In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Dallas Cowboys, who missed the playoffs despite entering the season as potential Super Bowl contenders. The team was rocked with turmoil due to the lengthy Ezekiel Elliott suspension and couldn’t turn it on down the stretch, finishing 9-7. With its main contributors on both offense and defense expected back, the Cowboys are in position to rebound from the disappointing season in 2018.
Pending Free Agents:
- Byron Bell, OL
- Bene Benwikere, CB
- Brice Butler, WR
- Jonathan Cooper, G
- Zac Dysert, QB (ERFA)
- Anthony Hitchens, LB
- David Irving, DE (RFA)
- L.P. Ladouceur, LS
- Demarcus Lawrence, DE
- Joe Looney, C
- Alfred Morris, RB
- Stephen Paea, DL
- Brian Price, DT (ERFA)
- Keith Smith, FB (RFA)
- Kyle Wilber, LB
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- Tyron Smith, T: $17,545,000
- Dez Bryant, WR: $16,500,000
- Travis Frederick, C: $13,235,000
- Sean Lee, LB: $11,025,000
- Zack Martin, G: $9,341,000
- Tyrone Crawford, DL: $9,100,000
- Tony Romo, QB: $8,900,000 (dead money)
- Ezekiel Elliott, RB: $6,806,274
- Jason Witten, TE: $6,500,000
- La’el Collins, T: $5,833,333
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $17,652,081
- 19th pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for S Byron Jones
Bring back Demarcus Lawrence: Behind the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, nothing was expected to have a bigger impact on the Cowboys in 2017 than the play of the pass rushers. Like expected, the running back’s absence played a large role in the team’s offensive collapse down the stretch and ultimately helped keep them out of the playoffs.
On the other hand, the work of the pass rush was one of the bright spots for the Cowboys. Despite a four-game suspension to David Irving and a season-long ban for Randy Gregory, the unit managed to be the highlight of an improved defensive unit in 2018. The Cowboys can send their thanks Lawrence’s way after his breakout campaign resulted in 14.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl nod.
The performance came at the perfect time for Lawrence and an unfortunate one for the Cowboys, as the Boise State product enters free agency as one of the top defenders on the market. At the season’s outset, Dallas surely thought it could resign the defensive end for a fraction of what it is going to cost now.
Despite the growing number, don’t expect the Cowboys to let him go. Re-signing the defender will take top priority.
In franchise history, only two players have registered 14.5 sacks in a season — DeMarcus Ware (three times) and now Lawrence. The fourth-year pro finished third in Pro Football Focus’ rankings for edge defenders, finishing behind only Cameron Jordan and Von Miller. Letting production like that leave from a position that has consistently underperformed since the departure of Ware would be foolish.
That is obviously more easy said than done. There is no doubt that the Cowboys will attempt to quickly sign Lawrence to a long-term deal, one that will leave them some flexibility in free agency. If a quick compromise is not reached, however, it is almost guaranteed that they will place the franchise tag on him.
Lawrence’s agent, David Canter, said as much in late January. “I would imagine that they’re probably not just letting us get to free agency and leave Dallas.” The last time the Cowboys used the franchise tag was on Dez Bryant in 2015, shortly before signing the receiver to a contract extension. Using the franchise tag on Lawrence would cost the Cowboys about $17.5 MM.
Canter expects to sit down with Cowboys brass at the NFL Combine, which begins on Feb. 28 in Indianapolis. Judging from Canter’s comments, Lawrence will not be giving Dallas a hometown discount.
“It’s really up to them to want to do a deal that’s in line with what the market is for a young, ascending, elite franchise-caliber defensive end. Whatever that number ends up being remains to be seen. But I do imagine and believe that we’ll have multiple conversations over the next month or so. I think it’s early right now.”
With Irving hitting restricted free agency and likely headed for a second-round tag, there is a very real possibility the team could be looking at a 2018 season without its top two pass rushers if it doesn’t place the tag on Lawrence.
Find a linebacker: When Sean Lee plays, the Cowboys have a very capable defense. The problem is that when the injury-prone linebacker misses games, the unit falls apart.
This much was evident in 2018. In the 11 games Lee played, the Cowboys went 8-3 and held opponents to an average of 16.6 points per game. In the five he missed, Dallas went 1-4 and permitted an incredible 29.8 points per contest.
With Lee signed for only the next two seasons and slated to be 32 at the beginning of the 2018 campaign, the Cowboys need to look for the standout linebacker’s eventual replacement.
Throw in the fact that versatile linebacker Anthony Hitchens is a free agent and second-year linebacker Jaylon Smith — who has his own injury history — was hit-and-miss during his first year of action, and it’s obvious to see the team must address the position in the offseason.
The easiest way to do this would be in the draft. With the No. 19 pick, the Cowboys would love for Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds to be there when they are on the clock. Both are projected as high-to-middle first-round guys, but both could make an immediate impact on a Dallas defense desperate for competent playmakers in the middle of the field.
More likely to happen is that the team will address the group in the second to fourth rounds where they have found value in recent years. Lee was a second-round selection in 2010 and Hitchens was tabbed in the fourth round in 2014. In that range, Ohio State’s Jerome Baker and Iowa’s Josey Jewell could both be in play.
The hope for the Cowboys is that Lee plays a full season in 2018, Smith takes the next step to become the player many thought he would develop into coming out in 2016. They would like to have Hitchens back, but there is a strong possibility he leaves with Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus now the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. By prioritizing bringing back Lawrence, there is likely not much cap space left over for a solid, versatile and underrated player like Hitchens.
If the team doesn’t address the position early in the draft or in free agency, it could be looking at extended playing time for Damien Wilson or veteran Justin Durant, who has already spent two separate stints with the team since 2013.
Prioritize speed at receiver: To say the Cowboys haven’t got much out of their receivers in recent years would be an understatement. Dez Bryant went from arguably a top-five wideout in 2016 to one of the most unreliable players in the league, which has led many Dallas fans and pundits to call for his release. Despite not doing much of anything early in his career and deliver a few costly bonehead mistakes, Terrance Williams somehow was signed to a four-year deal before the 2017 season. Cole Beasley seemed to be the perfect match for new quarterback Dak Prescott, but in his second year with the signal-caller he produced his worst season since his rookie campaign.
Yes, the Cowboys are a run heavy team with a strong offensive line and arguably the best running back in football. Still, something has to be done to get more production out of this group to enable Dallas to continue to operate its power attack.
They began the overhaul of the position shortly after the end of the season, replacing receivers coach Derek Dooley with Sanjay Lal, who previously has served with Colts, Raiders, Jets and Bills in the same position. With the addition of Lal, who has overseen the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Sammy Watkins, the Cowboys could look to stretch the field more in 2018.
If that happens, they’ll have to find a wideout who can consistently hit the big play with his speed. Currently, the closest thing to a true deep threat on the team is Brice Butler, who averaged 21.1 yards per catch but only hauled in 15 grabs. Routinely forced to take a seat to Williams, Butler has already declared his unhappiness in Dallas and is expected to move on in 2018.
Instead of fixing the position in free agency, the team will likely explore the draft. Though this year’s crop of pass catchers doesn’t boast a huge selection of top-tier talent, there is expected to be plenty of promising options at the back of the first round through the second and third rounds.
If it stayed at its No. 19 slot, Dallas is almost guaranteed to be out of the running for the top talent in the class — Calvin Ridley. It would probably look to add to the defensive or offensive line with that spot and focus on its second-round selection at No. 50. With that spot, any one of James Washington, Christian Kirk, D.J. Chark or D.J. Moore could possibly be in play. Chark and Moore seem to fit the bill.
Chark is an athletic freak who has the speed to burn defenses deep and the size (6-foot-3) to be a problem on 50-50 balls down the field. Moore on the other hand, is a more compact deep threat who receives favorable comparisons to fellow Maryland product Stephon Diggs for his quickness and playmaking ability.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.