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What would an all-in Cowboys offseason look like? We go through the moves

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The Dallas Cowboys are headed for a crossroads. It’s time for bold decisions.

That’s the prevailing conversation around the team these days, anyway. Call it a byproduct of massive playoff disappointment — not to mention fan frustration at the news that the Cowboys are running it back for the fifth and final year of head coach Mike McCarthy’s contract.

It’s a logical place to be. Retaining McCarthy sends a message that three straight years of playoff disappointments are acceptable to the decision-makers. But declining to extend the coach’s deal implies that things will have to improve in 2024.

You’re forgiven if you remain unconvinced by that case. The Cowboys have stood firm by their team-building philosophy for a decade.

But if ever there was a year to go big, this may be it. McCarthy needs results, and this window of opportunity is closing — if it hasn’t closed already. Patience is a virtue, but not when you’re heading into Year 29 without a Super Bowl, much less an NFC Championship Game appearance.

None of this is to say they will go all-in, but for the sake of conversation, let’s do some research. What might happen if the Cowboys push their chips in for 2024?

Challenges

Let’s start with the salary cap. The Cowboys are currently projected to be about $20 million above the salary cap for the coming year, but they can easily improve their immediate books.

The Cowboys can shave roughly $25 million off their cap by flipping a few levers on their contracts with Zack Martin, Trevon Diggs, DeMarcus Lawrence, Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker. They can designate Michael Gallup a post-June 1 cut, saving $9.5 million in 2024 in the process. If they’ve got the stomach to trust such an unproven player, they can also save $2 million by cutting Cooper Rush and rolling with Trey Lance as their backup quarterback.

That would put them roughly $20 million above the cap in time for the new league year, depending on the final cap figures.

Yes, it’s worth noting that Dallas could save some cap space by reaching an extension with CeeDee Lamb. However, due to the size of that deal and the fact that fellow superstar Justin Jefferson is also angling for top dollar, I’m not sure Lamb’s deal is going to get done by mid-March. The same could be said about Micah Parsons‘ upcoming mega-extension. So let’s put a pin in those for now.

But that does bring us to the biggest item on the to-do list.

Mike McCarthy on Cowboys: ‘We’ve established a championship program’

The Dak deal dilemma

As we have thoroughly discussed, Dak Prescott will cost the Cowboys $59 million against the cap if they don’t take action.

What action? All part of the fun of being at this organizational crossroads. But a $59 million cap hit simply isn’t going to work for a team that’s trying to improve on 12-5 and a division title. 

We’re about to find out if Cowboys executives are serious about their statements that they want Prescott to be their quarterback for a long time. With a 2-5 playoff record, bumping him back to the top of the quarterback pay scale probably wouldn’t go over well with many. But that’s the likely cost.

With a no-trade clause protecting him from being shipped off and a no-tag clause guaranteeing that he can hit the open market in 2025 if he wants to, Prescott’s next deal likely starts at a league-best $56 million per year salary, along with all the fun guarantees and bonuses that go along with that.

It’ll be a long-term commitment and a hefty price tag, but depending on the exact details of the deal, it would also save the Cowboys tens of millions of dollars against the 2024 cap.

That said, if the 48-32 loss to Green Bay has changed minds within the building, they could still get relief on Prescott’s deal. If he’s willing to add more void years to his existing contract, the Cowboys could restructure it and save roughly $22 million this year. The problem here is those pesky no-trade and no-tag clauses. They guarantee that if he’s restructured, rather than extended, he’s free to leave in 2025 while costing the Cowboys $50 million in dead money.

Fun times, right?

That’s a problem for the future, though. Right now, all we need to know is that the Cowboys are bound to reduce Prescott’s cap hit by a healthy sum of money.

Where does that leave them? Sitting on $40 million of cap space, give or take, with some obvious needs if they’re going to improve on last year’s team.

Cowboys’ first-round exit raises questions about Dak Prescott

If we are to believe this year will be different, it’s going to require spending more of that money than we’ve seen in previous years. 

In this hypothetical world where I’m calling the shots, let’s make a list of how the Cowboys should spend it. I’m going to ballpark the financial aspect of this with PFF’s handy free-agent rankings.

Retention:

Tyron Smith
Stephon Gilmore
Dante Fowler Jr.
Rico Dowdle
Johnathan Hankins

I am being oh-so-serious when I say re-signing Tyron Smith should be one of the Cowboys’ top priorities. Yes, he is going to come with injury baggage. That’s unavoidable. But the guy just showed us he still has All-Pro football left in the tank at age 33, and the Dallas offensive line is better off with him there. 

It would be wise to draft an offensive tackle for the future early this spring, but that shouldn’t make Smith any less of a priority. If the Cowboys can get him to sign back on for a year or two at $10 million or even $12 million per year, it’s a steal. 

My only concern is that, in his first-ever crack at free agency, Smith might want to sign on with a squad that gives him a better chance to win a Super Bowl. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if he wants to finish his NFL career where he started it — for the right price, of course. 

You can copy and paste the same paragraph for Stephon Gilmore, who played at a high level when healthy. Bringing him back to a group that gets Trevon Diggs back from injury sounds plenty appealing.

The rest of the re-signings are bargains. With 16 sacks in his last two seasons, I think Dorance Armstrong has priced himself out of Dallas’ comfort zone — and kudos to him for doing so. Fowler has carved out a nice role at a much more affordable price, and it may be up to him and Sam Williams to fill Armstrong’s shoes behind Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence.

I think Tony Pollard has also played his last game with Dallas, if he’s going to command the PFF estimate of $8 million per year. If he can be brought back at a much lower price, consider me intrigued. In the meantime, I enjoyed the burst and physicality that Rico Dowdle displayed in 2023, and he’s a restricted free agent. If the Cowboys can retain him by offering a $2.8 million tender, they should.

Hankins has played a vital role at defensive tackle since the Cowboys traded for him in 2022. At this point in his career, he can be retained relatively cheaply to provide depth and insurance at a problem spot.

All of that in-house work can be accomplished with plenty of money left over to spend in free agency, so let’s toy with that. 

Additions:

Lloyd Cushenberry III
Grover Stewart
Lavonte David
Gabe Davis

I said we were going “all-in,” but I still think you should strive for realism. I don’t think there’s a universe where the Dallas Cowboys are in the market for Chris Jones at $30 million per year, as much fun as it would be to add him. 

Despite that, there are plenty of big-ticket additions available for a team willing to spend the money. Chief among them is Lloyd Cushenberry, who had a career year in Denver. Cushenberry is credited with just one sack and four QB hits allowed in 2023, and pass protection is his specialty. My guess is there will be competition for his services, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dallas’ offensive line has taken a step back since Travis Frederick’s retirement. Having a top-of-the-line center to keep Prescott’s pocket clean could be invaluable.

Across the way, Grover Stewart provides what the Cowboys are hoping to see from Mazi Smith — except he can do it right now. He’s been a run-stuffing and block-eating specialist for years now, and he’d make life much easier on Parsons and Lawrence, not to mention the next signing.

The Cowboys desperately need linebackers, and Lavonte David feels like the perfect cross between talent and cost. There’s no doubt he’s lost a step since his prime, when he was one of the best linebackers in football. But he just turned in a phenomenal season at the age of 34, and his age should limit his market compared to a younger star like Patrick Queen. 

The big issue with David is that he’s a franchise legend in Tampa, where he’s unquestionably one of the greatest Buccaneers ever. It’s up to him if he wants to leave that behind for a new situation. But that’s nothing a chance to win a second Super Bowl ring, not to mention some extra cash, can’t fix. 

Lastly, I settled on the Bills’ ‘X’ receiver, Gabe Davis. Maybe that sounds underwhelming because of Davis’ inconsistency, but I think he fits this team perfectly. The unquestioned epicenter of the Dallas offense is CeeDee Lamb, who does a lot of his work from the slot. Brandin Cooks fills the role of the traditionally smaller, speedier Z receiver.

That leaves Davis, who possesses deep-ball ability and physicality. He, at times, has been a threat to blow up for 130 yards on any given day. But just as important, he can clear space for Lamb to take the lion’s share of the targets. And if, as in Buffalo, he only averaged three receptions per game, that’s perfectly fine with the offense’s obvious top target playing in the slot.

Odds and ends

I debated adding Derrick Henry to this roster shuffle, but ultimately I think there will be other competition for his signature and I think the Cowboys have larger needs.

They will need other backs, though. My best recommendation: sign a modestly priced veteran to pair with Dowdle. Antonio Gibson, Zack Moss or A.J. Dillon all fit the bill as players who could play significant snaps at a lower price than Henry or Pollard. From there, draft a rookie to compete for a role.

Depending on who’s calling their defense in 2024, it might also be smart to seek out safety help in the draft — especially if third-year starter Jayron Kearse leaves in free agency.

The Cowboys are slated to have seven picks in this year’s draft — four of their own, one they got in the trade for Hankins and two compensatory picks they’ll receive for losing Connor McGovern and Dalton Schultz to free agency last year. Offensive tackle feels like a major priority. Same with running back and linebacker. It’s never a bad idea to look at receivers, especially in this loaded draft class. And, depending on how the next few months play out, the front office may want to take a closer look than usual at quarterback.

But maybe it’s best to save that talk for 2025. Here in 2024, they can still improve on their current roster and make another push at their playoff goals. It’s just going to take some resolve and the type of aggressive approach we haven’t seen in Dallas in quite some time.

As outlined here, it’s plenty doable — if the Cowboys are willing to opt for a more assertive approach.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.



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