FRISCO, Texas – One of my least favorite feelings in the world is being unable to accomplish something because of time constraints.
For instance, I recently moved into a new apartment. Moving brings a long list of headaches, as everyone knows. But the most annoying part about it is waiting. You don’t have WiFi, and you have to wait two days to get it installed. Your mail hasn’t started forwarding yet, so you’ve got to wait to have it delivered. And, as much as you might want to get it done, there’s nothing you can do but wait. It’s infuriating.
That’s kind of how I feel about the NFL offseason, and I bet you can relate. You’re a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan. The season just ended in disappointment. You want news. You know the free agency list, you know that decisions have to be made. You want action.
But you have to wait. The playoff aren’t even over, and the league year isn’t close to starting. It’s infuriating. I get it.
Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do to help with that, but I can try. In the interest of getting ready, I decided to write a list – a checklist of sorts. I wanted to outline what all the Cowboys have to accomplish before they start playing football again.
It won’t make the wait any more bearable, but maybe it’ll help.
Here’s the grocery list:
1. Figure Out The Coaching Staff
That’s a big conversation to fit under one bullet point, but there’s simply not a lot to work with right now. IfJerry Jones’ comments from earlier this week are any indication, Jason Garrett will be back in 2019. As much as Garrett might frustrate some fans, that’s the right call. The guy is 79-62 during his time with the Cowboys. He just won his third NFC East title and his second playoff game. As disappointing as it might be to fall short of the NFC Championship Game yet again, I’m not sure what kind of case you can make for moving on.
The rest of this coaching staff is a bit more of a mystery. Jones wasn’t as firm about the rest of the staff, as he also said on Tuesday morning that he’s comfortable waiting to see what shakes out in the coming weeks.
“Why would I put some kind of statement out that says this is what we're going to do when we might have an opportunity here next week? This is the time when these things are thought about,” he said.
Jones didn’t need a lot of time to mull things over, as it turns out. He said those words on Tuesday, and on Friday afternoon the Cowboys announced that they had mutually parted ways with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
That news is going to dominate the news cycle for the foreseeable future. The Cowboys’ offense slumped to 22nd in total offense this past season, and Linehan drew a healthy share of the criticism for that. By replacing him, the Cowboys are now presented with an opportunity to pair Dak Prescott with a new offensive mind.
In addition to that, Cowboys have at least a few other coaches out of contract, so the front office will at minimum have to sort those situations out. Some of that has already started, as the Cowboys signed offensive line coach Marc Colombo to an extension on Tuesday.
There’s also the matter of Kris Richard. The three teams that interviewed Richard for head coaching vacancies have all filled their jobs. So in that regard, the Cowboys are likely safe from the possibility of losing him. They only have to grant other clubs permission to interview him for head coaching jobs – not any other vacancies.
It’s still worth wondering if there’s change in his future, though. Might the Cowboys give him a title change, or at the very least a pay bump? And what is Rod Marinelli’s role in that process? It’s hard to say.
The next week will provide some valuable insight into that. The coaching staff is heading to Orlando for the Pro Bowl, while the front office is heading to Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl. They should have some opportunities to talk to some possible coaching candidates. There’s also the chance they use this time to evaluate their own staff and possibly promote from within.
If I had to guess, this will be a slow-moving situation over the next few weeks. It almost always is with this team.
2. Determine The Top Priority
You’re not going to get anyone to talk about contracts in the first 48 hours after a season ends. Teams are still processing what happened, so it’s far too soon to figure out where they’re going. But Jason Garrett was willing to state the obvious on Monday when he was asked about DeMarcus Lawrence.
“We haven’t had any discussions about our roster, but he’s certainly as big a priority as there is,” Garrett said.
That’s actually true for a variety of reasons. Obviously, with 25 sacks in the last two seasons, Lawrence is the best free agent on the Cowboys’ roster.
He’s also one of the few players on the roster that the front office needs to make a decision on – like, immediately. The minute Saturday’s game against the Rams was over, so was Lawrence’s contract.
The odds that Lawrence ever touches the open market seem slim. Even if a contract isn’t agreed upon in the next six weeks, the Cowboys can franchise tag him again. They have until March 5 to do so.
What happens after that is the intriguing bit. For my money, Lawrence has earned every penny of a contract extension – but it’s not my money, it’s the Cowboys’. How far apart are the two sides on a deal? And how long will it take them to come to an agreement?
Lawrence signed the tag immediately and moved on with his life last year. Will he do that again if the Cowboys try to play hardball with him? The guy was the ultimate team player in 2018, but I wonder what this conversation will look like in 2019.
3. How About The Rest?
Lawrence is the big name, but there are several others the Cowboys will have to worry about in March.
By my count, there are nine guys on this roster that played either starting or key roles on the roster who are now out of contract: Lawrence, Cole Beasley, Geoff Swaim, Tavon Austin, L.P. Ladouceur, Cameron Fleming, Damien Wilson, Rod Smith and David Irving.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, most of them aren’t players they’ll need to get into a bidding war to keep.
Lawrence is obvious. Behind him, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Beasley. The eight-year veteran has hinted he might be looking for a large payday than the Cowboys want to give out. Of course, only the open market can determine how exactly that plays out.
Elsewhere, who else do the Cowboys value? Swaim has proven himself as a capable blocker and a solid receiver – when he’s been healthy. He’s only appeared in 37 of 66 possible games during his four-year career, and he’s missed both of the Cowboys’ two recent playoff runs due to injury. He’s a solid player and a good locker room presence, but do the Cowboys value that enough? Or would it be wiser to draft another young talent to add to the duo of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz?
Austin has intriguing speed and potential, but we never saw that materialize into a large role in the offense – even during the few weeks he was healthy. I’d be interested to see him come back for another go, but only at a team-friendly price. I think the same could be said for Rod Smith – although I do think the Cowboys would be smart to improve their running back depth in the draft.
Fleming certainly upgraded the tackle depth from where it was in 2017, but I wonder if he might try to find a better situation elsewhere. The same could be said for Damien Wilson. He has carved out a nice role for himself over the past four years, but does that merit a new contract – or can he find something better with a new team?
With no bad snaps in 14 seasons, it sounds like a smart idea to re-sign L.P. Ladouceur – assuming that he wants to keep playing, that is.
That leaves Irving as the last “big” name on the list. The guy is unquestionably talented. He has also proven unbelievably difficult to keep on the field. His high ankle sprain kept him out of the lineup from mid-October until mid-January – and it’s painfully obvious that there is more to that story than meets the eye.
Irving’s talent level is what kept him on the roster in the first place. The Cowboys could have released him or sent him to injured reserve, but even the hint of having him available for a playoff run was too tempting to pass up.
It didn’t work out, and now Irving is out of contract. The way 2018 has gone for him, it’s just hard to imagine the Cowboys re-sign him. It’s a shame, but it is what it is.
4. House Keeping
One of the many reasons this will be a fascinating offseason is that there’s a million things the Cowboys could do – but what do they w_ant_ to do?
This team currently employs four Pro Bowlers with looming contract concerns – and that doesn’t even include DeMarcus Lawrence.
To be clear: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones are all under contract for 2019. They’ll all be available to be a part of this upcoming season.
Beyond that, it gets interesting. Prescott, Cooper and Jones are all about to enter contract years.
As a first-round pick, Elliott has a fifth-year option on his contract, and it’s ludicrous to think the Cowboys won’t pick it up, so he’s likely got to years remaining. But with two NFL rushing titles and two All-Pro selections in three years, it’d be understandable if he wants that contract reworked – and according to reports, he does.
Hoo boy, that’s a long list of deals to do. And as of right now, only the Cowboys know how they want to do them.
Cooper is set to play on his fifth-year option, which makes his 2019 salary substantially higher than normal. The same can be said for Jones. Extending either of them would help the Cowboys’ salary cap by reducing their salaries and spreading the cost out over more years.
Extending Elliott would likely secure one of the league’s best running backs through the rest of his prime.
Then there’s Prescott. As polarizing as he might be among fans and media, there’s no denying that Dak Prescott is the most underpaid player in the NFL – from fourth-round draft pick to Pro Bowl starting quarterback.
The Cowboys have publicly stated their desire to sign Prescott long-term on numerous occasions. When will they do it, and what will it look like?
It’s honestly hard to say. Prescott’s numbers to this point compare favorably with other young quarterbacks to sign big money deals. He’s made the Pro Bowl and won two division titles in three seasons as the starter, and he has never failed to guide the Cowboys to a winning record.
How much do those bargaining chips matter? And will the Cowboys be willing to pay top dollar for a quarterback who is still developing as a passer? Do they want to see another year from him, and are they willing to play games with the franchise tag if they don’t get a deal done this year.
Apologies for not being able to answer these questions in January. There are simply too many dominoes that need to fall before we can figure it out. But the Cowboys are in a position to set the mold for their franchise for the foreseeable future. It’s up to them to decide what they want it to look like.
5. The Funding
In a fun twist of fate, the Cowboys can actually afford all this spending – for the first time in what feels like forever.
Heading into the offseason, they’re currently projected at $54 million in cap space. They’ve drafted well over the last decade and they’re getting rid of their bad contracts, which has resulted in some spending room.
They could even increase it if they wanted to. As always, there’s a number of decisions the Cowboys could make to improve their cap situation. There are conversations to be had about the futures of Sean Lee and Terrance Williams, among others. It seems unlikely, but the front office has shown a penchant for restructuring veteran contracts. Zack Martin’s deal comes to mind.
Depending on what they decide to do, they could create as much as $70 million in cap room – which would be more than enough space to get several big extensions done this offseason, on top of your usual free agency business.
Again, only they know the exact way it’ll play out. But the Cowboys will have room to operate this spring.
6. The Draft
All that leads back to the lifeblood of this organization over the last 10 years – the 2019 NFL Draft.
Obviously, the Cowboys don’t have a first-round pick. That resides in Oakland. And with Amari Cooper tallying almost 900 yards in 11 games here, I’d say he was well worth the price.
The Cowboys can still upgrade this team through the draft, though. They currently have five picks, and it’s a good bet they get one or two more when the NFL announces this year’s compensatory picks.
A couple things come to mind when I think about the draft this year. Firstly, the Cowboys have done an admirable job filling out their roster with mid-round draft picks, to the point where they should be able to do some legitimate damage, even without a first-rounder.
Dak Prescott, Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Gallup, Connor Williams, Tyrone Crawford, Chidobe Awuzie, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods are all starters for this team. They were all drafted outside the first round. If history is any indicator, the Cowboys should be able to find some production with their second and third-round picks.
The second thought is even more encouraging. But, as it stands right now, I think this is as solid overall as the Cowboys’ roster has been in some time. Of course they have needs, but their needs aren’t debilitating issues like they have been in years past.
The Cowboys need to look at their tight end position. Depending on the outcome of free agency, they might have holes at wide receiver and defensive tackle. They could stand to upgrade their safety depth, and the long-term outlook at offensive tackle is a little concerning.
That’s all manageable, though. If the Cowboys hit on some of these draft picks the way they have these past five years, they can fix a lot of that in one draft cycle.
And by the time that’s over with, it’ll be time for OTAs and another trip to training camp. The scary thing is that it really does come back around that quickly.
That’s the checklist. The Cowboys will follow it in some form or fashion in the coming months. Now you know what to expect, and hopefully that’ll make the journey a little more bearable.