After Aaron Rodgers carried the Packers to a 34-31 upset of the Cowboys in the playoffs with a late-game pass that will go down as legendary, Dallas fans had to go into the offseason with an empty feeling: 13-3 and no playoff wins despite having home field advantage. The Super Bowl, well within reach, was only 225 miles down the road in Houston.
I’ll put a positive spin on the bitter defeat: The Cowboys may open as Super Bowl favorites this summer if they can make just a few free agent moves to bolster their below-average defense.
Yes, we’ve heard this before. Young stars! Super Bowls, here they come! Dan Marino made one, never got back. Andrew Luck was in an AFC title game … and has missed the playoffs two years in a row since (one year he was injured).
But all the optimism in Dallas is different for one reason: The offense. Nine of the 11 starters are under the age of 29. Unless Jason Witten (34) retires, every starter should return. The best part? Rookie QB Dak Prescott is on a 4-year, $2.7 million rookie deal. The MVP candidate’s average salary: $680k. In a way, this feels like Russell Wilson’s Seahawks all over again, except they swapped offense for defense.
Two receivers, Terrence Williams and Brice Butler, are free agents. Williams was 4th on the team in receptions; Butler caught three TDs. Ezekiel Elliott’s backup running backs – Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, are also free agents.
The only major offensive decision is about backup QB Tony Romo. His base salary jumps to $14 million next year. He counts $24.7 million against the cap next year (14% of the team’s cap). I see two alternatives: 1) Ask him to take a pay cut. Owner loves him, coach loves him, teammates love him. He’s made a lot of money. Want to stay here, be the backup, end your career here? Restructure. 2) Trade him. Turns 37 in April. Brittle the last few years. Is someone going to pay him top dollar to make a run at the Super Bowl? Denver? Arizona? Either way, status quo is 100% not an option.
The defense is where the focus will be in the offseason. Two starting defensive backs – their lasting image isn’t a good one, getting shredded by Rodgers – are due paydays. But first, remember that Dallas was in the bottom 10 in completion percentage allowed and QB rating allowed:
Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, 26: Bad start to his career, but showed up in a contract year. Hmmm. He was their best cornerback this season, but that’s not saying much. I’m not certain I’d break the bank for him.
Barry Church, Safety, 28: Third on the team in tackles. First in interceptions (with two). Nice player. Undrafted, he’s been in the league way longer than anyone would have guessed when he arrived from Toledo. Some Dallas fans might say 2013 and 2014 were his best seasons, and he hasn’t been able to get back to that level. There are two sure-fire 1st round safeties in the draft – Jamal Adams (LSU) and Jabrill Peppers (Michigan). Might one be around when Dallas drafts in the 20s?
Two younger players with question marks:
Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame star who was supposed to be a high 1st round pick in 2016, but who fell to the 2nd round due to a bad leg injury, could be healthy to play. It’s too early to tell if he’ll be a starter, a reserve, a special teams player, or anything at all.
Randy Gregory, a pass rushing monster from Nebraska who was drafted in the 2nd round in 2015, missed the entire season due to repeated drug suspensions. He was mostly injured during his rookie year. In two years, he has no sacks. There’s no telling if he’ll ever see the football field.
Depending on how much money Dallas can free up from Romo, and whether or not they can find cheap replacements for a few players above, these could be their two primary free agent targets:
CB A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans: In a division with Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning and promising Carson Wentz, can you really go into next season with your top three CBs being Claiborne, Brandon Carr (also a free agent) and Orlando Scandrick? One, perhaps two of those players will be gone. Bouye, who had a breakout season in Houston, could be an option. Houston may franchise tag him. If it doesn’t, and Bouye hits the market, he’s going to command top dollar. The Cowboys have the talent for a Super Bowl run. Bouye could be the missing piece in the secondary. Reminder: Dallas would have faced Matt Ryan in the NFC title game. They lost to Aaron Rodgers. Russell Wilson is still a Top 10 QB. The NFC is loaded. A pass defense is a must.
OLB: Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers: Two very good pass rushers might hit free agency – Chandler Jones and Ingram. The Cardinals traded for Jones and he had a dominant year for Arizona (2nd in sacks, tied for 2nd in tackles for loss). Ingram mostly underwhelmed in San Diego for three years, but had 18.5 sacks total in the last two years. Perhaps the Chargers view DE Joey Bosa as the solution to their sack needs, and move on from Ingram and invest in that woeful offensive line. Dallas would definitely consider swooping in.
The Cowboys primary weaknesses are the hit-and-miss pass rush (14th in the NFL, but nobody had more than seven, nobody commanded double teams, and nobody was consistently effective), and an anemic secondary. It’s difficult to expect rookies to come in defensively and immediately play a major factor on a Super Bowl winner. So the Cowboys have to hit on those two areas in free agency.