FRISCO, Texas – This should feel pretty familiar by now.
For the fourth consecutive spring, it’s been a bit of a quiet start to free agency for the Dallas Cowboys. Well, that’s not completely true. But for all the speculation about Tony Romo, not much has actually happened with the veteran quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys kicked off free agency by watching three starters from 2016 – Ron Leary, Barry Church and Terrell McClain – sign elsewhere. Church and Leary signed with AFC clubs, while McClain inked a deal with NFC East rival Washington.
It’s always disheartening to see starters leave town, but it’s hardly unexpected. With less than $10 million in salary cap space, the Cowboys were never expected to be competitive for all their free agents. With plenty of new contracts to come in the next few days, it’s a good bet they aren’t done losing players.
For the time being, though, let’s examine what exactly the Cowboys have lost and how they’ll go about replacing that production:
Leary is arguably the best player the Cowboys will lose in free agency this year – a five-year veteran with three seasons of starting experience. He was always overshadowed by his All-Pro linemates, but Leary has been a quality starter for a while and his paycheck reflects that.
Fortunately, guard is also the position that the Cowboys are best-equipped to replace right now. La’el Collins spent the majority of 2016 on the injured reserve with a toe injury, but he was working his way back to practice during the playoffs and is expected to be ready for the offseason program.
In Collins, the Cowboys have a bluechip-type of talent with a year of starting experience that they can simply plug back into the lineup. It’s easy to make the argument that Leary is a better player than Collins right now, but Collins has the upside and athleticism of a top 10 draft pick – which is what he should have been, if not for extraordinary circumstances.
So the Cowboys’ starting offensive line looks just fine. But Leary’s departure does raise questions about depth. They still have Joe Looney, who was serviceable in heavy formations last year. They could also bring in other veterans – such as Jonathan Cooper, who signed on for cheap late last season.
Perhaps the best question about losing Leary is what it does to the tackle spot. Fans and media alike have long speculated that Collins could be the future at right tackle, but he certainly seems to be entrenched at guard for the time being.
With Doug Free’s contract expiring in 2018, the Cowboys have Chaz Green as a promising option behind him. But if Green can’t stay healthy, they may find themselves in a situation where they need to address the tackle spot sooner rather than later.
This one’s interesting, because there’s no question that the Cowboys have assets on hand – it’s a matter of how effective they are.
The Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to a four-year, $17 million contract last year, which is the type of money you’d expect to pay to a starter. They also gave Tyrone Crawford a $45 million extension, thinking he could fill the important under-tackle position for Rod Marinelli in the coming years.
Fast forward to the season, and it was Maliek Collins and Terrell McClain anchoring the middle of the line. Crawford shifted outside to left end, and Thornton was serviceable as a member of the rotation. David Irving also showed flashes of brilliance moving inside to defensive tackle.
Ideally, it’d be great to see Thornton claim the starting job vacated by McClain. It’s not far-fetched, and it’d make sense from a monetary standpoint. It’s also feasible to think Crawford could move back inside to tackle, provided the Cowboys bolster their depth at the defensive end spot.
Then, of course, there’s still promising young talents in Collins and Irving.
Basically, it’s a mixed bag. The Cowboys could stand to improve the talent on the defensive line across the board, but McClain’s departure doesn’t exactly put them in a bind.
Losing Church looks like the Cowboys’ scariest loss to date – at least when considering their depth chart.
Technically speaking, they have fill-ins ready to go. Byron Jones is still around to play free safety, and Jeff Heath has actually been the defense’s interceptions leader for two-straight years. The team also drafted Kavon Frazier in the sixth round last spring – and they felt good enough about him to keep him on the 53-man roster all year long.
Realistically, though, it’s troubling to think about this position if the Cowboys do nothing to address it. Heath has grown by leaps and bounds over the course of his career – so much so that the front office gave him a three-year extension last spring.
That said, Heath’s main responsibility has been special teams, where he has been both a leader and an ace performer. Most of his contributions at safety have come in nickel or dime sets, when the Cowboys have five or six defensive backs on the field. It’s not impossible to think he could make the jump to full-time starter, but it’s not a comforting thought, either.
Along the same line, it’s completely possible that Frazier could make a leap to become a viable option in his second season, but it’d be a mistake to count on that. In his rookie season, he played just 37 defensive snaps – 21 of which came in the regular season finale against Philadelphia.
The Cowboys will have options about what they want to do here. They could stand pat with the guys they have, they could add a veteran in free agency. There’s also always the NFL draft. However they choose to proceed, Church’s departure leaves them with some questions to answer.