FRISCO, Texas – I’m washed up, y’all.
It’s something I’ve been coming to terms with for much of the past year, and I’m comfortable enough with the notion that I’m willing to write about it. I just turned 29, I have chronic back pain and my social life consists of watching football with my dog. It’s all downhill from here.
If that wasn’t evidence enough, I realized how far I’d fallen earlier this month when my family asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I responded with “work shirts and socks.” My mom is the best, and she knew there had to be something cooler I might want. And when she pressed me for more information, I said “I don’t know, maybe a new pillow?”
That’s where we’re at right now. My youth has seemingly disappeared, and all I have left is my Twitter account and Cowboys football. And hopefully a new pillow.
If we’re being completely honest, that’s fine with me.
So rather than worry about my Christmas wish list as it pertains toward my mundane life, I figured I’d turn it around on the Dallas Cowboys. As we prepare for a Christmas Eve showdown against the Seahawks, I decided to take a look at what I want for this team – in the coming month and in the year beyond that.
*1. Let’s go crazy – *First of all, spare me your whiny nonsense about how the Cowboys aren’t going to make the playoffs. I know that the odds are long and that the three-game losing streak in November most likely killed their postseason hopes.
But at this point, what’s it hurt to dream? At 8-6, the Cowboys are out of contention for a truly premium first-round draft pick. Even if they were to lose their last two games, they probably wouldn’t pick any higher than No. 14 or No. 15.
Rather than worry about a mid-round draft placement, why not just go for the gusto? With Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup, the Cowboys are more than capable of beating an injury-depleted Seahawks team. By the time Week 17 gets here, we don’t even know if the Eagles will have anything to play for. It’s not hard at all to imagine the Cowboys can win their final two games to get to 10-6.
*2. Let’s get nuts – *Of course, that’s the easy part of this prediction. It’s fine to assume the Cowboys go 2-0 to end the year. The crazy part is what happens next.
If you don’t know by now, the path to the playoffs is somewhat straightforward. The Cowboys trail several teams in the standings. Because of that, they need multiple things to happen. To bypass Detroit in the standings, they need the Lions to drop one of their two remaining games, either to Cincinnati or Green Bay – giving them an all-important seventh loss. On the other side of the NFC, they need one of the three clubs contending for a playoff spot – Atlanta, Carolina or New Orleans – to lose its last two games.
The most obvious candidate is Atlanta, as the Falcons have quite the slate to close out the season. This weekend, they have a massive road game at New Orleans. To close things out, they host the Panthers. That’s back-to-back games against teams with double-digit wins. Given how up-and-down the Falcons have played to this point, it’s not insane to think they drop two in a row.
The Saints host Atlanta and then finish the season at Tampa Bay. The Panthers host the Buccaneers this weekend and travel to Atlanta for New Year’s Eve.
Again, two losses from any of these teams would do the trick. But the most likely path forward involves two-straight losses for the Falcons.
Is it likely? I don’t know about that. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. And the beautiful thing is, as long as the Cowboys find a way past the Seahawks, they’re alive until the final day of the season. Even if Detroit beats Cincinnati this weekend, they still have to play Green Bay. And one of the two of New Orleans and Atlanta is guaranteed to lose this week, since they play each other. So if you take care of the Seahawks on Christmas Eve, anything is possible on New Year’s Eve.
Like I said, you aren’t getting a top 10 pick – or even a top 12 pick – no matter what you do. Might as well go for broke and hope for a Christmas miracle.
*3. Tag Tank – *Assuming for a second that the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs, there’s plenty of stuff to consider heading into 2018. Chief among them should be what to do with their best two pass rushers, who have helped turn an often-criticized unit into a pretty respectable one.
DeMarcus Lawrence is heading for a payday, one way or another. The newly-named Pro Bowler is in the final year of his rookie deal, and he could undoubtedly fetch a nice price on the open market. It’s entirely possible the Cowboys could work out a long-term deal with him in the coming months*. *But before that can happen, it feels like a certainty they’ll place him under the franchise tag, as that deadline typically hits sometime in February, before the start of the new league year. For a defensive end, the franchise tag should sit at roughly $17 million in 2018, and it will allow the club to retain control of Lawrence for another year.
The tag could always be a place holder. Many times, NFL teams will use the franchise tag to prevent a player from hitting the open market, prior to working out a long-term deal. That’s exactly what the Cowboys did with Dez Bryant in 2015, tagging him in February before ultimately signing him in July.
Regardless, the Cowboys seem to have found themselves a war daddy in D-Law. It’d be silly to let him leave just as he’s tapping into his potential.
*4. Decide on David – *David Irving is in a bit of a different situation, given that he’s a restricted free agent.
Restricted free agency is reserved for players with expiring contracts who have only accrued three NFL seasons of experience. That obviously applies to Irving, who signed undrafted with Kansas City and was subsequently poached by the Cowboys.
Sometime soon, the Cowboys need to decide how much they value Irving’s contributions, as they’ll need to hit him with a restricted free agency tender. The likeliest options are first and second-round tenders – which essentially means that, if another NFL teams were to offer him a contract and the Cowboys opted not to match it, they would receive either a first or second-round draft pick as compensation. That seems fair for a guy that has notched 11.5 sacks during three years in Dallas – including seven so far this season.
The flipside of this is that tenders cost money. If the Cowboys offer Irving a first-round tender, it’d likely cost them in the neighborhood of $4 million. A second-round tender would cost about $2.7 million. Either one of those seems like a worthwhile investment, considering this is as good as the Dallas pass rush has been in at least six years.
At the end of the day, it sounds plausible that you can secure two of the most important pieces of your pass rush for roughly $20 million. That ain’t exactly cheap, but it’s a manageable price – and I think it’s a price the Cowboys need to pay to keep their defense moving forward.
*5. Figure out the plan at LB – *For my money, I don’t know if there’s another position on this team with more questions that need to be answered.
It’s been an interesting year for the Cowboys’ linebackers.
After two healthy and productive seasons that saw him earn Pro Bowl honors, Sean Lee was laid low by the injury issues that had plagued the early portion of his career. Jaylon Smith has shown flashes of the talent that made him a top-50 draft pick, but he has also looked at times like a guy who isn’t all the way back from a devastating injury. Anthony Hitchens rebounded from an injury of his own to have arguably the best season of his career – just in time to head into free agency.
So what’s the next step? Lee and Smith provide a great place to start for any linebacking corps, but it seems like a mistake to rely on them alone. With all the other bits of book keeping they have to do, can the Cowboys afford to re-sign Hitchens? Are they willing to use another first or second-round draft pick to bolster the position?
It’s a little early to say. All I know is that the Cowboys can’t afford to be idle – not after we saw what happens to this unit when Lee can’t play.
Whether it’s via free agency or the draft, this team needs a third high-caliber linebacker heading into 2018.
*6. Upgrade the safety talent – *I’ve said this many times during our podcasts over the course of the season, so I’m sorry if it’s repetitive. I think the Cowboys have four safeties who are all good at part of the job. I don’t think they have one, complete safety who does everything well.
Byron Jones and Xavier Woods seem to do their best work in coverage. Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier hit hard and have that instinct for finding the football. All four of them have holes in their game that you tend to notice when the snap count climbs higher. That’s probably a big part of the reason why the Cowboys have been rotating their safeties over the past month.
It’s hard to project without knowing what happens in free agency, but I consider safety to be one of the two biggest needs on this roster going into 2018. That’s not intended as a slight toward any of the guys on the roster, but this team just seems to be missing a do-everything talent at safety in the mold of a Landon Collins or a Keanu Neal.
Notice I didn’t mention Earl Thomas or Eric Berry. Those guys are elite players and they’ve set the standard for safety play in recent years – but they were both top-level draft picks. Berry was even drafted in the top five. Collins was a second-round pick, and Neal went No. 17 overall to Atlanta. So we know you don’t have to pick in the top 10 to find a guy who can make an instant impact.
That’s my hope for 2018. You have good pieces in place in your defensive backfield. The Cowboys’ young corners look very promising, and there are some good safeties on this roster. I’d love to see what it would look like if they added one more bluechip talent to the back end.
*7. On Guard – *It’s a testament to the parity of the NFL that this unit boasts 13 combined Pro Bowl appearances and there are still several questions worth answering.
The first, in my mind, is how quickly can the Cowboys extend Zack Martin’s contract? They’ve been so great at extending these guys, everyone thought it was a foregone conclusion that Martin would be locked up last summer, before the 2017 season could even begin.
It was a bit surprising that that didn’t play out according to script, but it’s hardly a deal breaker. The Cowboys picked up Martin’s rookie option, so he is under contract through the 2018 season. I would imagine they’ll do everything in their power to extend him this offseason – but when they’ll do it is anyone’s guess.
Between Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving, it’s a lot of resources the Cowboys are being asked to put into their lines. But they can make the money work, one way or another. And if push comes to shove, I’m confident Martin is a high priority. He’s the best guard in football, for my money – and theirs, most likely.
*8. OL Decisions – *Regardless what happens with Martin’s future, there are more immediate issues to address, as well.
Jonathan Cooper, who has played well since becoming the starting left guard in October, is an impending free agent. The Cowboys also at least have to feel a hint of concern about their tackle position, as Tyron Smith has faced several injuries this season – and Chaz Green and Byron Bell have not looked like desirable long-term replacements.
The way I see it, one of these issues needs to be addressed in the draft. The Cowboys could easily find a starting-caliber left guard or a capable swing tackle somewhere in this year’s draft class. They likely can’t do both.
That leaves you with a choice about how best to bolster the offensive line for 2018. Personally, I would love to re-sign Cooper and keep the entire starting line intact. Cooper has played well, and continuity is key.
If they can do that, it frees them up to draft another tackle. Green was a third-round pick in 2015, and I don’t see any reason why the Cowboys shouldn’t spend an equally valuable draft pick on a successor.
The offensive line is the key to this team’s success for the foreseeable future. If investing heavily keeps it running at the level you want, it’s worth it.
*9. Car insurance – *Speaking of insurance, we got a pretty good look at what this offense can do when Ezekiel Elliott isn’t part of it.
To their credit, the Cowboys did find their way and manage to pick up three wins after three disastrous losses. Alfred Morris and Rod Smith both played extremely well at times during the last six weeks.
That said, I sure would feel better about the running back room with another, younger talent in there. After a productive preseason, the Cowboys ultimately decided Darren McFadden didn’t have it anymore. He received just one carry in 2017. Alfred Morris is the quintessential “right kind of a guy,” and he’s a good player. He’s also an impending free agent who just turned 29.
It’s hard not to look around the league and see the impact that mid-round running backs like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt and Jordan Howard are making. Ezekiel Elliott is a seminal talent who figures to be your bell cow for the foreseeable future. But it also doesn’t hurt to protect yourself against unforeseen setbacks like the one that happened this summer.
Sometime this spring, I think it’d be smart for the Cowboys to find themselves a young, fresh insurance policy.
*10. * *Short memories – *I’m writing this at Christmas, a full two months before the NFL offseason really gets into full swing. By the time the dust settles, hopefully no one remembers that I wrote it. It’s undoubtedly going to look really stupid. But y’know. Feel free to remind me about what I said that was good and what I said that was dumb.
And Happy Holidays!