FRISCO, Texas *— *It's the time of year for a good self-scout.
As the Cowboys process a disappointing end to 2021, it prompts a lot of speculation about what lies ahead in 2022. This series looks to present, and hopefully answer, a lot of questions about what this team will look like in the coming year.
Today, we'll continue this series by examining one of the positions on the roster that's facing the most potential turnover – the safety spot. There's no better place to start than with the future outlook of one of their key defenders from 2021, Jayron Kearse.
What Might Jayron Kearse's Market Look Like?
Jayron Kearse deserves better than the mention he's gotten, to be honest.
Long considered an afterthought after signing for just $1.1 million last spring, the veteran safety blossomed into one of the biggest success stories of the 2021 season. The 2016 seventh-round draft pick grabbed a starting role in Week 2 and never let it go, leading the team in tackles while also becoming an unquestioned leader of a resurgent defense.
Kearse has earned himself a much better contract in 2022, and he's deserving of the speculation that goes along with a valued free agent. Unfortunately for him, he's been overshadowed a bit by some of the other business surrounding the Cowboys – namely, the uncertain futures of Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence, not to mention the free agency speculation surrounding Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz and Randy Gregory.
Nevertheless, Kearse deserves his flowers, and this is a good place to deliver them – it's just that all those aforementioned dominoes need to fall before his future can be determined.
The one thing we know for sure is that Kearse has done wonders for his value. He's a fantastic tackler, missing just four on the season. He also boasts wonderful versatility, possessing the ability to play deep, down near the line of scrimmage and in the slot as a tight and matchup. It's not a coincidence that the only Cowboys defenders to play more snaps than Kearse were the team's starting cornerbacks.
All of that should reflect in his price tag. OverTheCap.com places Kearse's valuation at $5.8 million, and ProFootballFocus isn't far off, projecting that he could command a three-year, $15 million contract. Regardless of the eventual number, it should be quite a bump for a guy whose signing bonus was a mere $137,000 last year.
Now, the more pertinent question: whatever Kearse's actual price, can the Cowboys afford to pay it?
That's going to depend on a variety factors. For starters, how much money can the front office free up? Nothing has happened with the likes of Cooper or Lawrence as of yet, but the Cowboys will assuredly try to free up some spending money before free agency. Dak Prescott's eventual contract restructure, long considered a formality when he signed last year, will free up roughly $15 million in cap space when it's eventually triggered.
The other big question is whether Kearse is a priority for any other teams – and how many of them. It's easy to overvalue the players that you get to watch on a weekly basis, but this 2022 safety market includes notable names like Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Williams, Quandre Diggs, Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris. Kearse's 2021 teammates, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker, are also part of that list.
The Cowboys have indicated that retaining Kearse is a priority for 2022, particularly now that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is back in the fold. Still, even the best laid plans can fall by the wayside when free agency opens and NFL clubs start throwing tens of millions of dollars around.
Still, this team needs to do something at the position. All three of their top options from last year are out of contract. Donovan Wilson is the only safety with significant experience currently on the roster.
As long as the price doesn't get out of control, here's guessing Jayron Kearse will be back as the centerpiece of the safety depth chart in 2022, having earned himself a nice pay day in the process.