FRISCO, Texas – Typing this week's three quick topics on my phone with no Wi-Fi but at least some heat and electricity, and sending good thoughts to everyone fighting this winter mess in Texas.
Now, on to the Cowboys and a relatively quiet period one month from the expected start of free agency:
Least surprising thing you'll read this week: about 95% of our daily Mailbag inbox is Dak-related. Let's go beyond those contract talks and identify three under-the-radar priorities this offseason -- things on the to-do list that don't include (almost certainly) the largest deal in team history (if it gets done).
Is there another "Donovan Wilson" in the 2020 rookie class?
This is a tricky priority for the front office and coaching staff because it's based on projections.
We all know salary cap space will be tight this year, even though the NFL announced Thursday that the 2021 cap floor has been raised from $175 million to $180 million and reports say the final figure could be higher if the league opts to push back the inevitable cap plunge from pandemic-related revenue loss into future years, when the money from new TV deals can brace the fall.
That's good news for the Cowboys, who are rolling over roughly $25 million in 2020 cap space but must budget for a $37.7 million Dak franchise tag if no deal is reached by the reported March 9 tag deadline. It's a huge number, and obviously the ideal scenario is to reach a deal before then and lessen the cap hit, but the tag remains a distinct possibility, at least as a placeholder to extend negotiations.
The Cowboys can find ways to create additional cap space for roster upgrades. They always do. But it would certainly help if multiple players from last year's rookie class can make jumps in playing time and production the way Wilson did at safety in his second season.
The top two picks from the 2020 class, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and cornerback Trevon Diggs, did that from the jump. Moving down the list…
Can third-round pick Neville Gallimore build on the progress he made as a midseason starter? Defensive tackle is a critical piece in new coordinator Dan Quinn's defense, and improved play up front is the first step toward fixing the run defense.
Can fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz reclaim the starting center job he had before his November hamstring injury? The decision to keep Joe Looney at center over Biadasz late in the season was probably as much about sustaining continuity on the offensive line as anything else.
Can fourth-round safety Reggie Robinson II and fifth-round defensive end Bradlee Anae, not used on defense last year, emerge in 2021? Xavier Woods and Aldon Smith are impending free agents at those positions. Maybe it's a stretch to envision Robinson and Anae becoming major contributors in Year 2, but remember, Wilson played only 16 snaps his rookie season, so it's not impossible with a fresh set of eyes on the defensive staff.
The Cowboys must decide if last year's rookie class is ready to take the next step, or if precious cap space will need to be spent to fortify certain positions.
What about depth at quarterback and offensive tackle?
I lumped these together because injuries at both spots caused by far the most challenges on the roster. The Cowboys started four quarterbacks in a season for only the third time in franchise history and started four different offensive tackles because La'el Collins and Tyron Smith were both on IR for almost the entire year.
Andy Dalton had a $5 million base salary as the No. 2 quarterback. Cameron Erving had a $2.5 million base salary as the backup swing tackle. Prescott, Collins and Smith are coming off major injuries, and Dalton and Erving were solid in relief when healthy. But both are set to be free agents in March, and it'll be interesting to see what the cap will allow for.
Dalton might find a starting opportunity elsewhere. Garrett Gilbert, under contract for 2021, played well in one start against Pittsburgh and would be a logical backup option in that scenario.
Erving missed 10 games, so the Cowboys did get a long look at young tackles Terence Steele and Brandon Knight, and star guard Zack Martin was predictably productive moving out to right tackle for two and a half games.
How quickly will the defense adapt to Quinn's scheme?
This priority isn't a personnel matter. Yes, the Cowboys have several needs and impending free agents on defense, but Quinn's ability to install his system and instill confidence in the players might be the biggest improvement the club can make on that side of the ball.
The defense's struggles last season are well documented, and the Cowboys have acknowledged that the scheme overhaul under former coordinator Mike Nolan was too ambitious in a pandemic year. Here's the thing: this year's offseason could look a lot like last year's. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this month, "Virtual is going to be a part of our life in the long term."
If OTAs and minicamps are canceled or scaled back, Quinn will face the same teaching challenges Nolan did. The difference is that Quinn's scheme should look far more familiar to players who played under former coordinators Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard.
As head coach Mike McCarthy said immediately after the season, "I think really our biggest challenge early on defense was just more about clarity and communication. … I think the clarity and the communication was a product of us not playing fast and with that our confidence was not where it needed to be. … I think our players played with a whole different level of confidence and understanding in the last eight games compared to the first eight games."
That means getting everyone on the same page by Week 1 is absolutely vital.