FRISCO, Texas – And thought I was being somewhat funny writing my last column before going on vacation last week, playfully preparing for the start of free agency by replicating that famous Abbott and Costello gag, you know, Who's on First?
Well, much to the Cowboys' chagrin, or maybe not since some of these moves were of their own volition, the who's are mounting faster than that of a night owl just three days into the new league year.
Who's the third wide receiver?
In fact, who's the second and third wide receivers on opening day if not assuming a miraculously speedy recovery by the re-signed Michael Gallup, likely pegged for the season-opening six-game PUP list?
Who's the starting left guard?
Who's the second tight end and/or third tight end?
Who's the starting right defensive end?
Who's the punter?
Who's the kicker?
Who's the third linebacker if lined up in a 4-3?
Who's the starting right offensive tackle?
Now, if the Cowboys had to play a game tomorrow, and thankfully they don't for another six months, the answers to those questions are as follows as far as we can tell:
Left guard: Connor McGovern, likely his last chance entering his fourth season to prove his worth, but then again what if …
Tight ends: After franchising Dalton Schultz, then Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle, recently re-signed to a one-year deal.
Right defensive end: Likely Dorance Armstrong, re-signed to a two-year deal.
Kicker: Not sure.
Third linebacker: Dunno, and only today answering the second LB for sure, re-signing Leighton Vander Esch to a one-year deal and maybe the unproven Jabril Cox the third if recovered in time from his mid-season ACL surgery.
Right offensive tackle: Assuming Terence Steele, but then creating another _who_, since he was last year's swing tackle, and surprisingly played infinitely better than his undrafted rookie year in 2020.
So, if you are scoring at home since the start of what turned into the 12-5 season of 2021, the Cowboys currently are void of 11 predominant starters from last year, the majority of those of their own decisions or ones still pending.
And we can start with releasing starting linebacker Jaylon Smith after the first month of the season.
After that …
Amari Cooper, gone.
La'el Collins, gone.
Randy Gregory, gone.
Connor Williams, gone.
Blake Jarwin, gone.
Greg Zuerlein, gone.
Bryan Anger, Jayron Kearse, Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Carlos Watkins, all still free as of Friday afternoon, so still pending.
And as if this isn't all depletion enough, the Cowboys also have lost wide receiver Cedrick Wilson in free agency to Miami, with the status of Malik Turner still pending.
Yep, the gang fueling the turnaround from 6-10 to that 12-5 and NFC East championship, though unable to win a first-round playoff game, won't be back together again.
Some of these departures or ones with pending status are salary-cap inspired. Some for poor performances, thus failing to qualify their salary-cap charges. One, that of Jarwin, for injury reason. And one, that of Gregory, well, beyond me, other than he just wanted to go, until he says otherwise.
All leaving the Cowboys with more holes than aerating your lawn.
The other downside for moving on from those still under contract, like Cooper and Collins, is dead money on the cap, having to still account on the cap for something you no longer have. Breakups are costly.
Smith: $6.8 million.
Cooper: $6 million.
Collins: $5.35 million this year since he's been designated a June 1 release and another $8.6 million in 2023, all to rid themselves of this year's $10 million base salary they won't recoup until June 1.
Jarwin: $3.2 million.
Neal: $2 million.
And the combined likes of Zuerlein, Reggie Robinson and Bradlee Anae totaling nearly another $1 million.
On the flip side, the Cowboys do have some workable cap space, but not as much as you might think, considering as of June 1 half of that space will be consumed by their projected draft choices.
So, it's not as if the Cowboys have the type of cap space to do a Von Miller deal. Probably not even for Bobby Wagner, depending on what he wants. As for Za'Darius Smith, he backed out of a four-year, $35 million deal with Baltimore, so depending on how the contract is structured, even that might be too rich for the Cowboys blood, especially since surgery to repair a back injury cost him nearly all of the 2021 season.
Now, and I know the logic surfacing out there, that if the Cowboys were offering Gregory a five-year, $70 million deal that he shunned, then the Cowboys could take that average of $14 million a year and splurge on a big-time free agent. But here is the deal. The structure of the contract he signed with Denver is only costing the Broncos a $6 million cap hit for 2022 – $4 million base salary plus the $2 million proration of the identical $10 million signing bonus the Cowboys were offering.
Just a whole lot of shakin' going on for a team trying to repeat as division champs.
But here is the bottom line to prevail. The Cowboys need to be right about the guys they have signed: Gallup, Armstrong, Vander Esch, Schultz and safety Malik Hooker.
Then there is the NFL Draft. But remember, with all these apparent needs, OL, WR, TE, DE, LB, S and at this point K and P, the Cowboys only have one first-round pick, and but the 24th at that, but do have four fifth-round picks that should help them maneuver around in the second- and third-day rounds.
But most important, will be the improvement of a bunch of young players, starting with McGovern at guard, then Cox at linebacker, Chauncey Golston at defensive end, Israel Mukuamu at safety, Josh Ball at offensive tackle, Simi Fehoko at wide receiver, defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill and Quinton Bohanna, then Luke Gifford (just re-signed) at linebacker and Matt Farniok at center/guard.
This coaching staff will be under the gun to develop players, putting a premium on this offseason and training camp.
See, this is how you save salary cap capital: player development. Because as I always say, can't have a bone-in ribeye on every plate. Got to have just mere guys turn into _the_ guy. Just look at the Cowboys success during those Super Bowl years, hitting on mid-80s undrafted free agents like Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei; third-round picks Erik Williams and Mark Stepnoski; eighth-round pick Kevin Gogan; fourth-round pick Tony Tolbert; 12th-rounder Larry Brown and seventh-round picks like Leon Lett and Brock Marion, to name just a few.
Do that, and all the rest, and the Cowboys have a chance to turn that chorus of who's into that's who.