FRISCO, Texas – Decisions, decisions.
The Ides of Early March aren't unique to the Cowboys. Thirty-one other NFL franchises must make dozens of choices in the coming weeks that will impact their rosters in 2022 and beyond. But this year in particular, it seems like the Cowboys have an inordinate amount of significant decisions ahead relative to the salary cap.
With that, let's highlight four key dates looming on the NFL calendar and how each one specifically impacts Dallas over the next two and a half weeks:
March 8: Deadline to Issue Franchise or Transition Tag
The Cowboys actually have used the one-year, guaranteed franchise tag in each of the last five years -- twice on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and twice on quarterback Dak Prescott. (Both got long-term contracts done in 2019 and 2021, respectively, before signing the tag.)
Will the Cowboys go this route again?
Dalton Schultz has been speculated as a top tag candidate for a couple reasons. First, tight end has the second-lowest projected salary at $10.8 million, the average of the top five salaries at the position. Dallas is facing a cap crunch, but that figure is a little more digestible. (By comparison, a franchise tag for defensive end Randy Gregory would be almost twice as much: $20.2 million.)
Second, the Cowboys have multiple question marks at tight end beyond Schultz's status. Blake Jarwin (hip surgery) is facing a multiple-month rehab for the second straight offseason, and Jeremy Sprinkle has an expiring contract. Jarwin and two-year veteran Sean McKeon are the only tight ends from last year's active roster who are under contract. Keeping Schultz, who set career highs in catches (78), yards (808) and touchdowns (8) last year, would be a stabilizing move.
March 14-16: Two-Day Negotiating Period With Free Agents
Often called the "legal tampering period" in NFL circles, this is where all 32 teams can begin negotiating contracts with free agents across the league under the condition that deals can't officially be finalized and announced until the start of the new league year.
The Cowboys have 22 players set for unrestricted free agency, most notably Gregory, Schultz, safety Jayron Kearse, Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and wide receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Coming off a 12-win season, it's safe to say all would get attention from other teams if they're still out of contract when March 14 arrives.
The Cowboys are typically more opportunistic than splashy in free agency, and they're likely to follow the same strategy this year. However, they've got some financial work to do first.
March 16: New League Year Begins
By 3 p.m. Central time, all 32 teams must be under the $208.2 million salary cap for 2022. According to Over The Cap, the Cowboys currently rank 28th in cap flexibility: currently $13.4 million over.
Now, that's always a fluid projection. The club can drop below the cap threshold simply by restructuring Prescott's contract for a second straight year. But they'll have more work ahead to create space for re-signing players, signing outside free agents, and building a nest egg for the 2022 draft class.
How they make that space? Well, that's generated plenty of speculation in recent days and leads us to our next date.
March 20: Fifth Day of The New League Year
That's when wide receiver Amari Cooper's $20 million base salary is guaranteed for 2022. Various national reports say the Cowboys might, or most likely will, release Cooper. Such a move would save roughly $16 million unless a trade materializes or Cooper's contract (originally five years, $100 million in 2019) is adjusted in some way.
There's similar speculation on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has a $19 million base salary for 2022.
"I know you guys may target guys that you think we may be looking at, and usually those are the guys that are making a lot of money," Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
The club hasn't revealed their plans one way or the other, and they're probably still looking at a variety of scenarios right now.
Another cap-clearing measure would be more contract restructures, though the front office has been selective in that regard. For example, they did not rework Cooper's deal last year, which would mean less dead money on the cap this year (roughly $6 million) if they were to part ways.
Decisions, decisions. Buckle up. There are plenty of those to make in the next few weeks.