FRISCO, Texas — It will happen starting next week. There will be a flurry of free agent activity and the Dallas Cowboys will be mostly silent.
The calls for Jerry Jones to sell the team will be made over and over. Again. The belief that Jones doesn’t really want to win will be barked over and over. Again. When the Cowboys do make their first signing — say keeping long-snapper Jake McQuaide — it will be met with a mocking “Super Bowl bound” comment on social media.
The Cowboys have not made a financially significant outside signing in free agency since signing cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012. They attempted to make one a few years ago in receiver Sammy Watkins, but he joined the Kansas City Chiefs instead on a deal that averaged $16 million a year. They have been content to scrape around free agency’s edges, getting players at the Cowboys’ price.
While they want to avoid megacontracts in free agency, their stated goal every year is to retain their own with long, megacontracts before the player can hit free agency. Except that’s not exactly happened lately.
Not since training camp, 2019. The Cowboys signed running back Ezekiel Elliott to a six-year, $90 million deal that included $50 million guaranteed. They signed linebacker Jaylon Smith to a five-year extension worth $64 million that included $35 million guaranteed. Offensive tackle La’el Collins signed his third contract with the Cowboys in 2019, a five-year extension worth $50 million and $35 million guaranteed.
Smith was released in 2021. Collins was cut last offseason after a $10 million guarantee in 2022 was voided because of a suspension. Elliott might have played his final game with the Cowboys with no more guaranteed money in his deal in 2023.
The Cowboys signed receiver Michael Gallup to a five-year, $57 million deal last year at the start of free agency, but that came after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament late in the 2021 season.
This offseason marks the first time the Cowboys can sign WR CeeDee Lamb, CB Trevon Diggs and C Tyler Biadasz to contract extensions.
This was something that happened regularly a decade-plus or so ago. DeMarcus Ware, Terence Newman, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff, Tony Romo, Marion Barber, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick never sniffed free agency.
Guard Zack Martin signed a six-year extension in 2018, after his fourth season and four Pro Bowl selections. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s negotiations took more than two years to complete, requiring the Cowboys to place the franchise tag on him twice. Patience paid off for Prescott, who was close to signing a deal with around $90 million in guaranteed money that averaged around $32 million a year in 2019 before signing a four-year, $160 million deal that included $126 million in guarantees.
Will the Dallas Cowboys be willing and able to sign free agent Leighton Vander Esch to new contract this offseason? Sam Hodde/Getty Images
Starting next week, the Cowboys could be left with only two players from their 2018 draft class (Gallup, DE Dorance Armstrong) and one player from their 2019 draft class (RB Tony Pollard, who has been given the franchise tag) remaining on the roster. LB Leighton Vander Esch TE, Dalton Schultz, G Connor McGovern and S Donovan Wilson all could end up with deals that take them elsewhere.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones told ESPN last week at the NFL scouting combine that agents seem more reluctant to try to get long-term deals done nowadays compared to a not-so distant past.
“It seems like their preference is to try to get to free agency, rather than get it done,” Jones said. “Now, I don’t know that they’re right. But I don’t know who’s more right than the other — us trying to do it ahead of time (or them). Back in the day, we’d get them done and people wanted to do them. I’m not so sure it hasn’t worked out for the players better than it has us when you look at some of the extensions we did that they didn’t play out the contract.”
For Prescott’s camp, the issue was length of contract. He wanted four years; the Cowboys initially wanted six. The Cowboys have always been willing to pay players cash, but they have wanted long-term agreements (six or more years) that gave them the ability to manipulate the salary cap.
“There should be quid pro quo when you’re dealing with length,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “One of the most important parts of a contract is the length of it. And so if you’re going to go long, then let’s do a deal that makes sense going long. (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes) made a long deal (10 years, $450 million), but it had a logic to it for the Chiefs and they made that long-term deal. It created a big number, but it was still a long-term deal. I winced at the number, but I would in my shoes [as the owner] anyway … Would I go long? Absolutely, I’ll go long.”
A player doesn’t always want to go long because they want as many chances to hit the open market as possible.
Lamb turns 24 in April. By May, the Cowboys will place the fifth-year option on him, guaranteeing he is around in 2024 at the very least, at a cost of $17.99 million, since he has made two Pro Bowls in his first three years. To get Lamb to sign a long-term extension, the Cowboys would have to likely make him one of the top-paid receivers, $25 million a year or more.
Diggs is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. He turns 25 in September. He has 17 interceptions in his first three seasons and has been named to the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons. The highest paid cornerback checks in at $21 million a year.
In 2024, the Cowboys can approach edge/linebacker Micah Parsons for the first time about a contract extension. The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald has the highest average per year for a defensive player ($31.6 million). Parsons could top that.
With the collective bargaining agreement signed through 2030 and the television deals signed through 2033, Jerry Jones believes there could be more deal-making. He is ready.
“We have players that, yes, I’d go long,” he said.
The creativity of getting the stars done long term is on Stephen Jones.
“It doesn’t bother me not to do it. Would I do it? Of course we would,” he said. “I’d love to get some guys signed. It’s usually a trade-off for the player. He probably knows if he waits, he could get a little more, but sometimes it’s worth it because you solidify your long-term future financially and this game is a tough game. I think people get hurt, people get injured, your market gets hurt. Just stuff happens.”
Without the long-term second contracts, there is more importance on the draft for the Cowboys. Since 2014, the Cowboys have drafted 12 players that have made at least one Pro Bowl: Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Elliott, Prescott, Vander Esch, Lamb, Diggs, Parsons, Biadasz, Jaylon Smith and Pollard. No team has drafted more Pro Bowlers in that span.
“It doesn’t add pressure; it adds excitement,” Vice President of Player Personnel Will McClay told ESPN. “Because we know we’re such a part of the process in how we’re going to use players, you want to get it right. I think it’s more exciting than saying, ‘I don’t want to screw this up.’ It’s, ‘I want to find the next one.’”
Stephen Jones said the Cowboys want to get back into the business of re-signing their own. Their desire is to get something done with Lamb, Diggs, Biadasz, while potentially even extending Prescott’s contract beyond 2024.
“Right now,” Stephen Jones said, “we’re in one of those deals where we haven’t been getting them done, but we’ll be trying to get them done.”