Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Dallas Cowboys were bounced from the playoffs in one-and-done fashion. Their latest exit came at the hands of the Packers, who beat the Cowboys in Dallas, 34-31, on Sunday. The loss was deflating after a remarkable and surprising season led by two standout rookies who also happen to be MVP candidates.
After going 13-3 in the regular season and locking up the No. 1 seed, this looked like it would be the Cowboys’ year. There was a different kind of energy and added motivation after failing so many times in the past. Obviously, it didn’t come to fruition, and the Cowboys are now left looking ahead to 2017.
Fortunately, they’re in good shape going forward. The core of players is intact – from Dak Prescott to Ezekiel Elliott to the offensive line to Dez Bryant – and the Cowboys have all the pieces to win it all next season. There are just a handful of moves they have to make to allow that to happen.
Trade Tony Romo
This probably falls more under “should do” than “have to do” when it comes to offseason moves, but doing so would be beneficial for the Cowboys. Keeping Romo on the roster in 2017 will cost Dallas more than $24 million in cap space. Cutting him or trading him would incur more than $19 million in dead money, but it would save the Cowboys $5 million against the cap. That may not seem like a large amount of money, but Casey Hayward and his NFL-leading seven interceptions say otherwise. He signed a three-year, $15.3 million ($5.1 million per year) free-agent deal with the Cargers in the offseason.
In addition to saving money, the Cowboys would also avoid any potential quarterback controversy in 2017, as unwarranted as it would be. Dak Prescott is undoubtedly the quarterback of the future in Dallas, but you know very well that plenty will still call for Romo to play if Prescott has a bad stretch of games.
Avoid that potential distraction and allow Romo to have a fresh start. There’s no need to drag that out any longer, and a trade can put it to bed.
Let Ronald Leary walk in free agency
Arguably the biggest free agent-to-be on Dallas’ roster is guard Ronald Leary. If I told you that before the season began, you’d call me crazy. However, when La’el Collins went down with an injury early in the year, Leary stepped in and played extremely well – better than Collins, actually. That was great for the Cowboys but not necessarily for their future. As a result, some team is going to throw a whole bunch of money at Leary in free agency, preventing the Cowboys from re-signing him.
Dallas should let Leary walk and get what he not only wants but what he absolutely deserves: a starting job and a hefty payday. Leary expressed that he would like to have the chance to play elsewhere before the season. He reportedly requested a trade from the Cowboys, which they smartly chose not to grant him. Now is their chance to make it right and let him get his money and starting job.
Collins is more than capable of being the starting left guard, and with the contract Leary is expected to get, the Cowboys are likely to receive a compensatory pick in 2018 – probably a third- or fourth-rounder. There’s no sense in chasing him when they have Collins under contract for a very team-friendly amount.
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Revamp the secondary
The Cowboys had the No. 1 secondary in the NFL this season, per Pro Football Focus. Whether that honor was deserved is up for debate, considering how they were shredded by good quarterbacks, but that’s not the issue. The problem is that four key contributors are set to be free agents: Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. All played meaningful snaps this season, and you could make the case that all of them had the best seasons of their respective careers.
However, it’s time for the Cowboys to revamp their secondary. That's not to suggest they should let all four guys walk in free agency, but entering 2017 with the same unit would be unwise. Claiborne is unreliable due to a rash of injuries, and Carr isn’t a ball hawk (one interception in the past three years). Church has limitations in coverage, and Wilcox is mostly a tone-setter with limited range.
The Cowboys have to draft a cornerback and a safety to pair with Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick. Don’t draft one or the other – draft a player at both spots and improve the secondary.
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Draft/sign a No. 2 receiver
The Cowboys have a good core of receivers with Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. They rarely dropped passes, and they provided Dak Prescott with reliable targets. However, Williams and Brice Butler are both set to be free agents, and there's no guarantee the Cowboys are going to re-sign either. Williams, after a great season, will look to cash in, and Butler isn’t exactly a No. 2 receiver.
In lieu of these formalities, the Cowboys have to draft a receiver. There will be several outstanding ones at the top of the draft – Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Davis – but they’re unlikely to fall to Dallas at No. 28. Not to mention, defense should take priority in Round 1. But drafting a big-play receiver to take the top off of a defense in Round 2 or 3 should absolutely be a priority.
That would open up the field for guys like Bryant, Beasley and Jason Witten underneath and give Prescott bigger windows to throw into. The Cowboys don’t have a speedster on the roster, and Williams was the closest thing to that. If they’d prefer not to draft one, signing a guy like Kenny Stills or DeSean Jackson in free agency would be equally smart.
Find a pass rusher … or three
If you watched the Cowboys’ loss against the Packers, you may have noticed one blatantly obvious trend: Dallas can’t rush the quarterback. The Cowboys haven’t been able to all season, and they certainly couldn’t against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Sure, if you look at the stat sheet you might think otherwise, considering they had three sacks, but don’t be fooled. All three of those sacks were by defensive backs blitzing Rodgers.
Dallas’ defensive linemen hardly got as much as a fingernail on No. 12, and it’s a huge reason the Cowboys lost that game. Rodgers was able to sit in the pocket, read the morning paper and still find receivers down the field.
The Cowboys need a dynamic pass rusher (or three) with DeMarcus Lawrence failing to fit the bill and Randy Gregory serving a year-long suspension. Premier defensive ends typically don’t hit free agency, and even if one did, the Cowboys wouldn’t be able to afford him. It’s time for Dallas to spend address the pass rush and draft accordingly.