Rewind two months ago, and you’ll remember a time where it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Jason Garrett would be gone on black Monday or as early as midseason. You take a look now and Dallas resurrected their season winning 7 of their last 8 finishing 10-6 and winning their division. They beat a hot Seattle team in the playoffs and lost closely in the divisional round to the LA Rams.
What exactly sparked that change and has transpired for the Cowboys to do so, is very interesting. Following their 20-17 loss to the Redskins the Cowboys traded their first round pick in this years draft for WR Amari Cooper. However, personnel changes were not the only thing done.
Offensively a shift back to their roots was much needed and it occurred as they leaned on their run-first attack. By putting the entire offense and skill players in a better position offensively it made the offense much more productive in all aspects especially time of possession, drive progressions, over the course of games, and obviously scoring. In terms of formation they began to run more single back sets and shotgun with a power run feel but the schemes continued to remain unique. Having a much more unique playbook and scheme offensively than before has also aided a banged up offensive line that’s otherwise stellar.
The shotgun formation has been seen in the passing game as well. For most teams in this era of football you call their passing game a passing attack, however in Dallas that is not the case. Dallas tries their best to supplement their best aspect of their offense Ezekiel Elliott and their running game with their passing game. Yes, their season turned around when they acquired Amari Cooper; but Scott Linehan surprisingly tried his best to adjust the offense with their new weapon, which was correctly a step in the right direction.
Most can say that the Cowboys missed their chance to max out the best possible team and create a dynasty considering Prescott’s cap number was under 1 million. However, they could have never predicted how good he was going to turn out (despite picking him) and how rapid they were going to need too team build. With all said the big question this offseason is how to continue their successes and grow and continue with their young core. That remains a very complicated and big task.
The Cowboys have a high amount of cap space heading into the offseason with 52 million but most of that will likely dry up fast. Demarcus Lawrence who played on the franchise tag in 2018 will be a free agent this offseason. Which likely brings a hefty contract as we saw not even a full year ago Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack get massive contracts. Pass rushers are held at a premium and rightly so, expect Lawrence to get a very large contract, whether that may be in Dallas or elsewhere. Tasks that don’t really have an option to not be taken care of are the extensions of Byron Jones, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott.
All of these core players will and should get paid, the Cowboys need to soundly execute especially when, how, and for how much. Solving other areas and needs might need to come first as none of those four guys are set to be free agents this year yet all remain a high priority. The Cowboys remain without a first round pick this year which goes to Oakland because of the Cooper trade, however it is justified in some sense especially with the pick falling into the late first round.
Going into this offseason the Cowboys priority list should closely resemble this:
THE CORRECT EXTENSIONS FOR DAK PRESCOTT, AND EZEKIEL ELLIOTT
Ezekiel Elliott is what the Cowboys offense is built around. Replacing him with a league average back and expecting similar results just will not happen. We could discuss all day what sets him apart, shortly put he is one of if not the best runner, pass catcher out of the backfield (outside of Alvin Kamara), and best pass blocking back. He is essential to the Cowboys formula for success. Next year he will make 8 million on his rookie contract, which is the last year on that deal. His salary hit in terms of the Running Back market is 4th behind David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and Lesean Mccoy all whose cap hits are from low to high 9 million. Ezekiel Elliott and his agent will likely pursue a contract that makes him the highest paid running back in the league and rightly so. However the Cowboys should not give Ezekiel Elliott above 10 million per year. A deal that gives him a very large signing bonus, large injury guarantees, and an average annual salary of 9.75 million is the most beneficial to all sides.
More specifically for Dallas, working the cap during these next two years especially is crucial. If Dallas for example were to give Elliott a deal that had increasing cap hits from year to year until the finish of the deal then they’d need to structure the other deals in a way to offset it too present a balance as well as advantage in cap space for other offseasons. Prescott will be 27 the offseason he would hit free agency as mentioned earlier. If these two extensions are structured wrong then the Cowboys will find themselves in cap hell for the foreseeable future.
Prescott will likely be pursuing a deal at 23 million per year which is at a market point resembling guys like Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, and Eli Manning. Dallas however, would be smart to give Prescott just like Elliott an extra large signing bonus and injury guarantees striving to persuade Prescott to take a few million cheaper annually for the sake of the team. Although a low chance of such a thing happening Dallas needs to try. Either way the Cowboys have to nail these two extensions as it’s just not about letting them get to free agency rather it’s about correctly constructing their team for the next decade as that is what is occurring.
CONTINUING DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE
The Dallas Cowboys can take one definite thing from this season and that is their identity which is defensive dominance, time of possession, and an excellent running game. To continue their strength in identity the Cowboys need to advance their defensive dominance even further. Doing so entails nailing some draft picks, low cap signings, and perfecting their own books.
A move that may not be pleasing to many Cowboy fans but should be seriously examined by the Cowboys and in my opinion should be done is the cut of Sean Lee. Cutting him should only be a result if a contract restructuring is unable to get done. Taking into account the amount of games he has missed as well as the emergence of their young linebacker core makes Sean Lee taking up 5% of the salary cap at 11 million unacceptable. If that stands going into next year it’ll be a failure on the part of the Cowboys as good as he currently can be and has been. A possible restructuring of Tyrone Crawford should be explored as well as he’s making 5% of the cap for being the 45th best defensive lineman with an above average ranking of 72.8 *Per PFF. If no restructuring is possible they should not cut Crawford as if the same scenario plays out with Lee.
Resigning David Irving should be done as well, he’s been inconsistently on the field so much so he doesn’t qualify for a PFF ranking. However when Irving plays he shows flashes of big production. At a low cost Irving should be resigned. One of the big questions here is whether or not resigning Lawrence becomes worth it, when a contract is being negotiated. A contract with an annual salary of 17 Million plus should be avoided. Dallas has a core on defense in Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, and developing Taco Charlton and they should be counted on for some sort of improvement. So in a situation where there may be to many puzzle pieces to fit in, Lawrence may become the odd man out. Certainly so if the Cowboys do indeed want to supplement their defense with free agency.
Safety Earl Thomas has let it be known he’d like to become a Dallas Cowboy and the pairing would be fantastic. Adding Earl Thomas would instantly add another element to their defense that they don’t have currently. The Cowboys spend the least amount of money in the league on their secondary which is another reason Kris Richard should be commended for his coaching this season. Interior help as well like Brandon Mebane, Rodney Gunter; and linebackers Preston Smith and Eli Harold should be considered as well to add more needed depth and additions to the Cowboys stifling run defense.
KEEPING THE STUDS INTACT
Letting Amari Cooper and Byron Jones walk would directly and indirectly essentially destroy the Cowboys books, roster, and upside. Dallas needs to prepare to spend 12-18 million on both men, obviously hoping to spend the least amount. At two of the more important positions in football these two studs have to be extended and resigned, and one of the two needs to be resigned this season. Dallas should address these positions in free agency as well, resigning one of Prescott’s favorite targets and trusty target Cole Beasley. The WR position group needs this especially in low cost high upside signings for depth and too support the position group in wake of Allen Hurns injury. Options like quick slot receiver Eli Rogers, and tough Adam Humphries would work well and will fit in the budget. Adding to the secondary should be done with the draft and potential options in free agency like Steven Nelson and Jason Verrett, only at low costs though.
Outside of what’s been mentioned thus far, there are some philosophical and staff adjustments that should be done. Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball where we saw an inconsistent Dak Prescott and inconsistent play calling as well. The time has come for Scott Linehan to be gone and he has been with the Friday firing. Jason Garrett had this to say, “This was not an easy decision because of how highly we regard Scott Linehan as a football coach and as a person,” he said. “He and I had some really positive, substantive and open discussions which took place in the latter part of this week, and we ultimately agreed that it would be in the best interest of all of the parties involved if we were to make a change at this position. The Cowboys have the makings and the personnel to craft a dynamic offensive attack yet they need to make the correct hire of a creative offensive mind.
The Cowboys also do an oftly poor job of supporting Prescott’s weaknesses which have been inaccuracy and holding onto the ball for too long. Their offense should be constructed of dominant running, passing plays that supplement accuracy by short yardage routes, under center play action plays as a strength, and well designed plays for the long ball to take advantage of a strong running attack. This will only be done with a new offensive coordinator and offensive staff.
Onto the defensive side which has been the rejuvenation for Dallas’ identity. Kris Richard did a fantastic job this season in his role of calling the plays and the passing game coordinator although he was essentially the Defensive Coordinator. He got the title promotion on Monday where he is now the Defensive Coordinator and Rod Marinelli moves into Senior Defensive Assistant. This is a strong and correct move by Dallas. Personally, I would have made Richard head coach and hired a strong offensive staff to support Prescott and the offense. With the success seen this season and hopeful continuance of such, the move should be made next offseason.
With all being said, this offseason is crucial for the direction of this team. The books and roster need to be handled exceptionally well and the Cowboys will have their chance to build a dynasty with the many core pieces they have as mentioned without even acknowledging the offensive line much. The Jones and the Cowboys must capitalize correctly.