FRISCO, Texas – On your mark. In 12 days the 2021 NFL league year begins, signifying the official start to free agency at 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, and coinciding with the salary cap going into effect.
Better get set to go.
Seemingly for the past two months, all attention regarding both with the Dallas Cowboys has been on Dak Prescott.
Long-term contract before the March 9 franchise tag deadline?
Long-term deal prior to March 17?
Salary cap ramifications?
On and on.
But guess what? Dak is not the only Cowboys projected free agent. They have 16 other unrestricted free agents, four restricted free agents and two more exclusive rights free agents they must make decisions on.
Guess what, too? Thirteen of those impending free-agent guys totaled 111 starts in 2020, and that doesn't include another guy, deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who technically did not start one game, but played in all 16, so might as well lump him in as a special teams starter, upping that number to 127.
Sure, can't sign 'em all.
But also can't let 'em all walk.
Decisions, decisions, and the majority of those will be made in deference to the shrinking salary cap that will drop from last year's $198.2 million to as low as $180 million but probably no higher than $185 million, both totals as low as the cap has been since 2018.
And here is the Cowboys' dilemma: Right now, their projected remaining cap space for the top-51 salaries that will begin adding up come March 17 is roughly $16.3 million.
Oh, and that's without Dak counting as much as $37.7 million if he's franchised again or maybe like $20 million if signed to a long-term contract, which you now have a better understanding of the significance of a proper long-term deal when it comes to dollars and length sense.
Either way, that math just ain't working, is it?
So brace yourself for a lot of market value talk in the coming weeks, as in what the Cowboys might perceive market value for some of these guys they'd like to re-sign and what some of these guys discover their actual value really is once entering the open market.
Just for a non-partisan assessment of these Cowboys' impending free agents, cbssports.com's Pete Prisco recently ranked his top 100 free agents, which at this point includes a bunch of guys who will be franchised and unavailable, his list starting with Dak as his No. 1 free-agent pick.
From there, Prisco lists four other Cowboys among his top 100: cornerback Chidobe Awuzie 61, defensive lineman Aldon Smith 67, quarterback Andy Dalton 71 and safety Xavier Woods 73. Other Cowboys projected free agents not among that list but having started at least seven games last year include center Joe Looney (12), cornerback Jourdan Lewis (13) and restricted defensive tackle Antwaun Woods (7).
What to do? What to do?
And I'd imagine, of those seven guys, they'd probably like the majority of them back, along with Ladouceur. But, that's going to come down to market value or guys possibly settling for one-year, prove-it type deals since this will not be a bull market with the NFL salary cap dropping for the first time since instituted in 1994.
Let's consider Dalton, and assume Dak returns one way or another. Certainly the Cowboys would love to have Dalton back, a nine-game starter last year and a perfect veteran backup quarterback. But who knows what his market value is going to be? Some QB-needy team might be willing to pay him starter money or at least as a bridge starter if drafting one of those projected top-five quarterbacks in the first round. This will come down to what the Cowboys can or can't afford. Otherwise, if they can't, Garrett Gilbert for $920,000 might just have to do.
Then the corners. Yep, the Cowboys do return Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs, and they might even take a corner with that 10th pick in the draft. But after witnessing a talented Diggs' growing pains as a rookie this past season, you want to start Diggs and a rookie at corner with Brown in the slot? That might be a leap of faith. And what if there is an injury?
Again, with Awuzie only starting five games this past season due to injuries and COVID-IR, can't imagine his market value will be high enough for him to sign a long-term deal with beaucoup guarantees with another team. Might get a prove-it deal from him.
Probably same for nickel corner Jourdan Lewis, a 13-game starter since the Cowboys almost exclusively played nickel last year much to my dismay. Can't imagine some team will pay him starter-type money for primarily a slot-corner.
And then Xavier Woods, a 15-game starter. Guessing that third-year safety Donovan Wilson is one starter. But who's next to him? They don't have another ready-made one, even if they select a guy over the first two days of the draft. Be interesting to see what Woods' market value is, especially since he played mostly strong safety this past season, close to the line of scrimmage, rather than free where he belongs, having started 44 of the 44 games he's played over the past three seasons.
Two other tough decision will become Woods and Looney, a 12-game starter at center, but likely abdicating those duties to Tyler Biadiasz this season. Might be able to get him back on a backup center/guard deal, sort of what they did last season on a one-year, $2.3 million deal but hitting the cap for just $1.25 million on the veteran exception.
As for Woods, he's restricted, and would charge $2.133 million on the lowest tender with no compensation if signing another team's contract offer since the defensive tackle did not enter the league as a draft choice. A few times the Cowboys instead have signed these restricted guys to a two-year deal, giving them a little upfront money but paying them a relatively low but guaranteed base salary to reduce the cap hit. We'll see, since Woods ended up starting seven games last year once Dontari Poe played himself off the roster, and was one of their most productive inside tackles.
For sure re-sign Ladouceur, if he decides to play another year, turning 40 next week. Plus, he's been willing to play for the veteran exception, last year signing a one-year $1.187 million contract, which included a $137,500 signing bonus, but counting just $887,500 guaranteed against the cap. Ladouceur has been signing this type of contract for the past few years, smartly not wanting to price himself out of the league.
Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson also is restricted and can be qualified at the original draft-choice tender (sixth round) of $2.183 million that could be lowered similarly to Woods if he finds no takers. He's an awfully versatile gadget/special teams guy. And can't imagine the Cowboys would overly-extend themselves to re-sign the likes of wide receiver Noah Brown or special teams ace/leading tackler C.J. Goodwin. Maybe nibble here.
Then there are veterans Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, Joe Thomas, Blake Bell and Cam Erving. Lee and Crawford must decide if they want to continue playing, and if so, for how much it would take to re-sign them. Thomas and Bell are good depth hands to keep. But to me, the Cowboys backup offensive tackle this coming season must be Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin instead of bringing back the oft-injured Erving. That would open the possibility for the Cowboys to continue developing a young backup guy or draft an offensive tackle as high as the third or fourth round for future considerations, assuming they are comfortable with the returns of surgically-repaired Tyron Smith and La'el Collins.
To me, with this free agency stuff, better to re-sign those you know who have sweat-equity in the team, if market value allows, than to go speculating on some carpetbagging free agents you don't know that someone else didn't think enough of to keep.
See what I mean about decisions, decisions, man? This is all enough to make your armchair-GM heads swim with these talent- and budget-based decisions.
Look, we know what the Cowboys' No. 1 free-agent priority is. That's easy.
But will say it again and until I'm blue in the face: This game of football just ain't a one-man show. These others count, giving the Cowboys so much more to worry about, and it's all about to go down.
So with that, here's to wishing you and yours a Happy Free Agency.