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In the stew of disappointment following the Dallas Cowboys' first-round playoff loss, it wasn’t hard to catch the subtle message of change weaved into the words of team owner Jerry Jones. Postseason flop aside, Jones and his son Stephen have been staring at reality for far longer. Something with ramifications for 2022 and beyond.
The Cowboys have solid talent heading for free agency, and not nearly enough salary cap space to put up much of a fight for it. They’re also bracing to lose one of the best assistant coaches in the league this season, as defensive coordinator Dan Quinn appears certain to get another head-coaching offer in this cycle (see: Denver Broncos). Now lump in those inevitabilities with Dallas being forced to go bargain shopping in free agency. Suddenly it’s clear why Jerry and Stephen were dazed on Sunday.
This team seemed ripe to make good on a strong roster and supporting coaching staff. Now it becomes ripe for the picking.
As Jones put it Sunday as he spoke to reporters, “[W]e all know how it goes in the NFL. The whole thing is set up to take away from the best and add to the ones that need improvement. Personnel-wise, I think we have one of the best.”
The key word being have. Soon enough, Dallas will have less. Maybe a lot less. Possibly to the point of losing all of their top free agents in March.
Other NFL teams are going to see plenty of targets among the Cowboys headed for free agency. Some will be coveted as starting-level talent, while others will be eyed as valuable depth additions. And some of the talent drain is expected to hit both sides of the ball.
Much of Cowboys' money tied up in Dak Prescott and 6 other players
This is the reality when you have a cap situation like the Cowboys', which isn’t going to be easy to navigate — even in an era when teams are as creative as ever in moving money around and creating space.
Dallas' problem: The cap is top-heavy with a massive franchise quarterback deal that is accentuated with some other sizable commitments. That scenario translates into other NFL teams knowing Dallas will have to let most of its free agents test the market, with the Cowboys hoping there’s a soft response to keep the franchise viable in negotiations. Sometimes that works. Unfortunately for Dallas, it finds itself in a cap bind in a year when many teams will be looking to spend their sizable chunk of nearly $1 billion in free agency.
The Cowboys brain trust knows this, to the point that there’s really no need to be transparent about it. It sticks out like a sore thumb this offseason. It's why you get Jerry Jones lamenting that part of the band will likely be breaking up, and Stephen Jones stating outright that the salary cap is a very real problem this year.
“It’s real difficult for us, with where we are under the cap,” Stephen Jones said on Monday, while speaking with the Cowboys' flagship radio station, 105.3 The Fan. “You know, obviously now we’re paying a franchise quarterback, we’re paying several players — so it’s real difficult for us to make any big, big, big moves in free agency. But we will use free agency as we always have to find the right value and hopefully fill the needs so it allows us to [utilize] the draft just like it did [when] we were able to feel good about picking Micah [Parsons], even though we felt like we had two good young linebackers with Jaylon [Smith] and Leighton [Vander Esch].”
If Cowboys fans wanted transparency, Jones delivered it in that interview. And while he didn’t come straight out and say it, the important subtext was there: Dallas was built to take advantage of 2021, with the full knowledge that 2022 was going to hit the roster in some spots. The Cowboys knew this when they paid top-line salaries all over the place — including quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive end and across the offensive line. The bloat at the top of the books is so remarkable that seven players account for 72.9 percent of next season’s salary cap.
That group of seven is quarterback Dak Prescott, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, wideout Amari Cooper, running back Ezekiel Elliott and offensive linemen Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and and La’El Collins. Every single one of those players could be restructured to help Dallas with a 2022 cap that's already over $13 million in the red. That’s not the worst possible place to be, but it will require either cutting or trading a valuable player like Cooper, or moving a lot of money from Prescott's contract and others into future years. Dallas could also ask some players to take pay cuts (like Lawrence), but that seems very unlikely. Instead, it’s looking like Dallas will need to go to work just to get even with the 2022 cap, then do some extra financial gymnastics to give it a shot at retaining a valuable piece or two, like defensive end Randy Gregory.
Who might the Cowboys lose in free agency?
This didn't happen by accident. The Cowboys knew what it was getting into when it signed those seven players, with some even getting money moved around in their deals to facilitate other contracts. Now they're left to either dive into Prescott’s deal and start moving cash around, or stand pat with the knowledge that this offseason’s cap jump will help a lot of other teams get better at the expense of the Cowboys.
As Stephen Jones told The Fan about Dallas not being able to take advantage of the 25 percent cap jump this year:
“That’s built in to most of these contracts. There’s no question that we’re going to have our challenges with the salary cap. I don’t see a major acquisition by and through free agency. That’s just not the way we feel in terms of the best way to build a football team. We just feel like it’s by and through the draft and to pay your homegrown talent. Which, I do think the encouraging thing is, we do have a lot of good young players that are going to be coming up that we’ll have to make some decisions on.”
Those decisions include players who will be pursued if and when they reach free agency. Among those teams are already eyeing:
• Gregory will have multiple teams lining up, despite reservations about past suspensions and his run defense. He will also be a candidate to be pursued by Quinn if he leaves for a head coaching job. It’s not out of the question that Dallas works to place the franchise tag on Gregory, although it will take some heavy lifting with the current cap situation.
• Tight end Dalton Schultz quietly became a top-10 player at his position this season and will have no shortage of interest. One potential chilling factor is that a handful of big free agency tight end acquisitions have flopped in recent years. Schultz also has only one year of top-end production, and it was accomplished in a system where premium wideouts drew most of the defensive attention. There’s also a deep tight end class in the upcoming draft. It’s possible that Dallas waits to see what Schultz's market is in free agency and makes a pitch to retain him if the market is soft.
• Wideout Michael Gallup is a complete unknown with his ACL tear, although there is plenty of film for other teams to decide if he's a fit. Gallup’s free agency is going to be all about one team willing to take a gamble that he’ll return and stay healthy.
• Guard Connor Williams has had a roller coaster in Dallas, but he’s going to get a serious free agency pursuit. Teams like his potential for versatility across the line and there is always a land rush for starting offensive linemen.
• Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will get solid looks, despite his injury history and the high-performing 2018 season getting further into the rearview mirror. He’s another candidate to join Quinn somewhere, but not nearly the commodity of Gregory.
• Safety Jayron Kearse became a valuable contributor for Dallas and offered versatility for the defensive staff, which used him like a box linebacker at times. He has the tone-setting play-hard streak that teams seek and could land a deal that is surprising considering he played this season on the veteran minimum.
• Wideout Cedrick Wilson has proven his value as a depth receiver who's a solid third option, and will get some assessments as a potential No. 2. His youth and improvement year over year is going to play in his favor, but the number of available wideouts in free agency and the draft will not. There’s a chance his free agency ends up lukewarm like Cleveland Browns wideout Rashard Higgins in 2021. Higgins never saw the interest expected and ended up returning to Cleveland on a one-year deal.
• Punter Bryan Anger had a very strong season and other teams are always looking for ways to upgrade in less conventional ways. Punters often get lost in the chaos of free agency, but with so much money out there this offseason, it would not be a stunner to see Anger picked off with a solid deal that Dallas can’t match.
That’s eight players who played significant snaps for the Cowboys and would be missed in some way, shape or form. And all eight of them could be gone. Of course, Dallas has done reasonably well in the draft and that has picked up the slack the past few seasons. But it would be foolish to think that losing five or six players on that list won’t matter next season. Or that some young player or draft pick will be able to step in immediately and cover the loss — especially if Quinn is part of the departures.
Instead, it’s more likely that Dallas tries its best to retain Gregory and maybe one or two other players in that collection, then starts shopping for cheaper replacements much like it did last offseason. To expect otherwise would be to ignore ownership when it very clearly is indicating that 2021 was the great opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are now heading toward the 2022 season and the great unknown. All they can do is figure out what went wrong against the San Francisco 49ers, prepare to patch up the inevitable losses, then hope that a player like Parsons or a coach like Quinn surfaces down the line to make a monumental difference in maintaining the momentum of this past season.