The 2021 NFL season has finally commenced with Super Bowl LVI in the books. As such, the attention can officially turn to 2022. Of course, the Dallas Cowboys, unfortunately, had a head start on that process.
While the NFL Scouting Combine comes first chronologically, the biggest priority for the Cowboys in the immediate future is free agency. Dallas has until March 8 to use their franchise tag on any one of their 24 in-house free agents. Starting March 14, they are officially allowed to contact and enter into contract negotiations with any other free agents.
Since Dallas is notorious for being more, shall we say, thrifty, when it comes to shopping for outside assistance, today we will focus on those in-house options. To start, we’ll define the types of free agents the Cowboys have to decide upon.
Discussing the three types of free agents the Dallas Cowboys have
First and foremost are the unrestricted free agents. This group is free to go wherever they like and comprises the lion’s share of the 2022 pool. All but three of those 24 free agents the Cowboys have to make a decision on fall into this category.
The next group is the restricted free agents. The Cowboys have just one of these players. Restricted free agents can negotiate with any team but Dallas has the right to place a tender on someone from this group. If they lose the player, they can receive draft pick compensation or keep the player by paying them according to the level of tender they choose.
Lastly, there is the exclusive rights free agent group. The Cowboys have two of these players. This group is really just “free” in name only. If Dallas decides they want to keep anyone from this group, all they need to do is offer a one-year contract at the league minimum to block any other team from negotiating with that player.
Now, obviously not all 24 free agents will be back. Dallas also has to find a way to sign these guys which will take some playing with the salary cap. The purpose of this article is not to discuss how to get signings done or how much money to offer a specific player. This is simply to decide who the Cowboys should prioritize, although we will mention money periodically.
With that, let’s start with those (not so) free agents.
Which of the Cowboys’ ERFAs should they prioritize?
Linebacker Francis Bernard is a no-brainer. Dallas has a few conundrums of which to deal with at the position and Bernard will only cost $895,000. The other ERFA is offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt. He has never played an actual game for this team and is coming off successive seasons with knee issues even though he has been around the program for three years. Dallas does have a need to improve the offensive line and it would only cost $825,000 to bring him into the mix, but I think they can choose not to do so and be fine.
What should the Cowboys do with restricted free agent Luke Gifford?
Next is the only restricted free agent, linebacker Luke Gifford. Since Gifford was an undrafted free agent, it is likely that if Dallas puts a tender on him, it will be the right of first refusal tender which would net him a one-year deal worth $2.13M. I would be willing to bet that does not happen and that the Cowboys roll the dice on either bringing him back at the veteran minimum of $1.04M or drafting his replacement.
Which unrestricted free agents should the Dallas Cowboys prioritize?
Now, for the unrestricted free agents. Each season, all NFL teams lose approximately a third of their roster from the previous year. I say that as a buffer to warn you that a lot of guys that were here in 2021 will not be in 2022. In other words, don’t be shocked to see a lot of names you might be comfortable with on the list of which to pass on.
In my opinion, here are the easy names from which I think Dallas can say thanks, but no thanks:
RB Corey Clement
OL Connor Williams
OT Ty Nsekhe
WR Noah Brown
DE Brent Urban
LB Keanu Neal
CB Maurice Canady
FS Damontae Kazee
All of the above either underperformed in 2021 or would be best described as progress stoppers for other younger players at their positions.
The next group is comprised of guys that the Cowboys should only consider bringing back on veteran minimum salaries or extremely economically-friendly deals that benefit the team:
WR Malik Turner
DE Carlos Watkins
LB Leighton Vander Esch
FS Darian Thompson
LS Jake McQuaide
Vander Esch almost made the group above but due to the Cowboys’ lack of available players at this position, I decided to put him here. All of these guys could come back but also should be replaceable if they find bigger or better deals elsewhere.
This next group is almost certain to be gone in 2022, just because other teams are likely to offer deals that Dallas cannot afford to match. Next year will suck watching these guys thrive elsewhere:
That leaves six guys left from the in-house free agent pool that I believe Dallas must prioritize. Let’s have a little fun and list them in reverse order of importance:
6. Malik Hooker – S
5. Dorance Armstrong – DE
4. Bryan Anger – P
3. Cedrick Wilson – WR
2. Jayron Kearse – S
1. Randy Gregory – DE
Bringing back Hooker becomes a much higher priority if a deal with Kearse cannot be made. One of these two has to return (preferably both) with Kearse in line to get a decently lucrative deal. For Anger, the league minimum will be $1.12M for his position in 2022. Last year, he made the minimum of $1.08M and made the Pro Bowl. Hopefully, he accepts a slight raise. Wilson is ready to be somebody’s third receiver. The quarterback here has a very good rapport with him. Hopefully, that increase in responsibility comes with Dallas as well.
Lastly, regarding the defensive ends, bringing back both becomes a huge priority if the Cowboys decide to move on from DeMarcus Lawrence and take a hit of $19M towards their salary cap. If Dallas has to choose, the choice is simple. Gregory had his best season as a pro last season and the Cowboys certainly have a need at this position. Gregory will get some huge offers from other teams but Dallas will be in the mix. The franchise tag is likely not an option as it will be north of $18M. In a perfect world, Gregory would reward the Cowboys for sticking with him during his struggles off the field and come back but the world is far from perfect.
That concludes one man’s opinion on how to prioritize the Cowboys 2022 in-house free agents. Remember, that Dallas is currently sitting at third-worst in terms of salary cap space. So, for some of these to even be possible, they will need to do some serious money moving. Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.