FRISCO, Texas – Decisions, decisions, decisions.
That's what these next 14 days are all about for the Dallas Cowboys.
What to do with the franchise tag, what they certainly will use by 3 p.m. March 7. That's six days away.
What to do with the restricted free agency tender for Terence Steele, must be done within the next 14 days.
What to do with their 19 unrestricted free agents, whether to re-sign them or allow them to test the open market come March 15 and see if they can match an offer.
And all at the same time, integrate the new members of the coaching staff, along with those with upgraded responsibilities. Continue installing like a 30-percent change to the offense with now head coach Mike McCarthy bunkered down in those meetings here at The Star.
Oh, and continue scouting the NFL Scouting Combine with workouts beginning Thursday night, but also conducting those all-important player interviews in Indianapolis. Then also continue preparing for the draft, those college Pro Days and not to mention grinding away in the pro scouting department over a couple of hundred potential free agents other than your own.
So, let's take a few shots at all this, COO Stephen Jones and McCarthy dishing out a few glimpses into their thinking from the combine in Indy the past few days.
- Tag, Who's It? In the words of Stephen Jones, "More than likely we'll use our tag," and of course wasn't about to reveal what's up their sleeve on these one-year, guaranteed deals. So top candidates are running back Tony Pollard ($10.1 million), tight end Dalton Schultz ($13.8 million), linebacker Leighton Vander Esch ($20.9 million) and safety Donovan Wilson ($14.46 million). That would probably be it. Now the Cowboys would rather sign these guys to long-term deals, giving the players an upfront signing bonus and peace of mind with guaranteed money spread over multiple years. As you can see, running back is the least expensive. As for the players, their agents must do their homework, trying to figure out what their clients real market value is, the determining factor if either side wants to take a chance in free agency.
- Fun Times: No longer is McCarthy the walk-around head coach. He is running this offense. He will be calling plays. He has immersed himself in all the extensive offensive meetings already taking place, to the point he didn't show up at the combine until Wednesday, presumably only to make his mandatory coach's podium interview appearance. "This is the most fun I've had in Dallas," McCarthy said, and no, not about his Wednesday interview but going back to what he did best in Green Bay, running that offense.
- Change, Change, Change: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been in the same offense since arriving in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. No matter if it was under head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinators Scott Linehan and Kellen Moore or under McCarthy and Moore. Says McCarthy, "No. 1, we can all use a new voice," referring to someone else calling plays, designing some different offensive concepts and with new OC Brian Schottenheimer in Dak's ear. Or as McCarthy said, we can "all use a new set of motivation and challenges." As pointed out on Friday, new must mean better results, and the bar is pretty high for this offense.
- Two Biggies: The Cowboys have two months to pick up CeeDee Lamb's fifth-year option (May 1 deadline) or at some point before the start of the season potentially sign him to a long-term deal. Lamb certainly earned his money this season, not only leading the team with 107 receptions, but topping the NFL with 17 first down receptions in at least third-and-8 situations. And maybe by the start of free agency, with Dak entering the third year of his four-year deal with a $31 million base salary and $49.1 million cap, the Cowboys will need to at some point create cap space by massaging his contract, likely adding years with more guaranteed money.
- Safety Priority: Argument can be made this year's safety play might have been the best in years for the Cowboys, a combination of Wilson, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker doing the heavy lifting back there. Or as Jones said of that trio, "I just think they are outstanding. They, I mean, are a great safety group." Now can the Cowboys keep the band together, knowing Wilson, the teams' leading tackler (108), is unrestricted, and that both Kearse and Hooker are entering the last years of their two-year deals? "We were fortunate to have all three of those guys. Obviously, a priority to keep them together, one of our priorities."
- No Rush: Nope, not meaning backup quarterback Cooper Rush is not returning. Just means the Cowboys will be in no, uh, rush, to re-sign him. And as for Rush, he owes it to himself after going 4-1 during his five starts in 2022 and 5-1 for his career, to test the market to see how much another team might pay him for backup duty or potentially allow him to compete for a starting job. As Jones says, "A lot of these guys will be market-dependent where they end up and what value we put on them versus where they end up in the market." And that goes for any number of unrestricted free agents, like Vander Esch, Anthony Barr, Johnathan Hankins, Carlos Watkins, Dante Fowler, Anthony Brown, Connor McGovern and maybe even Brett Maher to re-compete for the kicking job.
- QB Roulette: At this point, 14 days from the start of free agency and with Washington releasing QB Carson Wentz, only one of the seven quarterbacks drafted ahead of Dak Prescott in 2016 has a job. That would be No. 1 pick Jared Goff, reestablishing himself this past season as the Lions starter. But that's it. Wentz and Jacoby Brissett are free agents, and the rest are out of the league, including Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Cody Kessler and Connor Cook. And of the class of 15 taken that year, Dak is the only one still with the team drafting him.
- Scatter Shots: While Kellen Moore was immediately hired by the Chargers as their OC, they also have hired former Cowboys QB coach Doug Nussmeier … And former Cowboys secondary coach Todd Bowles, now the Tampa Bay head coach, has picked up two discarded Cowboys assistants: Skip Peete as his running backs coach and senior defensive assistant George Edwards, who was managing the linebackers for the Cowboys these past two seasons, as his outside linebackers coach … As for this Cowboys coaching staff growing younger while moving on from those three assistants, Jones points out that wasn't the objective, "I think that's how it turned out." … And here is one to grab your attention with Rush, his three game-winning drives in his first six NFL starts leaves him tied with eight other QBs, including Tony Romo, for the most in NFL history.
And for this week's final word, we go to Jones out in Indy when discussing the topic of selecting a running back in the first round of the draft, certainly a possibility this year for the Cowboys since that 26th pick is nearly a second-rounder, much of that depending on what takes place with Pollard and if the Cowboys can coax Ezekiel Elliott to a base-salary reduction.
"Depends on what part of the first round," said Stephen, knowing they took Zeke with the fourth pick in 2016. "If you are on up there in the top 10, it's hard to take them there. If you are taking a player in the top half, you are hoping he's going to be here for 10 years, and it's tough for running backs to last 10 years. There's not many Emmitt Smiths or guys like that who play that long. It's hard for these guys to play 10 years at a really high level."
But then, Stephen, you are at 26th this year. Might you take one there?
"Normally, I think we say we've got 18-20 first-rounders on the board," he said. "Usually when you're picking 26th, you're probably lucky if there is still a first-rounder left on your board. Usually that's been picked over and you're taking those players there. Certainly if the right guy was there and you loved him, and you need him, you take him."
Right guy. Love him. Need him.
Heck, yeah. Why not take the shot?