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Science Lab: Cowboys' tag is likely a no-go in 2024


Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

(Editor's note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, Texas — The NFL offseason is now in full swing and that means free agency is right around the corner, legal tampering set to begin on March 11. But that also means it's time for the Dallas Cowboys and every other team around the league to determine if there is someone on their roster they'll deem worthy of using a franchise tag on for the 2024 season.

The window to apply the tag officially opens today, February 20, and it closes on March 5 at 4 p.m. ET, with the new league year opening on March 13.

The question in Dallas is a simple one: who gets tagged? The answer is, likely, no one.

Tag, nobody's it.

The Cowboys have a total of 16 players currently heading toward free agency, barring a new deal being struck with any of them, but don't expect any of them to be hit with the costly, and fully-guaranteed, franchise tag this time around. Recently, it was running back Tony Pollard who was the recipient of the tag (2023) at a cost of $10.1 million against the cap.

Tagging him a second time would cost the Cowboys roughly $12.12 million for 2024 (120% of 2023 salary) and, again, every red cent of it is guaranteed. That's a costly tab when considering the other options present for head coach Mike McCarthy this time around — in a much different situation than one year prior when he and the offense was placing nearly the entirety of its RB hopes on Pollard after parting ways with Ezekiel Elliott.

History also works against Pollard in the conversation surrounding a second tag, because it's not that the Cowboys haven't done it in the past, or even in the recent past, but that tactic has only been deployed for cornerstone players.

Only DeMarcus Lawrence (2018, 2019) and Dak Prescott (2020, 2021) have been tagged in consecutive seasons, and neither went on to play under the second tag.

Here's a quick look at every player tagged by the Cowboys since the turn of the century:

  • 2002 - Flozell Adams
  • 2008 - Ken Hamlin
  • 2012 - Anthony Spencer
  • 2013 - Anthony Spencer
  • 2015 - Dez Bryant
  • 2018 - DeMarcus Lawrence
  • 2019 - DeMarcus Lawrence
  • 2020 - Dak Prescott
  • 2021 - Dak Prescott
  • 2022 - Dalton Schultz
  • 2023 - Tony Pollard

As you can plainly see, it's not as if the Cowboys are unwilling to forgo using it at all — hence the gap in time from Adams to Hamlin, Hamlin to Spencer, Spencer to Bryant and Bryant to Lawrence. It wasn't until 2018 that owner and general manager Jerry Jones began exercising that right on an annual basis but, as noted, four of those six uses have been on Lawrence and Prescott; and all six have made sense respective to the year in which they were used.

It simply doesn't feel as if the Cowboys are in dire straits at any position on the current roster wherein a player is heading to free agency.

Take a gander at the list of players who could depart in March:

Defensive back:

  • Stephon Gilmore, CB
  • Jourdan Lewis, CB
  • Jayron Kearse, S
  • C.J. Goodwin, CB
  • Noah Igbinoghene, CB

Offensive line:

  • Tyron Smith, OT
  • Chuma Edoga, OT
  • Tyler Biadasz, C

Tight end:

  • Sean McKeon, TE

Running back:

  • Tony Pollard, RB
  • Rico Dowdle, RB (Restricted Free Agent)

Defensive line:

  • Dorance Armstrong Jr., DE
  • Dante Fowler Jr., DE
  • Johnathan Hankins, DT
  • Neville Gallimore, DT


  • Trent Sieg, LS

This isn't to say none are worthy of being re-signed, because several most certainly are (e.g., Jourdan Lewis, Dorance Armstrong, Stephon Gilmore, Johnathan Hankins, etc.), but it is to say that it's unlikely the Cowboys are in a position wherein they feel they are without options at each position — both in-house and/or via less expensive acquisitions from outside of the building — that they would commit a fully-guaranteed franchise tag.

As a related aside, Dowdle being a restricted free agent means while he is allowed to negotiate with other teams, the Cowboys can place a tender on him that allows them right of first refusal on any offer he receives to retain him for 2024, or allow him to walk in return for no compensation, much more ambitiously, apply a first- or second-round tender to him and receive either as compensation if they choose to not match an outside offer.

Spoiler: The latter two options will not be in play here for the undrafted Dowdle, who has accrued three seasons, yes, and who has shown ability to perform, yes, but who has also been limited by both injury and reps throughout his first three years in the league.

Circling back to tag talk, you're probably wondering what the damage would be to tag any particular position (I can feel you asking me telepathically), so here's the projected payouts — via — prior to the 2024 NFL salary cap being made official, which will happen any day now.

  • QB: $36.3 million
  • LB: $22.8 million
  • DT: $20.9 million
  • WR: $20.7 million
  • DE: $20.2 million
  • OL: $19.9 million
  • CB: $18.8 million
  • S: $16.2 million
  • TE: $12.1 million
  • RB: $11.3 million (note: this is a 1st tag amount, not a 2nd)
  • ST: $5.7 million

Yeah, you're probably picking up what I'm putting down here.

Finally, a quick lesson on the difference between an exclusive versus a non-exclusive franchise tag, for your general bookkeeping purposes.

An exclusive tag means a player isn't allowed to negotiate with any other team, period (e.g., Dak Prescott's consecutive tag types). A non-exclusive tag, however, would permit negotiations with other clubs, but the player would be unable to leave outright without the Cowboys having an option of matching the highest offer and, if they chose not to, they'd receive two first-round picks from the other team.

It's highly improbable that another club would be willing to part with two first-round picks for any of the pending Cowboys' free agents and, again, making this option all but irrelevant in 2024.

And then there's the aforementioned transition tag, one used far less often, which is similar to the non-exclusive tag in that the player can still negotiate with other teams and leave if the Cowboys don't match the highest offer, but Dallas would not receive any compensation if that occurs; though the transition tag is less expensive due to the increased risk of losing the player.

Only one tag can be used per team, per year, but they can also be rescinded after they're assigned if an organization sees fit.

Understanding the process of tagging a player should paint a more clear picture on why this year will likely be the first year since 2016 in which the Cowboys wave it off entirely, and instead negotiate with every single player the old-fashioned way in 2024.

It just makes more sense to.

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