Spagnola: Draft Might Make Or Break Offseason


SHELTERED IN PLACE, Texas – The draft. The draft. The draft.

That is the overriding theme for what the Dallas Cowboys have been doing so far these first 17 days of free agency:

Setting themselves up for a purer draft.

Always has been, and likely always will be their philosophical approach, no matter if the head coach is Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Jason Garrett or now Mike McCarthy. Afterall, that was the priority when Jerry and Jimmy traded away Herschel Walker for a slew of Vikings veterans or beaucoup Viking draft picks. They didn't want those veteran castoffs. They wanted those draft picks.

So for those already wanting to grade the Cowboys offseason or get a little too excited over some names added to this roster so far, just remember this: Other than franchising Dak Prescott and signing Ameri Cooper to that five-year $100 million deal, mostly what they've done since is putting band-aides on some free-agency departure sores.

Covering themselves at positions of needs so they don't look up with the 17th pick in the NFL Draft or thereafter and grow some long arms. As in reaching for a guy at this position or that position because of a gaping hole there. Need can be the draft's dangerous bedfellow.

So other than Dak and Amari, of the seven outside free agents signed, none would be considered long-term gets if you follow the money and structure of their contracts. But all fill a Cowboys need to cover their bases, or when it comes to the latest signing, taking a mighty low-risk, home-run, three-and-oh pitch swing on defensive end Aldon Smith. And please, slam the brakes on this one-year deal for as much as $4 million, all contingent on the five-year veteran being reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell since he officially still resides on reserve-suspended.

And yeah, I know how talented he was. Watched him for three years at the University of Missouri, and I, too, remember his second year production in San Francisco with 19.5 sacks. But let's also remember he's turning 31 on Sept. 25, and has not played a down of football since Nov. 15, 2015 because of suspensions and a history of poor behavior. That's a mountain of rust.

The Cowboys certainly can't presume anything about him. He resides in that hope chest, right alongside Randy Gregory, both guys' NFL futures in the hands of Goodell before they can even think of inhabiting locker space at a now deserted Star.

So, after losing seven unrestricted free agents – Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb, Maliek Collins, Jeff Heath, Cameron Fleming and Jason Witten (we think since we've not seen any indication he's signed that deal with Las Vegas ) – and having suffered the Travis Frederick retirement, that meant the Cowboys have needed to replace seven starters.

They've basically been chipping away, signing seven free agents and bringing back 13 of their own, none of which would preclude the Cowboys from drafting an immediately-capable starter come April 23-25.

To me, the major signings so far, something they can sink their teeth into, have been the re-signing of cornerback Anthony Brown to a three-year deal, signing restricted free-agent tight end Blake Jarwin to a three-year deal and bringing back Sean Lee on a one-year deal.

OK, hold your horses. Yeah, they did sign defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a reported three-year, $20.25 million max deal, and the 32-year-old does figure to replace Collins at defensive tackle. But that includes just a $3 million signing bonus, a guaranteed $2.5 million 2020 base salary, totaling a $4.35 million cap hit with roster bonuses. But, it would only cost the Cowboys $3.5 million in dead money to terminate after one season.

Let's move on, signing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to a one-year deal that includes just $1.25 million to sign, a $1 million guarantee on his $2.25 million base salary, along with actives bonuses, giving him just a $3.75 million cap hit. Nothing long-term, extravagant about that, and the guarantees certainly don't automatically guarantee him a starting position.

Also, as far as McCoy's Carolina sidekick, Dontari Poe, will hold judgment on him until seeing the structure of his two-year deal. But will remind that over his 11 games with the Panthers last year (10 starts), he averaged 38.6 snaps a game. So there will be a need for Antwaun Woods for sure, and room for another guy, too.

Liked how the Cowboys couched their bet at kicker, first signing Kai Forbath, Mr. 10-For-10 in those final three games last year, to that one-year veteran exception deal, with but a $137,500 signing bonus. So if he happens to win the kicking competition, he will only count $1.05 million against the cap. That will keep the competition even.

That's right. Yep, the Cowboys did sign veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein on a three-year, $7.5 million deal. But only a $1 million signing bonus and 2020 base guaranteed at $1.25 million. His cap hit for 2020 is a highly manageable $1.833 million. And with just $666,666 dead to get out of the deal after one year, to me that screams game on for training camp. Because if Forbath should happen to win, Zuerlein's dead money would be just $2.25 million – so like paying just more than $3 million for a kicker in 2020.

The Cowboys also covered themselves at cornerback by re-signing Brown, a capable starter, re-signing C.J. Goodwin to a one-year, veteran exception deal and bringing in four-year veteran Maurice Canady, who provides depth at corner and special teams help. As for Brown, his three-year, $15.25 million deal counts just $3.25 against the cap and guarantees only $6.25 million at signing. Again, does not preclude the Cowboys from drafting a cornerback in the first round.

Also, nice agreement with tight end Blake Bell, one-year, reportedly as much as $1.7 million, adding some depth at tight end, especially with his ability to block on the line of scrimmage.

So as you can see, the Cowboys have been filling necessary holes, yet spending responsibly. Also remember, they had many holes to fill, having to re-sign Lee, L.P. Ladouceur, center Joe Looney, safety Darian Thompson, backup quarterback Cooper Rush, and linebackers Justin March and Joe Thomas.

All this adds up, especially when the combination of 2020 cap hits right now for Prescott, Cooper, Demarcus Lawrence, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott adds up to right at $100 million, like half of the cap space available. Funds are not unlimited.

And according to spotrac, not yet counting the cap hits for Bell, Poe and Thomas, along with Gregory and Aldon Smith on reserve lists, the Cowboys have a working cap space in the vicinity of $16 million left for the top-51 costs. Now, a long-term deal with Dak will add considerably to the pie. So will Frederick's retirement papers being turned in after June 1 to recover his base salary and spread out his dead-money impact.

But that's not a lot of space left when you consider having to account for two more salaries and a rookie pool of $6.7 million. Practice squad budgets will increase, the squad size from 10 to 12 players and minimums from $8,000 a week to $10,500 a week, meaning if teams keep a full squad all season, that cost will be roughly $2 million. And the Cowboys like to keep another $10 million in reserve for injury settlements and replacing injured reserve players on the 53-man roster.

So you can see, without being extravagant the Cowboys will be coming close to making ends meet with what they've done so far and what they still must do since a relatively inexpensive veteran corner or defensive end wouldn't hurt.

Which brings us back to the start: How important this draft will be for the Cowboys to maybe plug noticeable holes at corner, for sure defensive end, third receiver without question, safety, maybe even center if they aren't comfortable with giving Connor McGovern a go there vs. Joe Looney. Oh, and what about the backup swing tackle? Need one of those, too.

So when analyzing what the Cowboys have done so far, and maybe what still needs to be done, remember salary cap money matters.

All the more reason why this draft is so very critical.