Dallas Cowboys offseason checklist: Seven steps to make it back to the playoffs
Here's how the Cowboys can get back on the right path after a 2017 season filled with drama
The Dallas Cowboys had an extremely trying 2017 season. As usual, there was a maximum amount of drama throughout.
Jerry Jones was in the news for one reason or another pretty much throughout the year. He took center stage during the national-anthem debate, then went to battle against Roger Goodell over the commissioner's new contract. He even wound up in headlines alongside both President Trump and the founder of Papa John's.
Ezekiel Elliott was suspended, and then he wasn't. And then he was. And then he wasn't. And then he was, and the season went off the rails. Tyron Smith got injured at the worst possible time. Dak Prescott looked great for eight weeks, then fell off a cliff when Zeke's suspension and Smith's injury happened at around the same time. It didn't help that Chaz Green gave up six sacks in one game -- to Adrian Clayborn, of all people.
Dez Bryant was banged up and not as effective as usual. Sean Lee was amazing when he was on the field, but the Cowboys defense fell apart whenever he was out. The remaking of the secondary progressed in only fits and starts. The pass rush was seriously lacking a secondary component to DeMarcus Lawrence until David Irving returned from his suspension, and then Irving missed more time due to injury.
By the time the season ended, the Cowboys were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. To make matters worse, their division rivals won the Super Bowl. Jerry promised change at the end of the season, but wound up retaining the head coach and both coordinators, opting instead for massive turnover within the lower-rung assistant coaching ranks.
Surely, Jerry does not want to see another non-playoff season in 2018. Below, we've constructed a roadmap for America's Team to get back in the mix.
Extend Zack Martin's contract
Zack Martin has been in the NFL for four years. He has played 4,390 of a possible 4,445 snaps during that time and has made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams (two first team, two second). He is the best player at his position and arguably the single best offensive lineman in football. It is imperative that the Cowboys get him locked in on a long-term contract to solidify the core of the unit that gives their team its identity. Given that Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick are both signed through the 2023 season, it makes sense for them to sign Martin to a similarly-structured deal.
Doing so would mean tacking five years onto the end of Martin's rookie deal, which is set to pay him $9,341,000 during the upcoming season under the fifth-year option. Martin should be expected to sign a contract that makes him the highest-paid guard in the NFL, just as Frederick was signed to a pact that made him the league's highest-paid center. (Smith signed his extension at a discount because he was grateful that Jerry Jones helped him through a financial squabble involving his family, but he was still made the NFL's highest-paid lineman at the time he signed his contract.)
This is what the top of the NFL guard market currently looks like:
Martin is 27, the same age Kevin Zeitler was when he set the new top of the market last offseason. Martin's new contract will surely outpace Zeitler's, but another factor that could come into play here is the free agency of Andrew Norwell. Norwell is also expected to command top dollar, so it would not at all be surprising if Martin's representation wanted to wait until after Norwell was signed to negotiate the final figures of Martin's extension, if only to ensure that Martin indeed becomes the highest-paid guard in the NFL. I'd expect Martin's final deal to check in around five years, $65-70 million with close to $35 million in guarantees, but with a first-year base salary of the minimum $790,000 and a roster-bonus structure that brings his 2018 cap hit down to an even $5 million. (I'd also expect the Cowboys to build in a second-year restructure that pushes more signing bonus money forward in order to create additional cap space in future seasons, just as they did with both Smith's and Frederick's contracts.) A contract structure like this gets Martin locked in for the long haul on the same timeline as his star line-mates while also helping the Cowboys create a little bit more flexibility under the cap.
Restructure Travis Frederick's contract (but not Tyron Smith's)
The Cowboys essentially built yearly restructures into Frederick's contract by artificially lowering his future base salaries. They clearly intend to restructure this contract in order to lower his base salary (and thus his cap hit) this season and guarantee him greater payouts in the future. Given his enviable combination of consistent excellence and durability -- like Martin, Frederick has played and started every game of his career and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons; he's also been an All-Pro three times -- the Cowboys should be fully confident that he will be a stalwart in the middle of their line for years to come. Dallas can re-do Frederick's deal this offseason to knock his cap hit down to around $6 million, creating an additional $7.235 million in space.
While Smith is every bit as good a player as Martin and Frederick, he has not been quite as blessed as the Cowboys' interior linemen, health-wise. Smith has struggled with back and groin issues the last two years, missing six games combined during those two seasons. The Dallas line basically fell apart without him at times in 2017, so you can see just how important he is; but a player moving into his late 20s experiencing back issues is not one for whom you want to push off too much guaranteed salary into the future. Smith carries entirely reasonable cap hits for a player of his stature for the rest of his deal, and the Cowboys have an out in a couple years in case his health takes an additional downward turn. They'd be wise to keep that out in their back pocket, just in case the worst happens.
Restructuring kicker Dan Bailey's deal could add another $1.6 million to the pot, but Bailey experienced issues with injuries and unreliability for the first time in 2017, and the Cowboys might not want to chance guaranteeing him two additional years beyond the 2018 season.
Release Orlando Scandrick, James Hanna and Chaz Green
The Cowboys used the 2017 offseason to revamp their secondary, letting Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox walk while drafting Chidobe Awuzie in the second round, Jordan Lewis in the third, and trading up for Xavier Woods in the sixth. The moves saved the team a ton of money but also cost them a ton of experience on the back end. Awuzie and Lewis were injured for parts of the 2017 season, but when they were on the field, they flashed the kind of talent that let you see why the Cowboys drafted them where they did. The same is true of Woods, who showed a surprising amount of versatility for a player that was a pure safety in college. (The Cowboys used him as an occasional slot corner.) With that trio likely in line for even larger roles next year, plus the returning Anthony Brown, Jeff Heath, Byron Jones, and Kavon Frazier, the time has come for the Cowboys to cut ties with Scandrick.
Scandrick was an underrated player for the team for a while, and for a time was one of the top slot corners in football, but he's been plagued by injury and ineffectiveness in recent seasons. He's set to carry a cap hit of over $5.2 million and the Cowboys can knock that number down to around $3.8 million by releasing him outright, and around $2.3 million by designating him a post-June 1 release. In this scenario, we're counting him as a standard release, creating $1.4 million in cap space.
James Hanna is a solid blocking tight end, but he doesn't have a large enough role to justify his $3.5 million cap hit. The Cowboys already have Jason Witten and Geoff Swaim in place and they'll likely want to find more snaps for 2016 draft pick Rico Gathers, who flashed immense talent last preseason but missed the whole year due to lingering concussion symptoms. Gathers has talked a big game for someone that has yet to step on the field during the regular season, but he's got elite size and movement skills and is a very high upside player. Hanna is what he is, and the Cowboys don't get enough out of him. Cutting ties saves $2,750,000 against the cap, and that's more valuable to Dallas than Hanna is.
The Cowboys had high hopes for Green when they nabbed him in the third round of the 2015 draft, but he missed the entire 2015 season due to injury, was only OK filling in for Tyron Smith in 2016, and was a disaster as both a starting guard and a fill-in tackle during the 2017 campaign. The $721,150 in cap room the Cowboys would create by releasing him isn't a lot, but they're likely going to address the offensive line in both free agency and the draft, and casting Green aside would eliminate the possibility of him stepping on the field again.
The above-described series of moves would take the Cowboys from $3,650,882 over the cap to $12,886,268 under it, after accounting for the cap charges of their draft pool. (The Cowboys are currently slated to have 10 picks in the 2018 draft, totaling $7,723,964 in salary.) That's obviously not a lot, but there are a few other ways they can create additional space. One of those is...
Try to get Dez Bryant to take a pay cut
There was a time when Dez Bryant actually was worth his massive contract. From 2012 through 2014, Dez averaged 91 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns a year. During that three-season span, Bryant ranked sixth in the NFL in catches, fifth in receiving yards, and first in touchdowns. That is elite, No. 1 wideout production worthy of the second-largest wide receiver cap hit in all of football.
But the last three years have been different. Dez missed 10 games across the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and he's played banged up seemingly half the time he's been on the field. Even when fully healthy, he hasn't been nearly as productive. His 16-game average since 2015 is just 63 catches, 857 yards, and seven touchdowns. To put that in perspective, you should know that Jermaine Kearse had 65 catches for 810 yards and five scores for the Jets last season. Needless to say, that is not production worthy of the $16.5 million cap hit Bryant will carry in 2018.
The Cowboys can create $8.5 million in additional cap space by releasing Bryant outright and $12.5 million by designating him a post-June 1 release, but those are not attractive options. The Cowboys' receiver group beyond Bryant is just not good enough for them to cast him aside. The team was reportedly thrilled to get Terrance Williams to return on what it considered a discount deal last offseason, but excellent blocking aside, Williams has never lived up to the potential the Cowboys envisioned for him. Cole Beasley's effectiveness has waned considerably since a late-2016 hamstring injury. Ryan Switzer is a Beasley clone but he barely got on the field offensively last season. Brice Butler has basically already announced he's leaving in free agency. Noah Brown is another strong blocker but hasn't yet shown himself to be a difference-making wideout. The Cowboys need Dez. They just can't really afford to pay him $16.5 million next season.
So, they have to try to get him to take a pay cut. That's extremely unlikely to happen, though. At least not without a corresponding extension. (The Cowboys should resist that possibility.) There's just no motivation for Dez to accept a pay cut, for largely the same reasons the Cowboys can't afford to let him go. Maybe he decides to do the Cowboys a solid so they can get him some help, but I wouldn't count on it.
Decide if Byron Jones is a cornerback or safety
Part of the attraction of Byron Jones as a late first-rounder when the Cowboys drafted him in 2015 was his versatility. Jones played two seasons at safety and two at corner while at UConn, and then he tested off the charts at the NFL combine. Dallas used him all over the place during his rookie season, but has defaulted to using him exclusively at safety over the last two years. That worked well during his sophomore season but he failed to take a step forward last year.
With former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard coming in to coach the secondary and be the "passing game coordinator" under Rod Marinelli, there has been a bunch of talk already this offseason of moving Jones back to corner. He fits the profile of what Richard likes in outside defensive backs, given his height and length, and he has the turn-and-run skill to hang with bigger receivers on the outside. Moving him back to cornerback likely pushes Anthony Brown to the bench, as Jones and Awuzie would start on the outside while Lewis would man the slot. Still, that's a solid four-man cornerback group.
It would create a need at safety, however, and the Cowboys would likely look to address the position in free agency, the draft, or both. Speaking of...
Free agency and the draft
As mentioned, the Cowboys are not likely to have a ton of cap space this offseason. You can expect them to once again be frugal when playing the market, looking for value signings of veterans in the later days of free agency rather than splurging for name signings early on. This has been their philosophy since around 2012, when the contract they gave Brandon Carr turned out badly.
That means they'll likely be letting players like Brice Butler, Alfred Morris, Jonathan Cooper, and Kyle Wilber walk out the door. Their only other free agents of note are Anthony Hitchens and David Irving. Stephen Jones has already stated that the Cowboys will tender Irving a restricted free agent offer, though he's not yet indicated whether it'll be a first- or second-round tender. A second-round tender would pay Irving less but would also indicate the Cowboys are more willing to let him walk this offseason. Considering his production (seven sacks, 30 pressures, and six pass deflections in just eight games last season), potential (he doesn't turn 25 years old until August), and versatility as a rushman, the Cowboys should do whatever they can to keep him unless another team really breaks the bank with an offer sheet.
Hitchens seems likely to command one of the larger free-agent deals for any 4-3 linebacker due to his combination of age, versatility, and production. Spotrac has predicted a four-year deal averaging $6.4 million a season, and that number should probably be too rich for the Cowboys' blood. They already have Sean Lee making a ton of money at the position, and they have high hopes for Jaylon Smith in his second season coming off the injury. Committing big money to a third linebacker just isn't a wise use of resources. They can likely pick up a veteran on the open market for far less money.
Speaking of the market, the Cowboys need to target help at left guard, receiver, linebacker, and safety. They should look for cost-effective options where they can, considering their limited cap constraints. Here are a few reasonable targets at each position, taking into account age, scheme fit, probable market, and recent rumors:
- Guard: Justin Pugh (Giants), Senio Kelemete (Saints), Josh Sitton (Bears), Shawn Lauvao (Redskins)
- Wide receiver: Taylor Gabriel (Falcons), John Brown (Cardinals), Cody Latimer (Broncos), Donte Moncrief (Colts)
- Linebacker: Kevin Pierre-Louis (Chiefs), Devon Kennard (Giants)
- Safety: Kenny Vaccaro (Saints), Eric Reid (49ers)
The Cowboys like to fill holes with cheap(-ish) options in free agency and then simply take the best player available in the draft, but they have been rumored to be interested in players at all of the above positions, as well as defensive tackle (they could use a 1-technique) and tight end (Jason Witten can't play forever). The first round of the draft sets up nicely for them with four or even five quarterbacks set to go in the top 15 picks. Dallas usually has 18-20 players with first-round grades on its board; since the Cowboys already have their quarterback of the future locked in, it seems incredibly likely that at least one player with a first-round grade will be available when they come on the clock at pick No. 19.
The 'Boys currently have a pool of 10 draft picks thanks to a league-high haul of four compensatory selections. They rank 17th in draft capital on the Jimmy Johnson draft value chart still utilized to some degree around the league and 15th on the more analytically-inclined Chase Stuart chart at Football Perspective. (Most teams now have their own internal charts that fall somewhere in the middle.) They have the ammo to move up and grab a player of their choice at some point if that's the route they want to take, but they also might have the luxury of sitting tight at both No. 19 and No. 50 and getting highly-ranked players at positions of need simply because so many teams need help at quarterback and running back, and the Cowboys don't.
Given their recent history, it'd be wise to expect them to target players with high marks on the SPARQ athleticism scale, in particular those with exceptional length and/or jumping ability.
Modernize the offense
The Cowboys have one of the NFL's best offensive lines, a dual-threat quarterback, a running back that has experience running both out of the shotgun and on read-option plays, a tight end that is one of the most precise players at his position, two shifty slot receivers, a big-bodied touchdown threat, and a speed demon that doubles as an excellent blocker. And yet, for some reason they run an offense that has seemingly been imported from 1995.
Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan need to join the late 2010s and incorporate far more read-option style runs, run-pass options (RPOs), packaged plays ... you know what, they should basically just steal the Chiefs' playbook from last season. Andy Reid was more inventive with Alex Smith and company than Garrett and/or Linehan have ever been. Bringing in more motion and misdirection will help open more lanes for Prescott, and shifting to a college-style offense will unleash the full potential of his skill set. There's a reason the best teams in the league are the ones that have been incorporating more of those concepts into their offense: they work.
The Cowboys also need to figure out a way to make life easier for Bryant. Dez lined up in the slot on only 17 percent of his snaps. That's far too low for a player with his skill set, especially given that he's increasingly struggled to create separation over the last few seasons. Allowing him to work more in the interior areas of the field will help him get off the line of scrimmage cleaner, and also open things up for him to run different kinds of routes. There's no reason two-thirds of his routes should be slants, hitches, fades, and screens. Let him do other things.
Witten has been the Cowboys' most reliable receiving target seemingly forever and he'll likely wind up wide-open eight yards downfield a hundred or so times once again in 2018, but on a team starved for speed at the skill positions, it wouldn't hurt to lessen his snap load and give more time to Switzer, Gathers, and versatile running back Rod Smith. Get more playmakers out there, spread the defense out, and force them to cover more ground than is possible.
All of this should help not only Prescott, but Elliott. Zeke got off to a slow start during the 2017 season and then had to serve his four-game suspension for violating the league's domestic-violence policy. Spreading the field out will give him wider running lanes, and with the defense having to account for the additional threat of Prescott taking off on the run, he should see more success. Dak had only 17 designed rushing attempts in 2017. There's protecting your franchise quarterback from taking too many hits and then there's being far too reluctant to use one of your best players' greatest assets. The Cowboys need to tip the balance in the other direction moving forward.
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