FRISCO, Texas – Priorities, we all have them.
We all have household priorities, what we want to spend our money on, unless you're willing to enter into serious debt.
The airlines industry has them, priority check-in, priority screening, priority boarding, priority terminal clubs.
And the Dallas Cowboys are no exception to priorities, and worse they have that hard budget called the unmerciful salary cap reigning them in. No willy-nilly spending allowed. There is a consequence for every expenditure made. You can purchase Peter but maybe at the expense of Paul.
You guys know that.
That is why the Cowboys are heading toward one of the most complicated offseasons in many years, trying to juggle their numerous needs while remaining relevant in the NFC East, this new coaching staff not afforded a first-year honeymoon.
So while I'm hearing how the Cowboys need to sign the best free agent to man this position or that position, guys some other team didn't see fit to re-sign, or they need to draft immediate starting-quality players in at least the first three rounds, it's high time to sound this yearly rejoinder:
_You can't have a steak on every plate for every meal,_ because of that salary cap.
Meaning, at this time the Cowboys are putting together a list of priorities the best they can, separating into must-haves, want-haves, settle-for-haves and lastly fill-in-haves.
Let's come up with a list of priorities, and maybe surprisingly, a long list at that for a team finishing 8-8 this past season with the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 9 defense and six Pro Bowl players that lost four highly-winnable games by a grand total of 12 points.
That averages out to three points a game, the slim difference between a possible 12-4 and that unacceptable 8-8, the Cowboys knowing they must put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
No. 1 is obvious: Re-sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal or pay the franchise-tag piper. Get that done, and then they will have a much better idea of what cap space they have to work with for all the rest of their needs.
No. 2 another must: Sign Amari Cooper to a long-term deal, or should the franchise tag still be available if Dak is signed to a long-term deal before March 10, then tag "Coop" if necessary to hold his rights. But then there is a problem with the third receiver if Mike McCarthy can't use his influence with Randall Cobb to convince him to re-sign with Dallas. After that, not even sure the Cowboys will want to re-sign Tavon Austin, also unrestricted. And after that, it's Devin Smith, Ventell Bryant, Cedrick Wilson, Jon'Vea Johnson and Tevin Jones at this point. Help will be needed.
No. 3 is tricky: Cornerback, since Byron Jones also is an unrestricted free agent, along with previous third corner Anthony Brown and then eventual fourth corner C.J. Goodwin, leaving the Cowboys with only Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis of note. So, re-sign Jones (more cap space eaten up). Or tag him if it's still available. If not, will be forced to sign an available free agent veteran, usually meaning overpaying on the open market, along with drafting one high, which never is a sure alternative. All expensive options, and last thing you want to do going into the draft is pigeonhole yourself into one position. Like, gotta have this or that at all costs.
Sticky situation there, right?
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. Take into account, too, that 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. So he won't come cheap if Dallas is intent on re-signing him. If not, not sure the Cowboys have a ready replacement on the right side on the current roster. Dorance Armstrong? Joe Jackson? Sign another veteran free agent? Draft? This must be a high priority. Although, looks as if versatile D-Lineman Tyrone Crawford will recover in time from dual hip surgeries to afford some help. But even that costs ($8 million base).
No. 5 is defensive tackle, especially with 3-technique starter Maliek Collins an unrestricted free agent. Can they get him re-signed? Because other than 1-technique tackle Antwaun Woods (exclusive rights free agent) and the possibility of Crawford helping out inside, too, backups like Christian Covington, Michael Bennett and Kerry Hyder also are unrestricted free agents. Lots of work to do here. Lots of help needed.
No. 6, and if you are getting the feeling my thoughts are defensive heavy, you're darn right. And now even heavier – safety. Starter Jeff Heath, special teamer Kavon Frazier and backup Darian Thompson all are unrestricted free agents. Plus, Heath will be coming off shoulder surgery, so far repairing just one of the two injured ones he played through for the majority of the season. Now, I'm seeing all these early mocks have the Cowboys drafting a safety in the first round. Sounds good, right? But really? With all these other worries hovering overhead? But wouldn't you rather have a pass-rushing defensive end or a slot receiver or a mobile, big-body defensive tackle or cornerback than a box safety? Priorities, please.
No. 7 would be tight end, veteran Jason Witten well aware, even though he's committing to play another year, the team could move on from his 63 catches of last year. That would leave the Cowboys with restricted free agent Blake Jarwin, who they likely will protect right of first refusal with a second-round qualifying offer, and former fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz, who has caught all of 13 passes in his two-year NFL career, but only one of those last season. Help will be needed if indeed the Cowboys go young at tight end, surely needing an all-purpose guy with blocking skills.
No. 8, and this might be too low, would be linebacker. Sure, the Cowboys have Jaylon Smith and seemingly Leighton Vander Esch, expected to fully return from his neck surgery. But if playing a 4-3, need another one, and there is not really a ready-made guy currently on the roster. That's because Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Malcom Smith and Justin March all are unrestricted free agents. There would seem to be a good chance Lee returns, in fact, they _need_ Lee to return as a starter and team leader to what was mostly a rudderless defensive ship in 2019. Chances are free-agent money will talk with the versatile Thomas, so who knows. After that, it's only Chris Covington and Luke Gifford under contract. Somewhat alarming.
No. 9 would be special teams. As for kicker, all the Cowboys have right now is futures signee Tristan Vizcaino, who they had worked out twice last year. But he has never kicked in an NFL regular season game. Remember, last year's three-game replacement for a struggling Brett Maher, Kai Forbath, is an unrestricted free agent, and this will become an interesting decision by the new coaching staff where they turn. So chances are we'll be watching every kick again during a much-expected camp kicking competition. Then there is punter. The Cowboys must decide if they are going forward with Chris Jones, heading into his ninth season after an injury-plagued 2019 thanks to playing through a painful back injury and sports hernia. Also, deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur is a free agent. And, while Tony Pollard can handle kickoff returns again, remember both punt returners from last year, Cobb and Austin, are unrestricted free agents. Got to do more special work here than just kicking tires.
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. His return will depend on the new staff's evaluation and offensive design.
Now then, this ought to give you a full gist of the Cowboys offseason situation. Dire? Dang, that's a lot of roster repairing to do, and darn good thing the salary cap is expected to reach around $200 million.
So to reiterate, when you are wishing for this or that, remember, the Cowboys have a baker's dozen of starters either unrestricted, restricted or with team options if you consider Brown, Cobb, Jarwin, Olawale and Forbath are essentially starters, too. Add to this potential unrestricted pool of players their top three backup offensive linemen – Joe Looney, Xavier Su'a-Filo and Cam Fleming (option).
So as a primer for this coming week's start to the offseason, with the franchise/potential transition tag period opening on Tuesday and closing March 10, and with free agency opening March 18, just remember if you insist the Cowboys select a safety in the first round, remember they instead might need more help at defensive end. If you say grab the best tight end, remember might help at wide receiver be more important. And if you are big on cornerback, what about defensive tackle.
Some kind of mind-numbing jigsaw puzzle to put together, wouldn't you say, with that salary-cap governor restricting just how much you can spend, causing a need to balance out those high-end steaks with some pedestrian burgers.
Priorities, you know.