FRISCO, Texas – Not bad, so far, just three days into this free agency.
We're talking Cowboys, chopping wood on my list of top-10 offseason priorities from back on Feb. 21, just a month ago but sure seems like many more moons than that considering how quarantined the country has grown over the past couple of weeks.
Strange times, no doubt.
But while the country is coming to a near standstill, the NFL has not. Free agency for 2020 began as scheduled, 3 p.m. Wednesday, and the Cowboys have not been dragging their feet. And maybe the best thing they have done is not getting seduced into signing the many big-name, unrestricted free agents commanding overly inflated contracts on the open market.
Yeah, free agency, more times than not the equivalent of someone black-marketing toilet paper these days for a dollar a roll or something.
Nope, the Cowboys, they have been coolly plugging holes, or as Jerry Jones likes to say, keeping their powder dry, while at the same time setting themselves up most nicely for the presumptive upcoming NFL Draft, April 23-25, in Las Vegas or who knows where. That is if that, too, is not postponed to a later date like everything else. Sort of pickin' and peckin' along the way the Cowboys are once those top two priorities were taken care of, while at the same time making sure they didn't back themselves into a huge salary-cap corner.
So let's review my list, No. 1 through 10, and remember, just like late Thursday night, these things are changing by the hour.
- No. 1 is obvious: Re-sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal or pay the franchise-tag piper. Unfortunately, from a salary cap standpoint, they had to pay the franchise-tag piper, immediately hitting their cap for the exclusive $31.501 million since the two sides did not agree on a long-term deal. But they still have time to come to an agreement, another four months – unless Dak's folks are taking the Kirk Cousins' route, willing to bet on two consecutive franchise tags to reach free agency. Nevertheless, they reserved his rights, and from a quarterback standpoint, also retained backup Cooper Rush for the $2.1 million restricted free agent tender.
- No. 2 another must: Sign Amari Cooper to a long-term deal. And that was contingent on not using the franchise tag on Dak. Done, agreed to terms before the start of free agency with reportedly the Redskins coming snooping around. This was a must, too, to not only retain the top receiver in free agency, but also not wanting to waste the first-round pick spent to acquire "Coop" for just 25 regular-season games. Now, as for 2-A, new head coach Mike McCarthy's pull with third receiver Randall Cobb did not override the millions he'll sign for with Houston, so there is work to be done here, either in the coming weeks of free agency or the draft.
- No. 3 is tricky: Cornerback … And sure enough, the Cowboys got trumped on unrestricted free agent Byron Jones, considered the top free-agent corner. After using like $43 million of their 2020 cap space on the top two priorities, the Cowboys could not qualify matching the front-loaded deal Miami gave Jones over five years, with $40 million guaranteed stuffed into the first two. But at least the Cowboys took somewhat of a retaliatory strike here, signing their own Anthony Brown to a three-year deal, giving them at least three quality starting cornerbacks (plus Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis) if the season had started today. Also, the Cowboys have agreed to terms with C.J. Goodwin and Maurice Canady, adding some veteran depth and special teams help. This sets up nicely to select a starting-quality corner in the draft even if a veteran bargain does not show up in the coming weeks.
- No. 4 in my books is defensive end, since Robert Quinn, last year's sack leader with 11.5, also is an unrestricted free agent. Had a bad feeling on this one, since as pointed out back then, _Quinn is turning 30 in May, and had played on a one-year, prove-it deal this past season for what amounted to $7.9 million. This could be his final contract and guarantee you he'll be looking for a contractual home run_. And the Bears have knocked it out of the park with that five-year, $70 million offer, $30 million guaranteed. So work to do here, probably more fiscally responsible in the draft, although what if that moonbeam descends on the Cowboys – if the NFL reinstates the suspended Randy Gregory since the new CBA has relaxed punishment for violations of the substance abuse program. But remember, should the regular season begin in September as planned, Gregory would have played only 16 regular-season games over the past 55 months, and none since the 14 to end the 2018 season. As it stands at end now, probably would have to piecemeal the spot between maybe Tyrone Crawford, then Dorance Armstrong and Joe Jackson, with a long shot of last year's seventh-round pick Jalen Jelks being ready to make the team. Yep, needs some fixin' here.
- No. 5 is defensive tackle, especially with 3-technique starter Maliek Collins an unrestricted free agent. Especially now so, since Collins, a really good player, became too rich for the Cowboys' cap blood and is headed to Las Vegas. But the Cowboys already have taken a preemptive strike here, agreeing to terms with nine-year veteran Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler for a reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. That means, if nothing else, they really, really need Trysten Hill, last year's second-round pick to step up, and also could rotate in the versatile Crawford at tackle. But none of that precludes drafting a tackle high here, and possibly bringing back role players Kerry Hyder, who can play inside or out, or Christian Covington to join Antwaun Woods inside.
- Pretty right on priorities so far, agree?
- No. 6, and if you are getting the feeling my thoughts are defensive heavy, you're darn right, and now even heavier, safety. You bet, losing the fourth defensive starter here, the versatile, valuable Jeff Heath to Vegas, too, previous associations with now Raiders assistants Rod Marinelli and Rich Bisaccia coming back to haunt the Cowboys. They took an inexpensive step in the right direction by coming to terms with veteran HaHa Clinton Dix on a reported one-year, $4 million deal, a nice placeholder for now. See, the Cowboys can live with Xavier Woods at free safety, and now have a starting quality strong safety, Dix having started all 80 games over the past six seasons with Green Bay, Washington and Chicago, and snagging five interceptions over the past three seasons. The Cowboys also are bringing back free agent safety Darian Thompson, a good rotation and special teams player. But again, none of this precludes the Cowboys from doing some business at safety in the draft.
- No. 7 would be tight end, veteran Jason Witten well aware, even though he's committing to play another year, the Cowboys could move on from his 63 catches of last year. And they possibly are willing, since reports have Witten agreeing to terms with, yes, Vegas, too. That franchise didn't name itself the _Raiders_ for nothing, seemingly grabbing a Cowboys three-pack. But the Cowboys made sure they did sign restricted free agent Blake Jarwin to a cap-friendly, three-year deal, becoming the presumptive starter if Witten indeed fails to end his career with the Cowboys. After that, it's Dalton Schultz, plus maybe a free agent with seemingly a draft choice if availability meets need.
- No. 8, and this might be too low, would be linebacker. Now the Cowboys have lessened the burden by agreeing to a one-year deal with Sean Lee, along with agreeing with two more of their own unrestricted free agents, the versatile Joe Thomas, who played for McCarthy in Green Bay, and special teamer Justin March. Bringing the veteran Lee back gives the Cowboys a starting-quality strongside 'backer, assuming they are in a 4-3 alignment, along with a backup at weak and strong if need be. Assuming also starter Leighton Vander Esch is ready to go after undergoing season-ending surgery to remove a ruptured disk in his neck. And they still have last year's rookie free agent Luke Gifford, whose season ended with a fractured arm, and Chris Covington, who played in only three games last year. Even so, if linebacker qualifies as a best-player-available, grab the guy.
- No. 9 would be special teams. The Cowboys have gotten busy here. Will re-sign veteran deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur for the one-year veteran exception. They are agreeing to terms with Kai Forbath, who kicked impressively the final three games of the season after finally giving up on Brett Maher. And they had signed Tristan Vizcaino, too, so there will be some camp competition, assuming the NFL gets to training camp, if you know what I mean. And as for coverage help, well, they have agreed with Thompson, Goodwin, Canady, Thomas and March. Gifford should help, too. And as for returns, Tony Pollard is more than capable of handling kickoff returns, but ah, the punts. The sure-handed Cobb is gone, and not sure the Cowboys are interested in bringing back Tavon Austin. Cedric Wilson is a possibility, but he needs to make the team first. More work to be done.
- No. 10, making this a nice round number of top priorities and will depend on if McCarthy covets one in his offense, would be fullback since the Cowboys only have a team option on last year's starter Jamize Olawale. Well, they picked up that option, but No. 10-A has now become the backup swing tackle for sure. The Cowboys did not pick up the $4 million option of Cameron Fleming, and nor should they have, although the Giants immediately came to terms with the six-year veteran. Got to find better there. So look for the Cowboys to scour for a veteran backup type in free agency, then allow Brandon Knight to compete for the job. But with Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith missing three games in each of the past four seasons, this becomes a much higher priority. The Cowboys will be looking for a former starter-type left on the free-agent market just needing a job. As for the other backup O-Line spots, backup center/guard Joe Looney has agreed to terms, but appears the Cowboys are losing backup guard Xavier Su'a-Filo to Cincinnati. As of now, the backup guard spot will rest with Connor McGovern, unless he's capable of beating out Connor Williams, who then might be able to fill the backup tackle/guard spot.
There are four weeks to go before the planned draft. But as it stands now, those draft-day priorities to me, based on position, not who might be the best player at any one of six positions: Defensive end, cornerback, defensive tackle, wide receiver, offensive tackle, safety, linebacker and tight end.
Haven't left much out, huh? But then again, hard to argue with any of those, making the draft almost like throwing a dart at the position board. That's what happens when an 8-8 team seemingly will lose six starters and two immediate backups.
The Cowboys just need to make sure, and seemingly one by one are making sure the best they can, to cover themselves at each of the most vulnerable positions, at least minimally, so they are not reaching for need in the draft.
Yet again, remember, all of this is as of now. And let me reiterate, the No. 1 top priority is getting Dak signed to that long-term deal, the gained cap space in 2020 making the rest of this roster repair much easier.
So hang tight, and knowing this goes against today's microwave mentality out there, but come on now, it's only been three days, as of 3 p.m. Friday, just 72 hours.
Heck, 60 years ago, why it took six years to build the original Cowboys from scratch, not a single winning season until commencing that historic 20-year winning streak in their seventh season.
Stay tuned, and as pointed out last week, never ever even know what happens after midnight.