowboys fans. It’s just like someone who watched Game of Thrones religiously for six seasons, just to see it end in disappointment as the last season did.
Don’t believe me? Just go back and look at some of the biggest losses from last year’s free agency for example;
- Unable to sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal, resulting in a franchise tag
- Lost Byron Jones to Miami
- Lost Robert Quinn to Chicago
- Lost Randall Cobb to Houston
The Cowboys were able to make a few splashy moves in free agency. They signed Pro Bowl defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, as well as edge rushers Aldon Smith and Everson Griffen.
However, McCoy never saw the field after he ruptured his quad during practice before the season started, Everson Griffen was traded to Detroit after seven games, and Poe was released at that same time. Only Aldon Smith, which was the move that initially saw the most criticism, played the entire season for the Cowboys.
This year there might not be as many big-name free agents the Cowboys need to bring back, but there’s going to be some that still have demand. With the salary cap expected to be lower in 2021 due to COVID-19’s effect on NFL business this season, it’s going to force the Cowboys into some tough decisions.
Dak Prescott’s is the most important name on this list. He was on a historic, record-setting pace in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury. In terms of his impending deal, he might have actually earned more money by not playing than being on the field.
After Dak’s injury the team went through three different quarterbacks who combined for a 4-7 record. The offense never really had the same groove and began to suffer as much as the defense had throughout the year. The team’s confidence that they could win any game took a hit once Prescott went down.
The quarterback market as it stands is going to fall somewhere between the Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes area. I would expect something between $39 million and $45 million per year, with around $70 million guaranteed.
The Cowboys would be playing with fire if they tried to tag Dak again. Not only could it damage relations between Prescott and the Cowboys beyond repair, but Prescott’s franchise tag will skyrocket to around $38 million, and all of that affects the salary cap.
On top of all of this, quarterbacks Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield are all eligible for contract extensions this offseason. All three made the playoffs this year and one won the MVP award last season. The other two play for franchises that have been desperate for this kind of quarterback play for a long time. It would be wise not to get into a bidding war with your star quarterback and watch the market skyrocket even higher than it is.
Andy Dalton showed glimpses of his former self at times. He displayed accuracy and the ability to make plays when they needed to be made. However, he ultimately showed where he is as a player. He took too many sacks and didn’t show the same confidence he had in his early seasons in Cincinnati.
His years as a full-time starter might be over, but his career a reliable backup/bridge quarterback is beginning. The Cowboys might be able to bring him back on another one-year $7 million contract, but it depends on if the team wants to spend the money it would cost to keep both Prescott and Dalton.
The Cowboys might be better off with Garett Gilbert, a cheaper option, as the backup and allow Andy Dalton to go play elsewhere.
Noah Brown and Blake Bell are both players who’ve shown promise in their limited playing time in the passing game. Despite both proving to be very good blockers in the run game, and even posting career numbers in their small usage as receivers in 2020, they both play in highly-skilled and very deep position groups.
Noah Brown’s most proven skill up until now had been his ability to run block, but what stood out in 2020 was what he did in the passing game. This year he saw more opportunities as a receiver, setting career highs in targets (24), receptions (14), and yards (154) in a rotation where he was fifth on the depth chart.
As an asset to this team for WR depth, blocking, as well as his play on special teams, Brown would be an underrated re-signing that likely wouldn’t cost very much. His asking price is likely no more than $3 million per year but it all depends on whether or not the Cowboys want to keep him or look to upgrade the depth at the position.
Blake Bell’s career has been primarily as a blocker but this season saw Bell produce his best receiving numbers since his rookie year. Despite that, it would be a surprise if he comes back.
Dallas is his fifth team in six years and he’s made a career with one-and-done situations. He hasn’t played for the same team in consecutive seasons since his two-year stint in San Francisco.
On top of that, the Cowboys’ tight end position is about to have too many mouths to feed. They still have Blake Jarwin under contract, plus a career year from Dalton Schultz will lead to talks of his own contract extension. He’s likely going to only cost a similar contract that he has now of $1.7 million but it’s a numbers game.
Joe Looney once again performed admirably as the day one starter, taking over after the surprising retirement of Travis Frederick.
In his time in Dallas, Looney has been a key piece in keeping the quality depth along the offensive line. Even though the Cowboys seemingly having found their future at the center position in Tyler Biadasz, this past season has shown just how valuable quality depth is.
Looney has been on the team since 2016 and has cost less than $7 million total. His most recent one-year deal was for a team-friendly $2.4 million. He might be able to get a team to pay him to be their starter, but he should be considered one of the team’s more important re-signings.
Looking at the past three contracts Looney’s signed with Dallas, his asking price might go as high as $4 million a year at this point. The biggest question will be to see if a team wants him to be their starter and how much more money they’ll throw his way.
Cameron Erving really showed his truest self in Kansas City as a guard after being let go from Cleveland. However, after many injuries to the offensive tackle position and the constant reshuffling of the offensive line, Erving needed to go back to his original spot.
He started five games this season until injuring his knee and landing himself on injured reserve. Other than his first start of the season versus Washington, he played okay before the injury.
Erving’s position flexibility makes him an interesting option on the open market but it’s unclear if it will be in Dallas. He only cost the team $2.5 million but the Cowboys have cheaper options in Brandon Knight and Terrance Steele. Regardless of who’s the better player among them, with the possibility that the salary cap could decrease, the cost will also be a factor as teams look to manage their spending.
There’s no doubt that signing Aldon Smith was the most shocking move in free agency for the Cowboys. He hadn’t played since 2015 and, even though his contract would have only maxed out at $4 million if he had totaled 14 sacks, no one knew just how good he would be.
At first, he seemed to be the only player on the defensive front who was able to adapt to former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s 3-4/4-3 hybrid defensive scheme. As the season went along his production dropped off, but Smith still finished the season with 48 tackles, five tackles for loss and five sacks.
There have been talks about a potential contract extension to bring Smith back to Dallas but the Cowboys will likely want another team-friendly deal and Aldon Smith might be looking for a pay raise.
A difficult move is going to be whether they re-sign longtime Defensive Lineman Tyrone Crawford. There’s no doubt about his effect on the team as a leader, but he’s 31 years old and has only totaled three sacks in the last two seasons.
With players like Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill on the roster and a need at the defensive tackle spot, the team will look to get younger and more affordable up front. Crawford was one of the Cowboys’ biggest cap hits last season earning $9 million per year. If he comes back it will have to be at a discount. Otherwise, his time in Dallas is over.
Eli Ankou is the last defensive line free agent. Ankou was traded for a seventh-round pick from the Houston Texans midway through the season after a season-ending injury to Trysten Hill and the release of Dontari Poe.
Even though he was primarily used in the rotation behind Gallimore and Antwaun Woods, Ankou had his moments where he was able to showcase some of his value. He only finished the season with five total tackles and his truest value is his run defense. He provided much-needed depth at nose tackle.
Ankou might be the cheapest resigning of any player on this list. As an NFL journeyman, his best bet might be to get a one-year deal and earn a spot in the preseason. It would cost the team less than $1 million to re-sign him so it would be a low-risk move.
Sean Lee has been the general of the defense for a decade, and has been consistently one of the most best players when he’s been healthy. However, “when he’s been healthy,” is the key phrase that has plagued Lee throughout his career.
Sean Lee has only played a full 16-game season once in his career, with the exception of 2016 when he was a healthy scratch in a meaningless Week 17 game. Health has always been his Achilles heel, both metaphorically and literally in some cases.
Despite being arguably the team’s most consistent tackler, Sean Lee will be 35 in July and the Cowboys should be looking to get younger.
It’s been said many times that when Lee decides to retire, he’s going to make a great defensive coach. Unless he wants to take another team-friendly deal, it might be time for his next career.
Another free agent LB to consider is backup Joe Thomas. Despite having a big-name pair of linebackers in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, Thomas was at times the more reliable option on the field.
Statistically, 2020 was Thomas’ best season since his 2016 campaign when he was in Green Bay. He totaled 48 tackles, three tackles for loss and a pair of deflected passes. He’s not the high profile linebacker that Smith or Vander Esch are but he’s been a good player in rotation for the Cowboys.
Thomas has been an affordable player who’s consistently playing beyond what he’s earned. He might not be elite but he’s cheap and valuable to this defense.
The last linebacker is one who’s seen less and less defensive snaps and has been used almost exclusively on special teams; Justin March. He’s spent the majority of his career in Dallas but as the Cowboys depth at the position has grown, his play time on defense has shrunk.
Not only has he fallen below the starting trio of Lee, Smith and Vander Esch, but with Thomas as the primary backup and with Aldon Smith being used as a hybrid player both at linebacker and defensive end, March is generally the odd man out.
Even though he would be cheap to re-sign, March might at best get a one-year deal and have to earn his spot in the preseason. Money won’t be the issue.
Aside from the quarterback position, no position group has had more attention and questions on the Cowboys than the secondary. Even though the team has some nice pieces to build around with Trevon Diggs, Donovan Wilson and Anthony Brown, it needs work and it’s uncertain who’ll get the chance to come back to see it.
Chidobe Awuzie is a bit of a frustrating player. At times he seems like a good corner who the defense can trust to cover the opposing teams number two receiver and sometimes even make a play on the ball.
But it’s those other times; the times we see him getting beat by receivers in one-on-one man coverage and allowing easy receptions. In the eight games he played this season, Awuzie allowed 33 receptions for 532 yards and four touchdowns.
His market value according to Spotrac is a little surprising given his output, which is estimated around $8.5 million per season. That might be too rich of contract for the team to touch, considering they wouldn’t pay the far superior Byron Jones a season ago.
C.J. Goodwin’s career in Dallas has been almost exclusively as the special teams ace. While he’s not one of the the Cowboys’ top corners, his value on special teams has been exactly that: special.
As Dallas’ gunner and leading special teams tackler, Goodwin’s been seldom used on defense with the exception of a few times this past season. He’s not very reliable in coverage but has plenty of downfield speed, making covering kicks a habit for him.
He’s 30 and won’t take any snaps away from the teams top corners. He’ll cost the team less than $1 million to re-sign him and that’s a steal for his value.
Jourdan Lewis, after Dak Prescott, could be the name that Cowboys fans and analysts list as their best free agent. 2020 helped Lewis show the league his true self with increased opportunities..
With injuries to the secondary Lewis was at times forced to play coverage on the outside, which is where he struggled. Once he was able to play back in the nickel he thrived and showed his play making abilities, recording two sacks and seven tackles for loss when blitzing.
Even though Anthony Brown is still under contract, and the team is likely going to upgrade the spot opposite of Diggs, depth will still be important. The team will likely have to pay Lewis more than the $3.24 million he earned his first four seasons. It would probably be between $3-$6 million per year, but it might be a smart investment.
So finally we’ve reached the position that the team continues to ignore as a priority, and has plagued them for years; safety.
Xavier Woods has been a solid starting safety for his career in Dallas, especially in his second and third years as a starter.
He’s not alone on how bad the secondary had been this year, but this has been Woods’ worst overall year in Dallas. As the free safety he’s responsible for making sure those deep plays don’t happen, but he and the defense allowed 51 plays of 20+ yards and 11 plays of 40+ yards, both among the worst in the league.
Xavier Woods might be able to find better money elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine he’d get more than a one-year prove-it deal of around $5 million from Dallas. If the team doesn’t think last year’s fourth round pick, Reggie Robinson, is ready or if they don’t like any safeties better than who they already have, we could see Xavier Woods back next season.
L.P. Ladouceur is deserving of his own section because of his status as the G.O.A.T. of long snappers. Also, he’s the only official specialist on the list.
Ladouceur turns 40 this spring and is the last active Cowboy to have played in either Cowboys stadiums in Irving and Arlington. He might be up there in age but it hasn’t shown yet. His snaps are always timely and accurate, no matter who’s been the person holding or punting the ball away.
L.P.’s longevity has been a product of his consistency. His lengthy career even earned him recognition in 2020 from the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for appearing in more games than any other Canadian-born player.
Unless L.P. Ladouceur decides to retire, he’ll be back and it will likely be for around the same $1.1 million he got in 2020.