Contract Year Looming for 20 Cowboys: How Many Will Cowboys Keep Beyond 2017?

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When the Cowboys picked up the fifth-year option on Zach Martin’s contract a month ago, they ensured they’d keep the three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro in Dallas through at least the 2018 season. Similarly, when the Cowboys signed Jason Witten to a contract extension a few weeks earlier, they ensured that two key players who were set to enter a contract year in 2017 would have a contract beyond that.

But even without Martin and Witten, the Cowboys still have 20 players on the roster whose contracts expire after the end of the 2017 season and who would qualify to be some kind of free agent. Those 20 players are a motley crew of soon-to-be free agents.

Two players are from the 2014 draft class (DeMarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens) and are entering the final year of their rookie contracts. Do the Cowboys want to work out an early deal with either of them, or will they let them hit free agency first to gauge their value?

Three players signed one-year deals with the Cowboys this year (Stephen Paea, Byron Bell, Jonathan Cooper), which makes them feel a little bit like rentals.

Nine players on veteran contracts are playing out the final year of their veteran contracts. Three of them (Kyle Wilber, Chris Jones, and L.P. Ladouceur) have never played an NFL snap for a team other than the Cowboys.

Four players are former Cowboys UDFAs (La’el Collins, David Irving, Keith Smith, Lucky Whitehead) who are all on their first contracts with the Cowboys and will all be restricted free agents

One player is an exclusive rights free agent. Rico Gathers is an ERFA, which comes with some very specific rules and stipulations as out lined a little further below.

Here’s a summary table of all 20 players who could carry some kind of free agent designation after the 2017 season.

Player Pos. Type Cap Hit 2017 2014 draft class DeMarcus Lawrence DE UFA $1,376,663 Anthony Hitchens ILB UFA $663,716 Veterans on expiring contracts Alfred Morris RB UFA $1,750,000 Kyle Wilber OLB UFA $1,625,000 Chris Jones P UFA $1,400,000 L.P. Ladouceur LS UFA $1,100,000 Brice Butler WR UFA $1,100,000 Darren McFadden RB UFA $980,000 Joe Looney G UFA $837,500 Kellen Moore QB UFA $775,000 Leon McFadden CB UFA $725,000 Emmett Cleary RT UFA $480,000 One-year “Rentals” Stephen Paea DE UFA $2,000,000 Byron Bell RT UFA $2,000,000 Jonathan Cooper G UFA $2,000,000 Former UDFAs Keith Smith FB RFA $645,000 David Irving DT RFA $615,000 La’el Collins RT RFA $533,167 Lucky Whitehead WR RFA $528,333 Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA) Rico Gathers TE ERFA $465,000

So how many players on this list will the Cowboys keep beyond 2017?

TE Rico Gathers: This is the easiest option on the entire list. Not because Gathers is necessarily the next coming of Jason Witten, but because Gathers’ status as an ERFA makes his future on the roster a slam dunk.

After spending 2016 on the practice squad, Rico Gathers signed a one-year reserve/future contract with the Cowboys in January, which makes him an ERFA after the season. An ERFA has no more than two accrued seasons in the NFL and may only sign with his prior team, provided that the team extends a minimum qualifying offer to the player. So if the Cowboys want Gathers, they can keep him for the veteran minimum for another year at least.

RT La’el Collins & DE David Irving:

Collins and Irving are restricted free agents. A restricted free agent (RFA) is a player whose contract has expired and who has three accrued seasons of service. As RFAs, Collins and Irvin will almost certainly receive a “qualifying offer” or a “tender” (with a salary predetermined by the CBA) from the Cowboys. Even if tendered, both players can still negotiate with any other team. But if they receive an offer sheet from a new team, the Cowboys can match the offer and retain the player (right-of-first-refusal). If the Cowboys decide not to match the offer, they can receive draft-choice compensation from the new team, depending on the tender they used on Collins and Irving (first-, second- or original-round tender):

2017 Tender Amount Compensation required $3.910 million First-round $2.746 million Second-round $1.797 million Equal to RFA’s original draft round, nothing for UDFAs

Sometimes, even if a tender is placed on a player, it won’t dissuade another team from trying to snatch him up anyway. Last year for example, the Cowboys signed DE Benson Mayowa to a three-year offer sheet worth $8.25 million, which the Raiders chose not to match. Because Mayowa was an undrafted free agent, no draft pick compensation was required.

The Cowboys probably won’t have to worry about La’el Collins and David Irving. Depending on each player’s performance in 2017, the team can slap both with first-round tenders, making it very expensive for another team to sign them.

The risk here is that the Cowboys may decide to go cheap and only offer an original-round tender to both players, and since both are undrafted free agents, another team could simply sign them to a bigger contract than the Cowboys are willing to match, and the Cowboys wouldn’t get any compensation for them. The Cowboys would be well advised to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What works in the Cowboys’ favor for Collins and Irving works against them on fellow RFAs Keith Smith and Lucky Whitehead. Tendering either of them would require a contract worth $1.8 million, and that’s simply too much for part-time players. If the players are still with the team next offseason, the Cowboys will let them hit free agency and then potentially bring them back for a contract close to the veteran minimum.

With Gathers, Collins, and Irving accounted for, are there any other roster locks for 2018?

LB Anthony Hitchens:

Hitchens doesn’t have much of a standing among Cowboys fans, but has quietly started 36 of a possible 48 games in three years, and will likely be a hot commodity as a free agent middle linebacker. Bruce Carter for example started just 32 games in four years and still translated that into four-year, $17 million contract in Tampa Bay. The Cowboys have high hopes for their young linebackers Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha, and if all live up to those hopes and stay healthy, the Cowboys may choose to let Hitchens walk in free agency.

DE DeMarcus Lawrence:

It’s become somewhat fashionable among a certain part of Cowboys Nation to talk about Lawrence as a potential roster cut this year. That’s simply not going to happen.

Lawrence would have been an interesting candidate for an early contract extension, but that’s not going to happen either. Given his health issues, the Cowboys will want to see a strong season from him before committing to a big payday. Sure, Lawrence can likely be had at a discount right now. And if he has another eight-sack season, he will command prime pass rusher money. But that’s a risk the Cowboys will simply have to take.

Both Hitchens and Lawrence might find themselves on the 2018 roster if all goes well for them, but they are not roster locks. And neither are any of the other names on the list.

Chris Jones is a known commodity, and he has a good chance to be brought back. L.P. Ladouceur is getting long in the tooth, and quality long snappers can be had for half the price, so his tenure in Dallas is coming to an end, and may even come to an end this year. The one-year rentals could be brought back, but that will depend on their 2017 performance, which is probably true for every other player on the list above.

Which of the 20 players above do you think the Cowboys will keep beyond 2017?

The first hurdle for some of the 20 players in the table above is the 53-man roster, and not all of them will make it. Still, the Cowboys will likely carry 15 or more of those players through the season. After the season, and if the players are not re-signed by the Cowboys, they could provide the Cowboys with one final return on their contracts: compensatory draft picks.

If the Cowboys don’t sign too many free agents in the 2018 offseason, and if their own free agents find gainful employment elsewhere in the NFL, the Cowboys could be looking at another solid haul of compensatory draft picks. The Cowboys didn’t get any comp picks in the 2017 draft, but they’ll get four in 2018, and if they play their cards right, they’ll pick up a few extra picks for the 2019 draft.

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