FRISCO, Texas – Time to play tag in the NFL.
Uh, that would be franchise tag, and this is no kids' game, but a high stakes game of craps.
To tag or not to tag sometimes becomes the $31.4 million question in some cases, one the Cowboys were forced to play for the previous two years with quarterback Dak Prescott, tagging Dak "it" in 2020 for that princely sum and then beating the tag deadline in 2021 by a day, signing their franchise quarterback to a four-year, $160 million deal just in time.
The stakes aren't quite so high this year for the Cowboys with the franchise tag season having opened on Tuesday. But they do have a few tough decisions to make here over the next two weeks, what with 21 unrestricted free agents, 10 of those considered starters or key contributors.
The four most prominent players the Cowboys likely would consider for their one franchise tag are defensive end Randy Gregory, tight end Dalton Schultz, safety Jayron Kearse and wide receiver Michael Gallup, cap space willing.
Now the most prudent move, as always, is signing guys to long-term deals, the payable signing bonuses prorated over the length of the contract allowing a lower first-year base salary and a more manageable 2022 salary cap hit.
If possible, and sure seems likely the Cowboys would rather sign Gregory to a long-term deal rather than tag him for the near $20 million projected defensive end franchise tag or allow him to test the market, which is always dicey since teams with more salary cap space than they can spend will habitually overspend for whatever they want.
Seems reasonable the Cowboys would like to retain Schultz, his 78 catches in 2021 second on the team, his 808 receiving yards third and his eight touchdown receptions tied for the team lead. A long-term deal might be possible since there seems to be several big-name tight ends now scheduled for free agency. But if not, then a franchise tag would cost right at $11 million for the one year. Ouch.
The safety tag for Kearse might be unreasonable, projected near $13 million. But again, Kearse, who played on a one-year prove-it deal in 2021, led the team with 92 tackles, was second with seven TFLs, was tied for fourth with two interceptions and played 88.1 percent of the total snaps while starting 15 of 16 games.
And then there is Gallup. This one is complicated since the four-year veteran wide receiver will be coming off reconstructive knee surgery and likely won't be ready for the start of training camp. That might affect his free agency market value, so he could be willing to sign a one-year prove-it deal to reestablish his worth after playing just 40.5 percent of the snaps in 2021 and just nine games. As for the projected wide receiver tag, we're talking in the $19 million neighborhood, undoable if the Cowboys decide to keep Amari Cooper and his $20 million base salary.
So, when someone asks me what the Cowboys are doing this time of year, well, they are cracking knuckles and crunching numbers to prepare for their upcoming shots in free agency.
- Cap Hitch: The Cowboys aren't the only team with salary cap headaches. Take the Chiefs. Their cap problems led them this week to release former Cowboys starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens, a four-year starter for Kansas City. They couldn't qualify keeping a most-productive Hitch for a roughly $8 million base salary and his $12.2 million cap hit. Had to suck air and go younger. Wouldn't be a bad Cowboys pickup. He had at least 78 tackles in each of those four seasons in KC, and a total of 17 for losses. A good hand. And you ask, why did the Cowboys let him go? Well, with Dallas cap-strapped, too, in 2018, KC signed him to a five-year, $45 million deal with $21.29 guaranteed. Again, market value dictates all.
- They Know Sean: Leave it to former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips to put some perspective on all these former Sean McVay assistants with the Rams over the past few years ending up with head coaching jobs. That group now includes Matt LaFleur (Green Bay), Zach Taylor (Cincinnati), Brandon Staley (L.A. Chargers), Jedd Fisch (University of Arizona) and most recently Kevin O'Connell (Minnesota). That's some coaching tree, and also includes Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona), sorta, since the Cardinals pointed out in their release when hiring the former Texas Tech head coach as their head coach in 2019 that he was "friends with" McVay. All causing Phillips, the Rams former defensive coordinator under McVay, to quip at the time about his son Wes, "Wes is a young offensive coach that knows Sean McVay, just if anybody's looking for another head coach. He knows him real well." Oh, that Wade. Maybe that association ended up helping Wes, a Rams assistant the past three seasons, these last two as tight ends coach/pass game coordinator, who is heading to Minnesota with O'Connell to be the Vikings' offensive coordinator.
- Top Notch: After listening to these two college award winners speak on Tuesday, without analyzing tape, I'd draft either one if having the opportunity. The first, defensive lineman Sam Roberts, winner of the Cliff Harris Award, going to the Small College Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe no more than a D-II player at Northwest Missouri State, but after being around him for like an hour the other day, as my colleague Brad Sham immediately said, "There is my seventh-round pick," and the Cowboys would be so fortunate. Next, driving home that same night listening to a 96.7 The Ticket radio interview with Heisman Trophy winner and Davey O'Brien award winner Bryce Young, the Alabama quarterback, I was like, man, if I need a quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft, this darn sure is my guy. Impressive. First round. It's a no wonder he's been so successful after just two years of college ball.
- Free Shots: Hey, it's not even cheap these days to give qualifying offers to restricted free agents, costing the Cowboys a projected minimum of $2.54 million just to tender right of first refusal for linebacker Luke Gifford at the lowest amount since he was undrafted and $5.4 million at first-round compensation … Word of caution when getting excited about players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Teams have 20 more days to re-sign guys before free agency opens on March 16 … NFL.com ranked the best turnarounds in the Super Bowl era, Cincinnati coming in fifth, going from five consecutive losing seasons, including 4-12 in 2020, to playing in this season's Super Bowl. The Cowboys early 1990s turnaround finished eighth, turning five consecutive losing seasons from 1986-90, including going 3-13 in 1988 and 1-15 in 1989, to winning the Super Bowl that 1992 season.
And while we're at it, listen to what 20-year-old Bryce Young had to say Tuesday evening after hustling from the team's final workout and meeting early evening on Monday all the way to Fort Worth in time for the banquet and then getting back that night to school at 1:15 Tuesday morning, but was up bright and early for class and another workout, punctuating his whirlwind trip with "student first, then athletics."
Then when suggested surely head coach Nick Saban would have given him, the Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback of the Alabama Crimson Tide, a pass to sleep in, Young chuckled, saying, "You guys don't know Coach Saban. No, there was no shot … at all. Not at all.
"He's cool with whatever it takes to get me to places after we get done with meetings and after we get done working out, and that's part of the reason I love being here, part of the reason why we've had that success and we're working to continue that success. We all understand we have to keep the main thing the main thing. These awards are great opportunities, and I was super happy, despite all the moving parts. It was definitely worth it to have that experience. You know, we all understand that we can't put that stuff first. Can't put that stuff ahead of what gets us to have awards like this is how hard we're working.
"I understand that. Coach understands that. I'm actually happy we all have that same mindset here."
Sec what I mean? And he's 20.