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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Beware the 'all' part of now going 'in'


FRISCO, Texas – About time we get to the bottom of what this "all in" really means since it's being bandied about as if some 2024 season anthem.

And "all in" goes back to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talking during Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama, about the team's commitment to this coming season when asked if he anticipated being "all in" heading toward 2024, as if the Cowboys haven't been "all in" previously.

"I would anticipate, looking ahead at our key contracts that we'd like to address, we'd be all in," Jones began. "I would anticipate we'd be all in at the end of this year. When you say is there any thought, I'd say we'll push the hell out of it.

"It will be going all in on different people than you've done in the past. We'll be going all in. We've seen some of things out of some the players that we want to be all in on. And yes, I would say you would see us this coming year not building for the future, is the best way I would say it, and that ought to answer a lot of questions."

Loaded, right?

Jerry mentions "key contracts," and that is a reference to some of his 16 unrestricted free agents, eight of those starters, five significant contributors and seven more starters entering the final year of their contracts. Jerry would sure like to retain some of those unrestricted free agents and get ahead of next year's unrestricted free agents if the Cowboys can.

Jerry didn't say, as some interpreted, trading away the draft to get one or two players.

He didn't say spending freely in free agency because as we know, there is a hard salary cap in the NFL. And prior to the March 13 start of the new league year, projections already have the Cowboys – thanks to Friday's adjusted cap from $242.5 to $255.4, and now with their $10.8 million rollover from 2023 – with $269.434 million to work with. And when it comes to the top-51 salaries come March 13, they are a mere $3.228 over the cap, which certainly beat the projected $16 million at the start of the week.

Jerry didn't say, as some interpreted, trading away the draft to get one or two players.

"I mean, we're always all in this day and time," Stephen said. "We've been that way for three or four years. We've put three 12-5 seasons together. We're close. … We certainly think we're close, and like I said, we've won more football games, regular-season games, over the last three years (36) than only (Kansas City, 37)."

Why, it's not as if the Cowboys had been chintzy on talent in 2023. They had 10 players in the Pro Bowl, six of those starters. They had four first team All-Pros (Brandon Aubrey, DaRon Bland, Zack Martin, CeeDee Lamb). They had one (Dak Prescott) in the running for MVP. They had two players (Lamb and Prescott) nominated for Offensive Player of the Year. They had two more (Micah Parsons and Bland) among the Defensive Player of the Year candidates.

So does going prospecting in free agency for players other teams don't seem fit to re-sign mean you're "all in"? Or should the Cowboys start trying to re-sign some of their own unrestricted guys and structuring contracts to balloon down the road?

Does "all in" mean re-signing center Tyler Biadasz and Tyron Smith, despite the possibility of moving Tyler Smith to left tackle, T.J. Bass to guard and Brock Hoffman to center?

Does "all in" mean moving on from running backs Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle, now having to sign an aging free agent veteran back or drafting one in the first three rounds if market value prices them out?

Does "all in" mean bringing in a veteran free-agent wide receiver at top dollar that they don't really have at the expense of cutting Michael Gallup?

Does "all in" mean spending big on a free-agent linebacker if Parsons remains at defensive end and Leighton Vander Esch decides to retire? Or if moving Micah to linebacker, spending on a free-agent defensive end and counting on DeMarvion Overshown to return good as new at linebacker after ACL surgery?

Does "all in" mean trying to re-sign cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and nickel back Jourdan Lewis, despite counting on Trevon Diggs to return good as new at cornerback to pair with Bland following his torn ACL repair? Yet knowing they better find some corner insurance so not having to play a harnessed Gilmore in the playoffs like they did against the Packers that changed their defensive scheme?

See what I mean about banding about this "all in" stuff? Sounds good, but the Cowboys certainly can't take care of all those decisions in one offseason, one draft.

"Yeah, you want to bring a lot of them back," Stephen Jones said of his players trending toward free agency, "but then also, there's reality. There is a salary cap, and you've got to start to really make decisions.

"You know, we let players go before when the money has gotten too high, but then we got four players for (that money) that we were better off for. Those are the things you measure. I mean, I'm not going to be able to answer any questions. Do you want him back? Yes. Do you want him back? Yes. Does it mean we can? No.

"I don't know, and I'm not going to speak to specific guys."

And along with all of these questions, the Cowboys must come to some sort of decision on what to do about Dak's $59.45 million salary cap hit heading into the final year of his contract. But with two voidable years in 2025-26, the Cowboys could easily restructure his $29 million 2024 base salary by paying him a restructure bonus and spreading that over three years if they want to wait and see on an extension.

That's not all. They must try to lessen the effect of CeeDee's $17.99 million fifth-year option by signing him to a long-term deal. Do they ask Martin to restructure his $18 million base salary in the final year of his contract by moving some of that base salary down the road? Do they want to? Even Demarcus Lawrence has a $17.85 million cap hit going into the final year of his contract ($10 million base salary) because of two previous restructures.

And then the upcoming salary cap headache with Micah Parsons, having to pick up his fifth-year option for 2025 estimated in the range of $22.8 million or $20.1 million, depending on if he's listed as a linebacker or defensive end by May 2, maybe trying to get ahead of that by signing him this offseason to a long-term deal.

That is the reality Stephen is trying to emphasize. And he and Jerry understand that nobody out there is worrying about any of this. They just want to the Cowboys to win consecutive NFC East titles, which no division member has done since 2004, finish a fourth consecutive season with double-digit wins they haven't done since 1993-96 and win at least two playoff games for the first time since 1995. And preferably their first NFC championship in 29 seasons for starters.

So beware when seeing these unrestricted free agent lists with the Cowboys like the first or second choice to sign a couple of these guys. First, teams have until March 13 to re-sign their own, so free agents now might not be free agents then. Second, guess the Cowboys can sell out in the trade market, but that comes at a price, especially when you have dwindling draft capital for this year, the 24th pick not exactly a huge bargaining chip.

Because of previous trades, the Cowboys only have five draft choices this year, a one, a two and a three – not to be confused with Lawrence Welk directing the orchestra (look it up) – and two sevenths. That's it, pending compensatory picks when awarded, and should pick up two more for free-agent losses of Connor McGovern and Dalton Schultz. And it's not as if they have been reluctant to make trades over the past two seasons, doing so to acquire Johnathan Hankins, Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore, Trey Lance, Noah Igbinoghene and Eric Scott.

And it's not as if going "all in" on one player will put the Cowboys over the top, either through trade, the draft or free agency. They need a lot. Guess they can mortgage the future, but they have learned the hard way about trading away the next year's first-round draft choice. See 2000 for Joey Galloway, see 2008 for Roy Williams and see 2018 for Amari Cooper. No fun going into a draft without a first-round pick.

So let's be careful upon interpreting the meaning of "all in." In fact, before any potential moves are made for salary cap purposes, the Cowboys already have $14.77 million in dead money, $12 million of that paid out in restructure bonus money stuffed into voided years to Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith.

        Saying going "all in" is one thing. Being able to do so is entirely a whole 'nuther deal.

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