FRISCO, Texas – At this point you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Cowboys in the coming months.
The NFL draft has been the be-all, end-all for this organization for the past five years. It’s how they prefer to build their roster, and it will once again be a focal point for the organization in 2017. Even without a top-flight pick, like last year, the Cowboys’ front office has expressed its confidence in building through the draft.
Before they get there, though, there’s the ever-present issue of free agency – which opens in exactly one month. By now you should know that the Cowboys don’t plan to build the foundation of their team through free agency. It’s just not the way they want to operate.
But every single team in the NFL has to do some type of work to address their roster when the market opens. Whether the Cowboys bring back their own guys or sign some affordable outside help – or likely a combination of both – they’re going to make some moves in the coming weeks.
The problem is that the volatility of the free agent market is incredibly hard to predict. The salary cap is going to go up, and teams with big needs and big wallets are going to pony up and spend some money. Until the contracts start flying around, it’s hard to get a bead on exactly what the Cowboys are looking at with regard to their free agents.
The best I can do in mid-February is to look at past results as a future indicator. It’s not a perfect science, but I decided to look at some contracts that were awarded last spring and see how that might factor into the Cowboys’ current crop of free agents.
What I found might surprise you – at least a little bit.
1. WIDE RECEIVER
This might be the most fun aspect of the entire column.
Cowboys fans, by and large, don’t seem to like Terrance Williams. They’ll tell you he’s a body catcher, or that he disappears for long stretches of time. They’ll remind you that, for every miraculous toe-touch catch, there’s a forgettable moment – like when he didn’t get out of bounds against the Giants.
Whatever your opinion of Terrance might be, I’m here to tell you: the man is going to get paid this spring.
Here are four of the five biggest contracts that were given to wide receivers last year, along with their two-year stats for 2014 and 2015.
|Marvin Jones||116||1,528||14||5 years, $40M|
|Mohamed Sanu||89||1,184||5||5 years, $32.5M|
|Travis Benjamin||86||1,280||8||4 years, $24M|
|Jermaine Kearse||87||1,222||6||3 years, $13.5M|
Terrance Williams – 33 games, 29 starts – 100 catches, 1,502 yards, 7 TD
That’s pretty fun, isn’t it? Unless you’re a diehard NFL junkie or an avid fantasy football player, there’s a good chance you didn’t know who half of those guys were last spring. But NFL teams have proven time and time again that they’re willing to give a lot of money to a guy who can help their offense.
Terrance’s two-year numbers compare favorably – if not downright better – than every single guy on that list. I’m projecting him a bit, but it’s not hard to imagine him drawing $5 or $6 million per year. The Cowboys’ coaching staff loves him, and he’s a good locker room guy. He’s a committed blocker, and he has a penchant for making crunch time plays – even if he adds his share of drops to the equation.
Last year we saw the Lions sign Marvin Jones to offset Calvin Johnson. The Falcons added Mohamed Sanu to help take the pressure off Julio Jones. So I don’t know if Terrance Williams’ future lies as someone’s No. 1 or another stint as a No. 2 – but I’ll honestly be shocked if he returns to the Cowboys.
This is the most important part of the column, as far as I’m concerned, given that the Cowboys are faced with the prospect of losing two starter-caliber players at the same position.
Cornerback also happens to be one of the positions that prompts the most spending – because it’s really hard to play. So with that in mind, here are some of the largest cornerback contracts that got thrown out in 2016. Again, this accounts for 2014 and 2015 production, compared to the 2015 and 2016 production of both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
|Josh Norman||30||26||6||29||110||5 years, $75M|
|Janoris Jenkins||29||28||5||20||123||5 years, $62.5M|
|Jeremy Lane||13||3||2||10||34||4 years, $23M|
|Casey Hayward||32||12||3||14||111||3 years, $15.3M|
|Pacman Jones||30||17||6||24||131||3 years, $22M|
Brandon Carr – 33 games, 33 starts, 1 INT, 15 PD, 137 tackles
Morris Claiborne – 19 games, 19 starts, 1 INT, 10 PD, 67 tackles
You didn’t need me to tell you that neither Cowboy corner was going to earn a Josh Norman or Janoris Jenkins contract. But, specifically in the case of Carr, are you at least a little bit surprised at how well his body of work stacks up to some others?
Carr hasn’t been great at getting interceptions since his first season in Dallas, but he’s durable and reliable. Claiborne has shown flashes of first-round talent, but his lack of durability is what’s going to make him the more affordable player next month.
Looking at the stats above me, I’m not going to be the least bit surprised to see Brandon Carr earn a multi-year deal that will pay him at least $4 million – if not $5 or $6 million a year.
Speaking of people who are going to get paid – step on up, Ron Leary.
It’s a little harder to gauge the value of a guard, given that it’s a position without much in the way of statistics. But to offset that, all you need do is turn on the tape that’s shown Leary as a steady, capable starter for three of the last four years.
Leary joined the starting lineup in 2013 and has been solid in all of his opportunities since. He took to the bench in 2015, when the Cowboys promoted high-riser La’el Collins to the starting five. But when Collins injured his toe this September, Leary was ready.
Leary started 12 games and handled himself capably. He was flagged a mere four times on the year. Not everyone buys into Pro Football Focus’ play-by-play rating system, but it seems worth mentioning that PFF rated Leary the No. 21 guard in the league this season. He’s also the No. 5 guard hitting the market this year.
|Kelechi Osmele||35||35 (of 48)||5 years, $58M|
|Brandon Brooks||44||44 (of 48)||5 years, $40M|
|J.R. Sweezy||46||46 (of 48)||5 years, $32.5M|
|Josh Sitton||48||48 (of 48)||3 years, $21M|
Ron Leary – 32 games, 31 starts (out of 48. was behind Collins in 2015)
As with everything else, there are going to be some variables. Leary is turning 28 this year, and there’s also the ever-present knee condition he was flagged with in college. It hasn’t been a problem during his five-year NFL career, but it was troubling enough to push him off the draft board in 2012.
All of this reminds me of former Cowboys tackle Jermey Parnell, who started five games in place of an injured Doug Free back in 2014 – and parlayed it into a five-year, $32 million pay day the next spring. Parnell plays a more important position than Leary, but Leary has put together a far better resume.
Even with the knee concerns, I have to believe Leary can command $5 or $6 million per year – if not more. And that will be far more than the Cowboys can afford in order to keep him.
4. DEFENSIVE TACKLE
I’m not sure Terrell McClain draws the same fanfare as some of his teammates coming up on new contracts, but I think he should be one of the top two or three the club tries to bring back.
It feels like a lifetime ago that the Cowboys signed McClain in free agency out of Houston. And if we’re being honest, he spent a lot of his time here on the injury report, as he played in just 15 games during his first two seasons with the team.
Finally healthy in 2016, though, we got a real good look at the guy the Cowboys wanted back in 2014. McClain was arguably the Cowboys’ most consistent defensive lineman. He played both the one and three-technique, proving himself adept at stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Most importantly, he was healthy for the vast majority of the run to the playoffs, appearing in 15 regular season games and the playoff game.
Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from looking at the defensive tackle market in the NFL, it’s that there’s not much of a middle ground. You have your highly-paid playmakers, ala Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, and then you have a long list of other guys making good, not great money.
|Brandon Mebane||24||24||2.5||44||3 years, $13.5M|
|Steve McLendon||28||21||2||36||3 years, $10.5M|
|Al Woods||46||10||1||48||3 years, $10.5M|
Terrell McClain – 17 games, 15 starts, 2.5 sacks, 39 tackles
That list reads fairly favorably to me. All of those guys have similar statistics to McClain – albeit with longer resumes – and none of them is breaking the bank with his new team. If you’ll remember, the Cowboys hired Cedric Thornton for a manageable four years, $17 million last year.
If the Cowboys could bring McClain back for $3 or $4 million per year, I’d hope they’d give it a try.
5. THE GREAT UNKNOWN
This entry should be much higher up the list, because Barry Church is a team captain and should be a priority to bring back on another contract. He’s a valuable box safety, he’s a leader and he’s good for the fabric of the locker room.
The problem is that I honestly don’t even know what to do with him. Church fits an important role, but it’s hard to define him as a big-money safety in the same vein as Eric Berry.
Berry, the three-time All-Pro, is the type of guy you look for in a game-changing safety. In 2016, he posted twice as many interceptions (4) and twice as many pass breakups (9) as Church has in his past two seasons combined. He’s not a bad tackler either, given that he finished with 77 to Church’s 85.
It’s likely that Berry is going to set the market for safeties — assuming he’s serious about not playing under the franchise tag for Kansas City. His number is probably going to be pretty hefty. Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu leads the league right now, averaging $12.5 million per season. Guys like Minnesota’s Harrison Smith and Seattle’s Earl Thomas are also making $10 million per year.
That leaves me struggling to guess what Church might be worth. Again, I don’t mean this as disrespect toward him, but he doesn’t generate the same penchant for turnovers or game-breaking plays that the other guys do. He is a tackling machine and a team leader, but he isn’t a valuable asset in pass coverage – which is where NFL safeties make their money.
Personally, I’d love to pay Barry Church $7 million per year. That seems fair for who he is and what he provides. But I’m not going to be surprised if the factors of the open market drive that price up.
At any rate, it’s hard to gauge just how hard it will be to keep Church until March 9 arrives.
Obviously, the Cowboys have plenty of other free agents with varying price tags. But those are the guys that really stand out as important pieces to me.
The good news is that most of these guys don’t look like they’ll be overly expensive to re-sign. The bad news is that we know how the Cowboys like to handle free agency. How willing this team is to keep its free agents is going to depend a lot on what other teams are willing to pay them. Read