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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Tough & Plenty of Decisions Looming


FRISCO, Texas – In exactly 26 days, NFL free agency will commence at 3 p.m., March 15, meaning unrestricted free agents will be free to sign with the team of their choice.

Restricted free agents must receive right of first refusal tenders by that same 3 p.m. deadline.

The NFL trade season also opens at that hour.

And most importantly, the 2023 NFL salary cap of $224.8 million goes into effect, too, at 3:00.1 p.m.

The Cowboys, they have a lot of work on their hands, including as early as next week announcing the completion of their coaching staff currently under reconstruction.

Just 26 days to make major decisions or gambles with 19 players unrestricted and two more restricted from a roster that won 12 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1993-95. While also staying under their personal cap of $228.7 million for their top-51 players since they are carrying over the $4 million they didn't spend in 2022.

Problem is, they already are approximately $7.6 million over that constantly floating amount, meaning either roster slicing or contract restructures must take place, while also knowing their projected 2023 NFL Draft pool allotment is $9.3 million if using all nine picks they currently have and likely increasing thanks to a few additional compensatory picks for the free agent losses of Randy Gregory, Connor Williams and Cedrick Wilson. On top of that, they already are being charged right at $9 million in dead money for released players and could incur more if outright releasing players still under contract with still to be uncounted prorated bonuses.

Sounds like a huge headache, no?

But it's theirs, not yours – or mine – though please take into account all of this when firing off unadulterated opinions on just which free agents they should sign, including their own, and who should be released.

To demonstrate the difficulty of piecing this jigsaw puzzle together, juggling the personnel along with the money, thought we consider the top-five projected priority free agents in my mind out of the 21 they just need to re-sign.

1. Tony Pollard: Let's start with this complicated one. There seems to be this consensus out there the Cowboys just need to place the franchise tag on their past season's leading rusher. OK, that is $10 million. But that's guaranteeing a guy returning from fracturing two bones in his lower leg and having ankle ligament damage surgically repaired after suffering his playoff game ending injury against San Francisco. So, questions. Will Pollard be ready to start the regular season, thus being worth that kind of money? Then, too, what might other teams consider his market value, knowing he is coming off this injury and certainly will not be healthy enough to work out for anyone any time soon? But again, Pollard in 2022 among running backs with at least 150 touches running and receiving led the league, averaging 5.94 yards per touch, bolstered by tying for the most NFL 30-yard rushing touchdowns in 2022, two of those 54-yarders. If that was your money on a finite budget with every million dollars mattering, what would you do? Also realizing, if healthy, Pollard has never been a 20-carry a game guy and not exactly a short-yardage dynamo?

2. Leighton Vander Esch: If he hadn't missed those final three regular-season games out of an abundance of pinched nerve caution, LVE would have led this team in tackles. As it turns out, his 100 tackles finished second to Donovan Wilson's 108. Let's not treat that cavalierly. Looking forward, other than Micah Parsons and Damone Clark, is there another linebacker the Cowboys can count on? And if not, and they want to continue playing Parsons some at defensive end, then who pairs with Clark? Remember Anthony Barr is a free agent and probably is looking for more than the one-year, $1.9 million he made last year. Also remember it was Vander Esch running this defense, and to me he won his gamble returning last season on a one-year, $2 million deal. This guy will be in free agency demand for a long-term deal.

3. Terence Steele: Now, the Cowboys' 13-game starting right tackle, turning just 26 in June, is restricted. And it's complicated. Yes, he is restricted and since the Cowboys developed this undrafted rookie free agent from back in 2020, they must tender him at the first- or second-round level to retain his right of first refusal if another team signs him to a long-term deal the Cowboys are unwilling to match. That would cost either $6 million on a one-year deal for a first or $4.3 million at the second-round level. But again, Steele is coming off torn ACL repair surgery back in December. How to judge his market value, especially since he's unlikely ready for the start of training camp? Would another team even be willing to sign him to a long-term deal? Or might Steele be agreeable to sign back with the Cowboys for like a two-year prove-it deal with a reasonable signing bonus, which would guarantee him around $5 million up front, plus his base salaries, if his market value is not what it would have been if 100 percent healthy? Another dicey calculated decision the Cowboys must make.

4. Donovan Wilson: And I get it, he's a safety, a position the Cowboys don't normally financially value in the scheme of things. But he's a darn good one. Remember, led the team in tackles while starting and playing a career-high 17 games in 2022, half as many games started as he had played in the previous three seasons (34). Not only that, Wilson led all NFL DBs with five sacks, tying Bill Bates' single-season franchise high since sacks became an official stat in 1982. And for perspective, his 108 tackles are the most by a Cowboys safety since Barry Church had 133 in 2013. By the way, if the Cowboys could get Pollard signed before the March 7 franchise tag deadline, they could franchise Wilson for the reasonable strong safety amount of $5.3 million if that position designation applies instead of the more expensive free safety one.

5. (Tie) Dalton Schultz/Anthony Brown/Connor McGovern: These will come down to market value, and unfortunately for Brown, he will be trying to come back from surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles. That's usually a good nine-month recovery, which would take him to around the start of the season. Maybe he would be amenable to signing a one-year deal for minimum with per-game bonuses so he can remain in the building rehabbing with the Cowboys' training staff. Other teams would be leery of signing a cornerback coming off an Achilles for much more. As for Schultz, franchising him a second consecutive year, costing a 20 percent raise to $14 million, is probably unreasonable for the Cowboys. Market value likely will determine his fate on a long-term deal, and a team with gobs of cap space surely would outprice what the Cowboys could afford with last year's rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot on the rise. And, for sure, the Cowboys would love to have McGovern back, but at what price? His guard/center/fullback versatility should attract an impressive offer the Cowboys might not be willing or able to match.

To me, those guys would be the priorities. And remember, you can re-sign your own guys before the start of free agency, so these current lists of free agents are premature since these players don't officially become available until March 15.

As for some of the other guys, certainly the Cowboys would value backup quarterback Cooper Rush returning, but what if another team with an abundance of cap space money whips him with more than the Cowboys can afford for a backup after seeing Rush go 4-1 in those five starts in 2022. And what are the chances of the Cowboys being able to re-sign guys for further one-year deals for no more than $2 million, such as Noah Brown, Barr, Dante Fowler, Luke Gifford, C.J. Goodwin, Johnathan Hankins, Jake McQuaide and Carlos Watkins? Do they even consider bringing back kicker Brett Maher to engage in another round of the tryout competition he won last year, excelling until his Tampa Bay playoff game brownout, missing four extra points.

And T.Y. Hilton, heading toward 34 in November ,would need more than what he made this past year to return for an entire season, and at that if he even wants to continue playing. Same with Jason Peters, already having turned 41 in January, but who thought he'd return for the $1.8 million in 2022 at 40.

As you can see, decisions, decisions. Not easy. Even harder when operating under an NFL-imposed budget. You know Jerry. If the cap was no object, he'd spend his last penny signing any player he wanted. But it doesn't work that way.

Or he'd keep any player he wants, no matter that price either, meaning, well, that's a discussion for another Friday.

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