Cowboys cornerback Nolan Carroll was their biggest free agent signing of the 2017 offseason. While not a blockbuster move, Carroll was clearly intended to be a major part of the CB rotation and perhaps even a starter based on his contract.
However, six months later, Carroll may be falling down the depth chart. Before he went out of the Week 2 game in Denver with a concussion, Nolan was struggling mightily against the Broncos receivers. Last week in Arizona, rookie Jourdan Lewis was the number-three CB and showed positive signs in both the passing game and run support. Second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie should also be back shortly from his hamstring injury; another guy pushing for playing time.
The situation is similar to what Dallas just went through with defensive tackle Cedric Thornton. Signed last year to a starter’s contract, Thornton was forced to the bench by standout rookie Maliek Collins and a surprisingly healthy season from Terrell McClain. It was a disappointing outcome for Thornton, but the only real pain for the Cowboys was the unnecessary expense.
Even after McClain left in free agency last March, Cedric Thornton could not work his way back up the depth chart. Dallas signed Stephen Paea, a former Rod Marinelli player in Chicago, and it was Paea who took over McClain’s starting role. Thornton was still stuck on the bench, and eventually released the day after final cuts.
Thornton had struggled with hamstring issues that limit him in camp, but there was also talk that he’d been struggling in general. Perhaps the unexpected bench role had sapped his motivation, which wouldn’t be too surprising. Whether it was due to health or performance, Thornton’s four-year deal barely lasted over one season. Dallas ate $3 million in guaranteed money to release him.
The Cedric Thornton signing made sense at the time. Dallas hadn’t drafted Maliek Collins yet and had no idea that Terrell McClain, who was seemingly always injured, would finally be ready to work. Those are hindsight issues that the Cowboys really can’t feel too upset about.
Similarly, the Nolan Carroll singing made sense when it happened. The draft hadn’t occurred yet. Even though Dallas let Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne walk in free agency because of the CB depth in the 2017 draft class, they couldn’t fully rely on that. They knew Carroll from his years in Philadelphia and saw him as an adequate veteran replacement for who they lost.
Now the Cowboys find themselves with two highly-drafted players in Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie who need playing time, much like Maliek Collins last year. They already have their starters in Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown. After the way Lewis played against the Cardinals, it may be tough for Nolan Carroll to get back into that top three without an injury.
If we are back in a Cedric Thornton situation, the good news is that Carroll’s contract isn’t as cumbersome. Thornton’s deal was for four years and $18 million with $6 million guaranteed. Carroll’s is just three years at $10 million, only $3 million guaranteed. Dallas can actually cut him after this year and get back $2 million in cap relief from his $4 million 2018 cap hit.
That is starting to appear as the likely outcome. Even if Carroll comes back and has a solid season, Awuzie, Brown, and Lewis aren’t going anywhere. Scandrick still has two years on his deal and would be a better depth option than Carroll, if he isn’t still starting. It’s hard to imagine Dallas keeping a guy at $4 million who may be the fifth CB on the depth chart.
These things happen when free agency begins over a month before the draft. Teams have to make decisions to cover themselves for the following season, having only projections and possibilities to rely on in the draft. Sometimes you sign a guy who ends up becoming irrelevant if your rookies show up to play.
It’s a good problem to have.