Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Welcome To The Land Of Opportunity


FRISCO, Texas – If Mike McCarthy leaned on this word once early in the week during a conference call with reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida, covering the NFL meetings, swear he must have used it like 20 times.


The 11-letter word also has been very popular with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and COO Stephen Jones this week, too.

McCarthy spoke about the "opportunity in front of us" heading forward during this offseason.

He talked about the increased "opportunities" for wide receiver CeeDee Lamb now that he moves up in the pecking order to No. 1 with the Cowboys trading away former No. 1 Amari Cooper. "This gives him an opportunity to step up," McCarthy said.

The Cowboys head coach knows his defense needs to "take the next step" after vast improvement in 2021, admitting "it's hard to be an offensive-driven team all the time," and that "definitely defense gives you that opportunity in playoff football to regulate the game."

Stephen Jones basically said when addressing the losses at wide receiver, admitting the Cowboys "didn't have the cap space to do both Gallup and Amari," then also seeing Cedrick Wilson walk away for bigger bucks in free agency, that "we've got to find ways to get better," mentioning "drafting well and having some guys step up."

Even Jerry, after his opening two-minute filibuster on the quality of clam chowder at The Breakers, threw down an "opportunity" when speaking about the upcoming draft beginning in 27 days, saying, "I wouldn't dismiss a great opportunity with a pass rusher. Obviously, I'd like to have a young offensive lineman at the position he could immediately come in and play. Tackle gives you the best shot (shorter word for opportunity) to do that, but we feel pretty good about (Terrence) Steele …"

Then he got cute, after mentioning grabbing an offensive lineman somewhere in those first three rounds, "We'll get one unless Lamb or Parsons are in there," the unforeseen availability of both those players in the past two first rounds causing the Cowboys to change their priorities for good reason.

That is all fine and good.

But seemingly the bottom line putting this 12-5 team from last season back together again, and certainly the draft is important since there are precious few salary cap dollars remaining, will be younger players stepping up. Those previous role players becoming "the" players.

And here is why: The top-10 Cowboys' salary cap hits for 2022, and I'm including the June 1 release of La'el Collins since his $14.9 million doesn't come off the books until June 1, total right at $121 million. Again, that's for 10 players in a $208 million salary cap season.

That means the other initial 43 players making up the 53-man roster, plus your practice squad, plus injury settlements and replacing injured reserve players on the 53-man roster – remember those guys get paid, too – must not exceed the remaining $87 million. Do the math, and you will better understand why 31-year-old Bobby Wagner was far too rich for the Cowboys cap blood.

That means plenty of "opportunity knocks" out here at The Star.

"The biggest jump you have to take with your football team is from the guys that are here for the offseason program," McCarthy said.

"I feel good about our current group."

So, here's a little of what we're talking about.

The Cowboys lose Randy Gregory in free agency to Denver. Now it's your turn Dorance Armstrong, re-signed to a two-year deal. You too Dante Fowler Jr., the free agent signed to a one-year contract. Both will have the opportunity to flourish, to become that starter at right defensive end. And don't forget last year's third-round pick, Chauncey Golston. Those 2022 cap hits combined don't add up to the projected $6 million hit in Gregory's new deal.

Next, Steele. His play over 74.3 percent of the offensive snaps last year and Collins' $10 million base salary cost the veteran his job. There are some in the organization who firmly believe Steele outplayed Collins last year, and you know what? If we're being honest, we'd agree. And Steele hits the cap this year for a mere $898,340.

When it comes to guard play, this will be 2019 third-round pick Connor McGovern's last opportunity to prove he's a quality starter in the NFL. Was given that shot last year when starter Connor Williams was struggling with penalties. McGovern flamed out over four starts, the Cowboys going back to Williams to finish out the season. In your fourth NFL season, got to put up or shove out.

Want more examples?

Take the recently signed James Washington, Pittsburgh's former 2018 second-round pick. The Okie State star receiver got caught up in a Steelers' receiver logjam, starting just 25 games in his 60 games played in those four seasons. He averaged only 28 catches a season. Well, here comes his opportunity to flourish, signing just a one-year deal while hoping to jumpstart his career. Cooper is gone. Lamb is the starter. Gallup likely misses the first month of the season. Chances are at this point that Washington is the No. 2 receiver. He can hear the knocking.

How about Josh Ball? Last year's fourth-round draft choice spent the entire season on injured reserve, primarily since the Cowboys didn't think he was ready for the NFL. Well, he had better get himself ready since the swing tackle position behind Steele and Tyron Smith is wide open, unless of course a tackle isn't selected during the first two days of the draft or a more veteran free-agent guy isn't brought in on a minimal contract. Sort of like the Cowboys have been known to do with the likes of Ty Nsekhe, Cameron Erving and Cam Fleming over the past few of years. Patience can run thin with fourth-round picks.

Speaking of fourth-round picks, Jabril Cox. The linebacker selected in the fourth last year got off to a slow start. Played mostly on special teams and just nine defensive snaps before suffering a torn ACL in the seventh game of the season. Cox should be ready for the start of training camp, and already Stephen Jones mentions his name as the top candidate to assume Keanu Neal's role at linebacker on the nickel defense. A great opportunity.

Hey, even fifth-year 'backer Leighton Vander Esch. Remember, the Cowboys didn't pick up his fifth-year option, though he still started 16 of the 17 games last year and seemed to come on strong in the latter part, finishing second on the team with 86 tackles. He decided to sign back with the Cowboys for only one year, $1.785 million. A prove-it deal, trying to set himself up for a longer-term, more lucrative contract in 2023 if he can take advantage of the opportunity right there in front of him.

And there are other guys with opportunities to step up into more significant roles, like last year's second-round pick Kelvin Joseph. Could he challenge for a starting role, or at least upgraded snaps? Or 2021 seventh-rounder Matt Farniok, moved to center his rookie season. Could he challenge starter Tyler Biadasz at center? How about receiver Simi Fehoko? That third receiver spot could be contested with Noah Brown that first month of the season. Maybe Sean McKeon? After all this will be his third year and heading into the draft the tight end spot behind Dalton Schultz is wide open.

Can a healthy Sewo Olonilua impress again at fullback, as he had early in camp last year before being lost for the season with a neck injury? How about Chris Naggar, the first-year kicker from SMU who might get a chance to compete with a kicker or kickers to be named at some point? And you know, while safety Malik Hooker is entering his sixth season after returning last year from his ruptured Achilles injury, he only signed a two-year deal with just $2 million guaranteed. This will be an important season for him.

See what I mean? Opportunities across the board, making for a huge offseason and training camp of importance when it comes to player development. Some of that responsibility falling on this coaching staff, for sure.

And while we can make a case for the Cowboys possibly moving forward without so many main contributors from last year – Cooper (14 starts), Williams (14), Collins (10), Wilson (43 percent of snaps as the third receiver), Gregory (11), the unsigned Neal (50 percent snaps), the unsigned Damontae Kazee (15 starts) and kicker Greg Zuerlein – this is not what some are suggesting a rebuilding year. That R-word does not exist in the Cowboys' lexicon

How about reloading?

And someone out there thinks this team still can be pretty darn good. Caesars Sportsbook has set the Cowboys' over-under win total at 10.5. And guess what? Only three of the 31 other teams have a higher projection: Buccaneers 11.5, Bills 11.5 and Packers 11. That leaving the Cowboys tied for fourth highest along with Kansas City and the defending Super Bowl champion Rams.

McCarthy ended up talking about the offense, complete with the changes on the offensive line and in the wide receiver room. He might as well have been talking about the entire team.

"Change is in front of us," he said. "Now we have some changes on the offense that we have to take advantage of with the opportunity that is in front of us."

Can almost hear the knocking already going on.

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