Free agency is just under a month away, and the Dallas Cowboys have some work to do if they want to make it back to the playoffs. Following a wasted 2020, Mike McCarthy is going to need his team to show some massive growth if he wants to stick around for 2022 and beyond. This means that the Cowboys should target several free agents, even if most of their available cap space will go to Dak Prescott.
Of course, not all free agents are created equal, so we’ll break this down into tiers. While it’s unlikely that the Cowboys go after a superstar free agent, it’s not completely out of the question. The other two tiers are far more realistic, as Dallas will definitely add a couple of solid starters and depth guys over the course of the next few months.
Free Agents the Dallas Cowboys Should Target In the Offseason
Remember when the Dallas Cowboys annually had the best offensive line in the league? Those days are long gone, as age and injury collectively caught up to the core of the Cowboys’ once-dominant line. This team has the weapons to be one of the most dangerous attacks in football, but it won’t matter if the offensive line can’t keep Prescott on his feet.
Trent Williams missed the 2019 season thanks to the incompetence of the Washington Football Team medical staff. The former first-round pick was one of the best tackles in the league with Washington and proved that he can still play at an elite level last year. Williams faced the unenviable task of replacing Joe Staley and might have actually been an improvement. The 32-year-old is going to receive top dollar on the open market, and he’s worth every penny. The only question is whether the Cowboys can afford him.
After a relatively slow start to his career, DeMarcus Lawrence has put together four straight seasons of good to great play along the defensive line. While he’s no Khalil Mack, Lawrence is an above-average starter that gets to the quarterback on a regular basis. The next order of business is finding an adequate pass-rushing duo. Dallas has found some serviceable short-term fixes in Robert Quinn and Aldon Smith, but Shaq Barrett has the potential to be a long-term fix. Lawrence and Barrett would combine to be one of the best duos in the league and should provide constant pressure on opposing passers.
At one point in time, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith looked like one of the best young linebacker duos in football. Those days have long since passed, as both players haven’t looked like anything more than league-average starters (at best) since the 2018 season. Lavonte David might just be the best all-around linebacker in the NFL not named Fred Warner, and his three-down skillset would be a welcome addition to a defense that needs help at all levels.
Dallas has needed help at the safety position for an eternity, and Marcus Maye would be a perfect fit for this scheme. The longtime New York Jet always looked good on tape and proved that he can thrive without Jamal Adams playing alongside him. After being the only bright spot on the 2021 New York Jets, Maye should welcome free agency and could easily sign a deal that makes sense for both sides.
The Cowboys need more help along the defensive line, and Adam Butler is one of the best under-the-radar free agents available. Over the past two seasons, the former undrafted free agent recorded 10 sacks, 14 tackles-for-loss, 16 quarterback hits, and seven passes defended. Bill Belichick loves to rotate his defensive linemen, so it’s entirely possible that he’s capable of more if given a larger role. He’s obviously not Aaron Donald, but he’s a good three-down lineman that will probably outplay whatever contract he receives.
If the Cowboys cannot sign Marcus Maye, then Keanu Neal could be a great fallback option. After missing the majority of the 2018 and 2019 seasons thanks to injury, the former first-round pick played in 15 games last year, making 14 starts. While he wasn’t quite able to recapture the magic of his first few seasons, he was still a league-average starter and would certainly be an upgrade on the current depth chart.
In a similar vein, Mike Pennel could be a good Plan B if Adam Butler lands somewhere else. While Butler offers more as a pass-rusher, Pennel is just as good against the run and definitely knows how to eat up space. Even though this is a passing league, a player like this still carries some value in today’s NFL – especially when you’re in the same division as Saquon Barkley.
Joe Looney was terrible last year, although he did spend a large portion of the year playing on a bad MCL. Still, there is enough of a sample to know that he is nobody’s idea of a good starter. Ted Karras won’t set the world on fire, but he has provided adequate play over the past two seasons for the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. He’s an upgrade on Looney and probably won’t cost more than the league minimum.
Cheap is a relative term here, as Kawann Short will probably make a decent amount of money in 2021. However, the talented interior defensive lineman missed the majority of the past two seasons while battling shoulder injuries. The Dallas Cowboys could easily structure his deal to include some Not Likely to Be Earned (NLTBE) incentives, which wouldn’t affect the 2021 cap number. An incentive is defined as not likely to be earned if the player didn’t reach said threshold one season ago. For example, Short played in three games last year, so the Cowboys could offer some guaranteed money if he played in four games this year. This allows Short to get paid while Dallas pushes a small portion of their financial woes onto the 2022 cap.
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