Cowboys fans are full of optimism based on the team’s great regular season, the expected improvement in last year’s fantastic rookie class, and the anticipated debut of Jaylon Smith. The first week or two of free agency may add a dash of pessimism as the team is poised to lose several key contributors from last season. Some fans will implore the team to make a big signing in free agency to “put the team over the top.” However, expect the Cowboys front office to stick to their principles and show restraint. While this approach may not maximize the team’s chances in 2017, it will be the best way to compete for a championship in the next few seasons.
Just as the 2016 season was eerily similar to the 2014 season, expect this offseason to be similar to the offseason that followed the 2014 season. Many of the Cowboy’s free agents will sign elsewhere and there will be despair among fans. However, the team will likely gain the maximum of four compensatory draft picks for the 2018 NFL draft.
Looking back at the offseason following the 2014 season, the team had the following free agents (per NFL.com).
Doug Free, OT – Resigned
Jermey Parnell, OT – Signed by and remains with Jacksonville
DeMarco Murray, RB – Signed by Philadelphia, traded one year later
Bruce Carter, OLB – Signed by Tampa bay, released one year later
Justin Durant, OLB – Signed by Atlanta, released one year later
Anthony Spencer, DE – Retired
George Selvie, DE – Signed by New York Giants, did not play in 2016
Nick Hayden, DT – Resigned, but no longer with team
Rolando McClain, ILB – Resigned, did not play in 2016
Dwayne Harris, WR – Signed by and remains with New York Giants
Henry Melton, DT – Signed by Tampa Bay, now with Denver
Sterling Moore, CB – Signed by Tampa Bay, now with New Orleans
Not many of the free agents have gone on to have good seasons after 2014, which shows how quickly things change in the NFL. Parnell and Harris are the only two of the eight free agents signed by other teams who are still playing with the team who signed them. Parnell has played fairly well for Jacksonville and ranked as the #31 offensive tackle last season. Harris has remained a solid special teams contributor, but only logged 60 offensive snaps last season.
The compensatory pick obtained via losing Parnell was used to select Dak Prescott. The team also got three 6th round compensatory picks that were used to select Kavon Frazier, Darius Jackson, and Rico Gathers. Considering the play of Dak Prescott, the Cowboys certainly appear to be well on the way to coming out winners as a result of letting many of their free agents leave. Remember this when free agent losses cause angst all over again.
Will free agency losses cause some growing pains next season? Most likely yes, but the free agent losses prior to the 2015 season don’t appear to have been anywhere near the reason for the disaster that was the 2015 season. Injuries to Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and others were devastating. The 2016 Cowboys had good depth, which wasn’t a strength of the 2014 team, and some of the backups like Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier will need to step up and contribute more next season. La’El Collins will need to fulfill his potential to soften the impending loss of Ron Leary.
The payback for losing free agents will be coming in 2018 and should pay off in 2018 and subsequent seasons. With the numbers being tied to Barry Church, the Cowboys are in line for a 4th round compensatory pick (using estimates from OvertheCap.com) pending any Cowboys signings that could cancel out free agency losses in the compensatory pick formula. Ron Leary and Terrance Williams will sign for more than Church and will be at least at the 4th round compensatory pick level and might get to the 3rd round level.
Dallas could target some of the many players that were released or restricted free agents who were not tendered (as opposed to unrestricted players whose contracts have expired), and those players are not counted in the compensatory pick formula. As an example, Deshaun Shead was not tendered by Seattle, and he could be a nice pickup if one or both of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne aren’t retained. Pro Football Focus rated him similar to Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown last season. While Shead is recovering from a torn ACL and will miss part of the season, he would also not count as a roster spot at the beginning of the year. He is only 27 and played in a defensive scheme that is similar to the Cowboys’ scheme. He could contribute in the later portion of 2017 and in future seasons.
There are several factors other than free agent losses that may cause the team to take a step back next season.
- They will have fewer players in contract years – will the collective motivation be as high as last season?
- The schedule will be more difficult after having a first place division finish.
- The team was fortunate with injuries in 2016 (similar to 2014). Hopefully 2017 isn’t a repeat of 2015.
- The team seemed to win the majority of close games last season. Whether you attribute that to being clutch or lucky, it could turn the other way next season.
- The value of the teams draft picks will be much lower than those they had for the 2016 draft due to picking lower in each round, not having any compensatory picks, and not having a 5th round pick.
- Jason Witten will be a year older and his play could decline.
On the other hand, the team is stocked with young players who should improve.
What do you think? Will the Cowboys take a step back in the Win/Loss column? Should the Cowboys continue to be principled in free agency and gather compensatory picks or spend more than they typically have in recent seasons? Let us know in the comments.