FRISCO - The time is now for the Dallas Cowboys to 'deliver' Dak Prescott and get him signed to a long-term deal. That's why he tops our CowboysSI Dallas Cowboys 2021 free-agent power rankings.
These are the players the Cowboys should focus on when it comes to their internal free agents. The Top 5 are, in my view, the players that are likely the Cowboys’ highest priorities to keep, followed by notes on the remaining free agents.
1. QB Dak Prescott (unrestricted free agent)
We all know Prescott isn’t going anywhere. I don’t think the offense’s improved play in the final six weeks has given the team any additional leverage in negotiations, honestly. ... though Jerry Jones seems willing to concede otherwise. (See below.)
The Cowboys and Prescott will either reach a long-term deal or the Cowboys will put the franchise tag on Prescott once again in 2021. Sure, there WILL be stories about trade scenarios and ‘what-if’s’ if the Cowboys release Prescott and move on from him (we will probably write a few of them here at CowboysSI). But I wouldn’t bet the house on any of those scenarios. He’s the No. 1 priority and he’s been the No. 1 priority for a year.
Time for the Cowboys to get something done long-term and put the issue to rest so they can plan their cap for the next several seasons accordingly.
2. DE Aldon Smith (unrestricted free agent)
Smith’s production has plummeted since his hot start to the season. But given the Cowboys’ need for pass rushers, maintaining a dialogue with Smith this offseason should be a priority.
The Cowboys ended up paying Smith approximately $2 million (less than $1 million was in base salary). He finished with five sacks.
I think he certainly showed some fatigue playing his first 16-game season in five years. But there’s enough burst to see him be a contributor in a 20-to-30 play-per-game role in 2021. The return of Randy Gregory, I think, helps build the case to keep Smith, too, because they can keep each other fresh.
Because Smith’s production tailed off, maybe teams won’t be trying to beat the Cowboys with higher offers. Fish has hinted that it's unlikely he'll give the Cowboys some "home-town'' preference - that maybe he doesn't love the "culture'' here as much as the team itself thinks.
3. OL Joe Looney (unrestricted free agent)
The injuries on the offensive line this season have magnified that the usually-solid unit has issues. But Looney isn’t one of them, and if the Cowboys are intent on maintaining their depth on the interior of their offensive line, they need to make Looney a priority.
I recognize I'm probably alone in my view here; why is a backup lineman important? But ...
He’s making less than $2.5 million this season and only $1 million in guarantees. That’s the most he’s made in a single season of his career. And ... I would imagine that other teams see the value in Looney, but the Cowboys know that value all too well after his five seasons in Dallas.
Tyler Biadasz may be ready to be the starting center next season, but keeping Looney gives the Cowboys flexibility there and at guard, in case someone gets hurt or if they have to swing Zack Martin back to tackle at any point. I think $3 million is a likely expenditure to keep the 30-year old in Dallas. That’s a small price to pay for a player that can solidify three positions in a pinch.
4. QB Andy Dalton (unrestricted free agent)
I’m now of the mind that you have to find a way to keep this guy. And, yes the Jones family made it clear on the radio on Monday that Dak is the priority. But, once Dalton got past his concussion and past COVID-19, his numbers in this offense were quite respectable.
He kept the Cowboys in the NFC East race until the final week, which in of itself is pretty incredible given how the team cratered after the Prescott injury. But Dalton’s play in the final six weeks was exactly what the Cowboys were hoping for in the event that Prescott got hurt (they were just hoping it wouldn’t have to be for the majority of the season).
I looked at Dalton as a complete rental when the Cowboys signed him in the spring, and he may still be. There are usually 8-10 teams each season that are looking to upgrade at starting quarterback, and Dalton has shown enough to interest general managers around the league. ... and, Dalton has sort of made it clear he wants to explore starting-job options.
Don’t discount the Jets or Jaguars trying to lure Dalton to mentor the young quarterback they likely take in the draft. But if the Cowboys are as committed to Prescott as I believe they are, then exploring re-signing Dalton to be the backup should be a priority.
5. LB Joe Thomas (unrestricted free agent)
A few things go into moving Thomas into this spot. First, he’ll be cheap. He made a little over $1 million in 2020 and he won’t be a hotly-pursued linebacker. Yet, Thomas is a good fit for what the Cowboys are doing right now because he can start, back up and play special teams.
When Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee were out early this season, Thomas had some fine games opposite Jaylon Smith (they were lost in the shuffle of the Cowboys’ 2-6 start). Vander Esch is now a clear injury risk. Lee, to me, appears to be headed off into the sunset. I’m betting he retires after this season and moves into a coaching role with the Cowboys.
That leaves the Cowboys with a clear need for a third linebacker and Thomas would be an ideal candidate for a multi-year deal that would probably cost a bit north of the league minimum with some bonus money thrown in. That’s great bang for the buck.
Remaining free agents:
DT Tyrone Crawford: He feels like the past and not the future. In fact, our Mike Fisher sourced a story on Sunday noting that Crawford might retire.
LB Sean Lee: I made my point on Lee earlier. I think he’s poised to put on a headset in 2021. We will see.
OL Cameron Erving: He’s a guy you want as a backup, and not as a starter. And probably not at the $2 million-plus he was paid in 2020. Coming up on age 30, the Cowboys should let him test the market, and if nothing comes of it, offer him the league minimum.
TE Blake Bell: A veteran-minimum tight end whom you might want back to block and to play special teams. But that’s all.
LS LP Ladouceur: He’ll cost you a bit north of $1.2 million. He had another quality season. He’s not a Top 5 priority, but he’s been a part of the culture in Dallas for such a long time that if both sides want it, a one-year deal will happen.
CB Chidobe Awuzie: To me he’s the best of the free-agent cornerbacks on the roster. You need some depth, but the Cowboys should not break the bank to keep him. And, in reality, they won’t have to.
LB Justin March: Thomas is the better linebacker to chase here. At nearly $1 million in salary in 2020, you can draft a fourth or fifth linebacker for much less.
CB C.J. Goodwin: He's the best special-teams guy here. Do you have to spend for that?
CB Jourdan Lewis: He’s played a lot this season, but he hasn’t impressed me. You let him test the market and take him back at the minimum if he can’t find a taker. And tell him to stop head-butting people.
DT Eli Ankou: Plucked off the waiver wire when the Texans released him, I think we’ve seen why the Texans released him.
S Xavier Woods: He’s played nearly every snap this season. He’s durable. He plays his role. He’s just not that explosive at the position. The Cowboys need an upgrade at safety. But as a third safety on an inexpensive contract? I think the Cowboys would be up for that. Woods won’t get many takers on the open market.
WR Noah Brown: His development as a player has never materialized. You let him hit the market.
Restricted Free Agents
WR Malik Turner: He’s barely played this season, but as an RFA the Cowboys are unlikely to lose him. The real question is whether you tender him an offer sheet?
DT Antwaun Woods: The Cowboys know "The Human Log'' is a worker. It's a start.
WR Cedrick Wilson: The one player on the RFA list who MIGHT be worth an offer sheet. But that offer sheet, even for an undrafted player, could be north of $2 million. And the Cowboys have plenty of options at receiver.
Exclusive Rights Free Agent/Street Free Agent
Edge Ron’Dell Carter: The charm of the ERFA is that the Cowboys really don’t have to do anything but make Carter and offer and he’ll have to sign it. The only way the Cowboys can lose a player like Carter is if they release him. They’ll probably sign him, if for no other reason than the Cowboys need as many options on the edge as possible. ... and inside The Star, they do see potential here.
CB Chris Westry: Not worth chasing given how little he played.
CB Saivion Smith: Smith has actually played a bit this year. I’d be intrigued to see him come back and get a full offseason to see what he can do. ... and now he's got a Futures contract to stay.