FRISCO, Texas – You know about Tank Lawrence. You know about Cole Beasley. Both top the list of free-agents-to-be on the Cowboys’ roster.
The overall list to-do may not look as extensive as past years, though several Pro Bowlers who remain under contract for 2019 – Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones – are eligible for extensions.
Elsewhere on the roster, this could be a very intriguing offseason in terms of filling and projecting roles – not necessarily a bunch of starting jobs, but key rotation and reserve spots that could impact the team’s 2019 depth over a taxing 16-game season.
A few to consider:
Backup Running Back
Darius Jackson is the only backup under contract next year behind All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott. (Last year’s primary backup Rod Smith and fullback Jamize Olawale have expiring contracts). Elliott is the offense’s indestructible engine – he played nearly 83 percent of the snaps this season – but he played through nagging foot and knee injuries at times. Solidifying backfield depth will be critical as insurance for the team’s best player.
Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith had an outstanding season, leading all NFL tackles in average snaps per quarterback pressure allowed, according to Pro Football Focus (32.6). He also missed two more starts due to injury (plus a third in the regular-season finale, though likely more for rest purposes). The Cowboys went 2-0 with Cameron Fleming filling in at left tackle, but he’s set to be a free agent. The club has to ensure Dak Prescott’s blind side is protected in the event Smith misses any time next season.
Defensive Tackle Rotation
What’s next for David Irving? The ultra-talented lineman never made an impact in 2018 and now he’s a free agent. Irving missed all of training camp handling a personal matter and appeared in two games before suffering a high ankle sprain in early November. The Cowboys really could have used his presence in the middle last season, particularly against a team like the Rams that wants to establish the run. Looking to 2019, reserve tackle Caraun Reid is set to be a free agent and starter Maliek Collins is entering the last year of his deal. Plugging in a disruptive tackle alongside Collins, Antwaun Woods and Tyrone Crawford could fill out Rod Marinelli’s rotation.
Defensive Back Depth
With the exception of backup safety Darian Thompson, this young group is under contract for 2019. But 2020 could get interesting. Five players are up after next season: Jones, Jeff Heath, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier and C.J. Goodwin. Jones could be in line for a lucrative extension at some point, but will everyone be back a year from now? This might be a sneaky draft focus with an eye toward next spring, and perhaps adding competition at safety becomes a priority this year regardless.
Losing Beasley and fellow free-agent-to-be Tavon Austin would create a void at slot receiver. Both were also the primary punt returners last season, averaging 5.7 yards on 21 combined attempts. Rule changes have affected the return game, particularly on kickoffs, where the Cowboys only had 13 returns this season. Cowboys “big returns” – defined as 30-plus yard kickoff returns, 10-plus yard punt returns, 10-plus yard block kick returns – dropped from 16 in 2017 to 6 last season. With so much talk about improving the offense under new coordinator Kellen Moore, shorter fields off returns and defensive takeaways can only help Dak Prescott and company.