There was a ton of pomp and circumstance surrounding the Dallas Cowboys when they jettisoned longtime head coach Jason Garrett and signed a more proven commodity in Mike McCarthy last January. That was before they, like every other NFL team, ran up against the COVID-19 pandemic that essentially shut down the entire offseason — save for a truncated training camp. Several players opted out of the season entirely and the Cowboys got off to a slow start, made worse when quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending fractured ankle in Week 5 against the New York Giants.
The team was never the same offensively without Prescott under center and, still tied to the historically-worst defense in NFL history, floundered to a 6-10 finish that saw them finally come alive in December only to gut themselves in the regular season finale. As they enter the offseason, , because things remain complicated in all facets of the team until it’s done, which includes both free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. From there, the club will need to sift through a Rolodex of in-house free agent names to determine who stays and who goes. The front office is already hard at work on all of this, but must also balance it assessing prospects ahead of the draft — making for the busiest part of the offseason for the Cowboys.
Additionally, they’re racing against NFL deadlines to see it all done, and done well, adding to the level of difficulty in an offseason that’s already seen another tectonic shift in the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after just one season, replacing him with Dan Quinn and setting the stage for yet another reset of sorts on that side of that ball.
Welcome to the official CBS Sports hub of the Cowboys offseason, where we break down every single item of interest. Bookmark this, as it’ll be updated often.
[Latest update: Feb. 26]
Key upcoming dates
There are a slew of dates you’ll need to circle on your calendar as you keep track of the Cowboys this offseason — such as OTAs, mini-camp and training camp. For now, most of them are already known and worth noting. It’s also key to note things remain fluid during the coronavirus pandemic, with the NFL having already canceled its Annual Meeting. Although the league hasn’t yet made any changes to the 2020 draft or free agency, those could arrive at a moment’s notice.
More dates will be added as the Cowboys and the NFL finalize them, and assuming no changes due to COVID-19..
- February 23 through March 9: Franchise and transition tags
- March 15 through March 17: Legal tampering begins for free agents of other teams
- March 17: New league year, free agency officially begins
- April 19: Teams with returning head coaches can begin offseason programs
- April 29 through May 1: The NFL Draft takes place in Cleveland
- Mid-April to early May: The NFL will release the 2020 regular season schedule.
- Early May: Teams can hold their one three-day post-draft rookie minicamp from Friday through Sunday or Saturday through Monday.
- Mid-May: Teams permitted to hold one three-day rookie minicamp
- Late May through early June (TBD): Beginning of organized team activities (OTAs)
- Mid-June (TBD): Mandatory mini-camp begins
- July 15: Deadline to negotiate a multiyear extension on a tagged player
- Late July (TBD): Training camp
2020 Opt-out: Returns
- Maurice Canady, CB: Canady signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Cowboys in 2020, but opted out due to concerns with the raging COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 season will act as a mulligan for that contract, and the Cowboys look forward to seeing if the 26-year-old can help with their issues in the secondary.
- Jamize Olawale, FB: Things aren’t the same at the position as they were when he opted out, because Sewo Olonilua has become a spicy addition to the roster. Considering how Olawale hasn’t yet lived up to expectation, and with a notable drop or two on his resume, he’ll have to hit the ground running in a very real way in 2021.
- Stephen Guidry, WR: The team will finally get a look at Guidry, who will still be a rookie in 2021 after having not played in what would’ve been his first professional season last year. The speedy receiver out of Mississippi State will finally get his first chance at catching passes from Prescott, an MSU legend. He joins a WR corps loaded with talent at spots one through four, contingent upon what happens with Cedrick Wilson in free agency.
Free Agent Scorecard
Here’s where the rubber truly meets the road for the Cowboys.
They enter the offseason with a list of in-house free agents they must attend to before and while also surveying the landscape outside of Dallas to see who deserves an offer to join the team in 2020. The longer it takes to get a deal done on Prescott, the more challenging that becomes, though. With the team currently in a cap crunch despite having rolled over more than $25 million from 202, they’ll have to get creative to free up more money for potential signings, and striking a long-term deal with Prescott will potentially make it a lot easier to do so — if it happens before a second franchise tag needs to be applied at a tab of $37.7 million.
That said, here a complete list of in-house free agents for the Cowboys:
Exclusive rights free agents
These players don’t have any control over their rights in 2021, unless the Cowboys decide to not make an offer, as defensive lineman Antwaun Woods found out the hard way last offseason. These players have fewer than three accrued seasons in the NFL and, as such, the Cowboys could offer them a qualifying one-year deal on a league minimum salary (based upon number of credited seasons) and the player can not negotiate with any other club. So if an offer is made, they can either sign it or sit out the season and be in the same situation one year from now. Should the Cowboys not make an offer and an ERFA signs elsewhere, Dallas would receive no compensation for the loss.
- Ron’Dell Carter, DL: The talented lineman out of James Madison , signing on with the Cowboys who protected him weekly only to lose him the moment they didn’t — Carter having been poached by the Indianapolis Colts before eventually rejoining the Cowboys later in the year. A promising young talent who can also flex along the defensive line, it would stand to reason if Dan Quinn would like to get eyes on him to see if there’s anything Mike Nolan might’ve missed in choosing to not activate him in his first NFL season.
- Sewo Olonilua, RB: Technically, he’s a fullback but more importantly, he can be much more. The former TCU standout found his first NFL home not far from his home of Kingwood, Texas, as one of the team’s undrafted free agents alongside Carter. He spent much of his time on the practice squad but saw action later in the year before being reverted back to the 16-man unit on both occasions. Olonilua is a promising young speedster whom the Cowboys should be inclined to hang onto and develop behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, putting Olawale in a precarious situation in his attempt to return from a 2020 opt out.
Restricted free agents
Unlike Olonilua and Carter, the following four players have accrued greater than three years but not yet four, and the latter would qualify them for unrestricted free agency in 2020. Instead, while they are allowed to negotiate with other clubs, each can be assigned a respective tender — first-round, second-round, original-round — or the Right of First Refusal to give the Cowboys a chance at receiving compensation in the event they decide against matching another team’s offer. The caveat lies in the original-round tender and the Right of First Refusal, because if a player went undrafted there is no compensation by default, making them basically one in the same.
The Cowboys must be strategic in how they label each, because the higher the tender, the higher the salary if the player is retained — e.g., the second-round tender on David Irving in 2018.
Per Over the Cap (projected):
First-round tender – $4.766 million
Second-round tender – $3.384 million
Original-round tender – $2.133 million
- Antwaun Woods, iDL: Unlike last year, Woods has some control over where he lands in 2021. He’d like to remain in Dallas as the starting nose tackle. His absence due to injury was felt in a major way in 2020, and the play in return solidified him as a key talent on a defensive line that desperately needed/needs beef in the trenches. Seeing as the Cowboys can’t simply force him to take whatever qualifying deal they offer him, however, it’ll be much more of a dialogue this time around, albeit not as much as if he were an unrestricted free agent.
- Cedrick Wilson, WR: The curious case of Wilson, who has proven he can be a dynamic fourth WR option when Prescott is on the field, but was often deleted as an option during the carousel of other QBs. The fact is Wilson had a breakout season before losing his starting QB, which hints heavily as his ability to deliver more of those s’mores with Prescott back under center. He did just enough to get the Cowboys attention this offseason, and probably enough to catch the eye of a WR-needy team elsewhere, so the Cowboys could either hold onto him or try to get a sixth-round pick out of losing him (original-round tender) and hope Guidry can replace him as WR4.
- Malik Turner, WR: A former undrafted free agent signed by the Seattle Seahawks, Turner also spent time with the Green Bay Packers in 2020 before joining the Cowboys. His addition helped salve the wound created by the loss of wideout Ventell Bryant to injury, with Turner being viewed as a special teams piece more than another weapon for the quarterback. He was active in six games for the Cowboys and logged zero catches on just two offensive snaps all season, and his 73 special teams snaps accounted for only 17 percent of the total workload. It’s doubtful he’ll return to Dallas, unless it’s as a last resort or some sort of insurance policy for the offseason.
- Greg Senat, OL: Given how desperate the Cowboys were to try and stop the bleeding on their injury-riddled offensive line, it doesn’t bode well for Senat that he was able to earn only two offensive snaps in 10 games played. Mostly relegated to special teams, where his 48 snaps accounted for only 11 percent of the total taken by the team in 2020, Senat didn’t establish any value with the Cowboys and, as such, is an afterthought heading into an offseason that will also see the return of Tyron Smith and La’El Collins from season-ending injuries. At best, he might be considered developmental, of the practice squad variety.
Unrestricted free agents
Grab the keys to the Brinks truck and back it up right into this section of Cowboys free agency, because it’s where the big money can be found, but only one player can truly break the bank here in 2021 (hint: his last name rhymes with desk cot). A second tag on Prescott will cost the Cowboys a hefty $37.7 million, and it isn’t expected the team will attempt to transition tag any of their free agents this offseason, but here are the values for your consideration.
Per Over the Cap (projected):
Defensive end – $14.811 million
Wide receiver – $14.269 million
Linebacker – $13.406 million
Cornerback – $13.202 million
Offensive line – $13.156 million
Defensive tackle – $14.178 million
Safety – $9.55 million
Running back – $8.942 million
Tight end – $8.576 million
Special teams – $4.382 million
Under normal circumstances, a team can only apply utilize either the franchise tag or the transition tag, and not both in the same offseason. So if the franchise tag has to be used on Prescott, while no one else arguably deserves the use of a franchise tag on their current roster this offseason, the less expensive transition tag will be off of the table.
Each of the following players have accrued four or more seasons of NFL service, and that means the Cowboys have no control over where they sign unless either the franchise tag or transition tag is used. If the latter is deployed, they won’t receive a compensatory pick if they choose to not match an offer from another team on the player it’s tethered to, however, unless they rescind it first. And then there’s the fact the franchise tag itself is divided between an exclusive and non-exclusive ranking, the former preventing a player from outside negotiations while the latter allowing it, but granting the Cowboys two first-round picks if they let the player walk.
It’s all a game within a game, and here’s how the Cowboys hope to play it.
- Dak Prescott, QB: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but, a long-term deal on Prescott must still be worked out. Any talk of trading for another QB is rooted in nothing more than a headline grab, because the bottom line remains the Cowboys want Prescott to be their franchise quarterback for at least the next five years, whereas he’d like to cull that to four. There’s also the matter of perennial increase in market value at the position and the deepened value of the two-time Pro Bowler displayed by his absence in 2020, which means revisiting the numbers on the proposal is again a must-do. Take a look at the list of insider notes in the appropriate section below for the latest on negotiations with Prescott, as Dallas remains all-in on trying to finally secure him for the foreseeable future.
- Andy Dalton, QB: It was never expected Dalton would remain in Dallas for more than his one-year contract signed last season, mostly because he still fancies himself as a starting QB and the Cowboys have told him directly that won’t happen in North Texas, because “it’s Dak Prescott’s team”, as noted by team exec Stephen Jones. That leaves Dalton to look for greener pastures elsewhere, but while he had admirable moments in 2020, his final few in the regular season finale with a playoff berth on the line won’t exactly have teams falling over themselves to overpay him.
- Sean Lee, LB: The longtime veteran is still mulling retirement, and hasn’t leaned in one direction or the other just yet. In his interview to end the season, Lee sounded like a man who still wants to hit people on the field, and he’s only one year removed from having one of the best and most durable seasons of his otherwise injury-riddled career. Should he choose to play one more year, it would be of benefit to the Cowboys and a linebacker corps that saw Jaylon Smith take another step back and Leighton Vander Esch miss more games due to injury.
- Blake Bell, TE: The aptly nicknamed “Belldozer” did exactly what he was paid to do, which is clear paths as a blocking tight end, but he also added some oomph by reminding teams he could catch the ball as well, if asked to. Bell is a perfect complement to Blake Jarwin — who’ll return in 2021 from a season-ending torn ACL — and a leveled-up Dalton Schultz, so if he wants to return to Dallas, they’d likely love to have him stick around.
- Joe Looney, OL: Not many thought much of it at the time, when Looney opted to remain with the Cowboys and forego following Jason Garrett to the New York Giants, but then came the retirement of perennial All-Pro center Travis Frederick. Suddenly, it was a coup to have retained Looney, who served as a solid stopgap at starting center but also suffered injury that allowed the Cowboys to see what they have in Tyler Biadasz — a player they traded up to acquire in last year’s draft. Looney is both a team- and fan-favorite and has at least earned a role as backup on the interior offensive line, something he’s accustomed to anyway.
- Cameron Erving, OL: The season didn’t go as planned for Erving, and that could put him on the outs this offseason. He struggled initially in attempting to take over the absent starting tackles, and while he eventually played better, he also battled injury himself. The 28-year-old former first-round pick finished the year on injured reserve, making it difficult to presume the Cowboys would look re-sign him quickly. If they decide to add him back to the roster, it could be after they’ve worked their way through free agency and the draft, to see where they stand at a position that also contains Brandon Knight and an at least improving Terence Steele.
- Aldon Smith, DE: As CBS Sports reported in late September and again in November, both the Cowboys and Smith are motivated to get a deal done, but that was before a few things became more clear. What a deal for Smith would look like is anyone’s guess, considering the team would also like to unleash Randy Gregory. That could mean a reduced role for Smith, who cooled noticeably as the season wore on (something that is also as attributable to the defensive scheme of Mike Nolan than anything else). It was the Cowboys and McCarthy who gave Smith a chance to return to the NFL, and that counts for loyalty points, but they also fired his longtime friend and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, which might delete any loyalty earned. This is an interesting one to keep an eye on, especially with former fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae waiting in the wings.
- Tyrone Crawford, DL: The veteran defensive lineman is, like Lee, considering retirement but, like Lee, hasn’t yet made a determination on his NFL future. His return to the field after suffering a season-ending hip injury didn’t go even remotely as planned, and certainly not for the cap hit that came tied to him in 2020. That said, considering the Cowboys need depth on the defensive line until/unless they repair the issue in free agency and/or the draft, you can’t rule Crawford out as a possible return on a veteran minimum deal. Not unless he rules himself out first by hanging up his cleats.
- Joe Thomas, LB: From minute one, Thomas has impressed in Dallas. One of the unsung heroes of a struggling LB corps, attempting to retain Thomas would be an absolute no-brainer. He may not be a week-in, week-out starter, but he’s a more than capable backup that can play all three linebacker positions and deliver a handful of quality starts in a pinch. He’s also the consummate professional and a great teacher of the younger group, and the Cowboys can’t afford to lose either of those things right now.
- Justin March, LB: Now here’s a guy … sorry … I really just had to scratch that itch when it comes to March, mostly because he’s always been willing to do the dirty work without complaint. The 27-year-old provides both depth at the position and talent on special teams, always willing to do what’s needed. Much of his damage is done on kickoffs and punts, where he logged 211 snaps (49%) last season. Having now learned how special teams can change games, while also having a depth need at LB, March is a good player to keep around; and he won’t cost much to do so.
- L.P. Ladouceur, LS: This man needs no introduction, nor does the living legend require a wordy take on why he needs to be re-signed. He is literal perfection at the position and if he’s not ready to retire, he’ll be back in Dallas. And even if he is ready it call it a career after 16 years, put more money on the table and convince him otherwise, because the NFL might never see a long snapper of this caliber ever again.
- Xavier Woods, S: In an offseason that will see the Cowboys possibly losing anywhere from one to four key players in their secondary, it’s Woods that headlines the group. One of the more promising safety talents in the league, the wheels fell off of Woods when he was hurled into Nolan’s scheme, and in a contract year, no less. He looked wholly out of sorts and nothing like the player from seasons prior — one who was on the continual upswing in his career. Maybe Quinn and Joe Whitt, Jr. can get Woods back to top form (one that saw him lead the team in INTs) or even better, but that’s for them to decide (or if they want to upgrade in March or April), and it’s on Woods to decide if he simply wants a fresh start elsewhere.
- Chidobe Awuzie, CB: Like Woods, Awuzie’s contract year was nothing to write home to mother about but, unlike Woods, his story is one that is also tied to durability issues. Once a promising cornerback in the Cowboys system, Awuzie hasn’t progressed over the last couple of seasons and that’s not been aided by the time he’s missed due to soft tissue injuries. He showed flashes at the tail end of the season and that’s something that might catch Quinn’s eye, however, along with the fact Trevon Diggs can’t do it all on his own. Awuzie won’t (and can’t) command top dollar or anywhere near it on the open market, and there was talk of potentially moving him to safety in 2020, something that could add value in Dallas. So even if they were to grab a top CB with the 10th-overall pick, Awuzie could still squeeze his way back onto the roster.
- C.J. Goodwin, CB: A depth player who has stepped in as needed, Goodwin has been mostly praised by the organization for his ability to operate in more than one capacity. He didn’t log any starts in his first three seasons with the Cowboys, but was activated in all 32 games over the last two seasons, while others struggled to climb off of the practice squad. Much more of a special teams ace than anything else, coordinator John Fassel loves Goodwin and will ask the brass in Dallas to find the pennies to keep him around, because that’s really all it would cost, figuratively speaking.
- Jourdan Lewis, CB: He’s proven he can be a starter in the league and has often been the team’s defensive ballhawk prior to the arrival of Trevon Diggs and the ascension of safety Donovan Wilson, but 2020 was uneven for Lewis. The team is already committed to Anthony Brown at starting nickel corner and while they’d like to keep Lewis onboard, it would have to be at a price he may not be cozy with. Add this to the fact there’s still an inevitable slight he might be feeling from having been continuously shelved due to his size, and he could look to head elsewhere. against the New York Giants, losing Lewis wouldn’t be an “it is what it is” type of situation. Brown has battled injury issues and if he does again in 2021, not having Lewis around would sting mightily.
- Eli Ankou, DL: One word comes to mind here: no. The Cowboys decided to not jump into the trade waters for any headline names in 2020, instead pulling a strange trigger that, to this day, adds up about as well as two plus two equalling one. They sent a seventh-round draft pick to the Houston Texans in exchange for Ankou, who was claimed off waivers by the only two weeks prior, which happened six weeks after the Indianapolis Colts claimed him after the Cleveland Browns sent him packing in early September. Despite all of this, and the fact he had only 1.5 sacks and 15 solo tackles in three NFL seasons, the Cowboys gave up an asset to acquire him, only to witness him deliver them no sacks and just one solo tackle in seven games. Just eat this mistake and move on.
- Noah Brown, WR: My my, how the hive has fallen. At one point, Brown was the proud owner of a strong hive within Cowboys fandom that routinely pleaded with the team to give him a fair shot, and once he returned from injury, they did just that. It didn’t end well, to say the least, because Brown struggled mightily in late 2020 and the Cowboys exacerbated the matter by oddly trying to force feed him the ball in situations where others might’ve excelled — e.g., Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson. Brown has talent, yes, but not enough good film to warrant pushing aside an upstart like Guidry or someone with great film like Wilson to make room for him on the roster. He might get a shot though, considering it’s a 90-man head count to start the offseason, but any deal granted would be limited in years and money, with little of the latter being guaranteed (if any).
2021 NFL Draft (10th-overall pick)
Top positional needs: CB, S, iDL, OT, LB
Projected 2021 compensatory draft picks and corresponding player lost:
Signings that impact the 2022 compensatory pick formula
These are signings of unrestricted free agents whose contract expired with their previous team, as they directly impact and are matched against any in-house free agents the Cowboys lose to determine how many compensatory picks — if any — Dallas will receive in next year’s draft. As seen directly above, the losses of Jones, Quinn, Cobb and Heath are expected to garner the Cowboys a draft pick for each, but it’s a fluid game that includes two separate deadlines. One in April draws a hard line and prevents new signings of UFAs to be calculated in the formula, but the Cowboys could help their case depending upon which of those newly-signed free agents they release during the season before a second predetermined NFL deadline.
Yes, it’s football chess of the highest order.
Signings of players cut by other NFL teams
Why is there a difference in these two categories? I’m glad you asked.
It’s important to differentiate between the players signed as unrestricted free agents and those signed after being cut by another team, because players who are signed after being released by another team do not count in the compensatory draft pick formula for the team who signs them. This is how the NFL sorts through its complex formula to award picks in next year’s draft, or to not.
Free agents lost to other teams
Insider analysis, rumors, reports and updates
There isn’t an angle we don’t have covered for you when it comes to the Cowboys this offseason, and here are the latest from credible sources including CBS Sports’ own original reporting, as the team wades through the waves over the next several months.
– Jan. 26
– Jan. 6
– Jan. 4
– Jan. 3