With a record number of free agents this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys face some tough choices. Re-signing Anthony Brown is an easy one.
I can almost see the comments already. “What are you talking about?” “Sign Byron!” “You’re crazy!” I know… I know. I have to admit, these phantom voices have a point.
In a vacuum, if you could choose one of Dallas Cowboys‘ two free-agent cornerbacks, Byron Jones or Anthony Brown, to keep, obviously Jones is the better of the two. He’s a shut-down corner and a Pro Bowler.
But real life is not a fun game of cute binary choices. In the NFL’s hard-hitting reality, personnel decisions, especially for veteran players, are always influenced by the piggy bank. If they weren’t, being a general manager would be a piece of cake. The Cowboys could just sign every Pro Bowl free agent who came on the market. But alas, the salary cap is a real thing.
And in this real world I keep banging the drum about, Byron Jones is going to get big money on the free-agent market this year. And by big money, I mean top-of-the-cornerback-market money, over $15 million a year.
Now, Byron fans, ask yourself this: Does it really make sense to pay top-of-the-market money to a defensive back who can’t intercept the ball? Yes, I know he’s super athletic. He’s an excellent cover guy, and quarterbacks often avoid his side of the field.
All of that is true. But he also almost never picks off the ball. According to the NFL, Jones has only intercepted the ball twice in his five seasons in the league. In contrast, oft-criticized safety Jeff Heath has quadrupled that total in his seven years. If Jones were a turnover machine, I’d say back up the Brinks truck. But he isn’t.
America’s Team has a record number of high-priced free agents this year (as I discussed in a column a few weeks ago): Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper, 11.5 sack defensive end Robert Quinn, four-year starting defensive tackle Maliek Collins… and many more.
Dallas just cannot afford to sign all these guys. They just can’t do it. They have to let some of them go, and Byron Jones sure looks to be one of the casualties (though I’m not sure I should compare getting paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game to leaving the battlefield on a stretcher).
For those paying attention, Cowboys officials have recently made comments hinting that Jones may not be back next year. Mike Nolan, the team’s new defensive coordinator, made comments last week about the importance of turnovers, echoing Hall of Fame nineties Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman’s comments pooh-poohing the value of defensive backs who can’t intercept.
Then, Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay made this comment about Byron Jones (as reported by MSN.com):
"“[Jones is] a starting-caliber NFL corner. He’s a really good player. And we have to figure out his financial value and if it fits for us.”"
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. If I were Byron Jones, I’d be packing my bags. In light of all this, signing slot corner Anthony Brown should be a no-brainer. There are a few reasons for this. And it’s not just because he’d likely take a reasonably priced contract.
Yes, that’s important. The Cowboys could probably sign Brown for five-to-six million dollars a year, around a third of Jones’s projected contract. Equally importantly, however, letting both Jones and Brown walk in the same year would put the Cowboys in a very tough spot.
They’d need two new quality cornerbacks. That’s basically an emergency. Meanwhile, Dallas is already facing a crisis on the defensive line, where over half the guys could be gone. Remember, three of Dallas’s four safeties are also free agents this year.
Bear in mind that Dallas’s two other corners — Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis — will likewise be free agents next year, as will safety Xavier Woods. Do you really want Dallas to turn over its entire defensive backfield in the next 15 months?
The whole situation reminds me of a few years ago, when the Cowboys did almost exactly that. After the 2016 season, Dallas let go of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre for defensive backs!
But they didn’t let go of everyone. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was on a reasonably-priced long-term contract at the time, and stayed with the team for one more season.
Think of Anthony Brown as this year’s Orlando Scandrick, but maybe a little better. Anthony Brown is a solid player, and he can be signed for a reasonable amount, which would make the front office’s life a lot easier. Which is why I think this is such an easy decision.
My bet is Anthony Brown will be signed in short order. In fact, his contract might just be one of the Dallas Cowboys’ first of the offseason. If only all of the Cowboys’ decisions were this easy, fans would have no worries at all.