Each week CowboysHQ.com writers Matt Galatzan and Matthew Postins debate a topic pertinent to the Dallas Cowboys. Today …
The Dallas Cowboys can find ways to expand their salary cap space as free agency approaches. When it comes to the Cowboys' 20 free agents for 2017, which three players would you place the highest priority on keeping? Keep in mind how the Cowboys have spent their money in recent years and their team needs (and exclude defensive end David Irving, who as an exclusive rights free agent won't go anywhere in 2017) ...
Matt Galatzan: The thing I would look for in Cowboys free agency, as far as urgency is concerned, would be keeping the secondary whole, to a reasonable level at least. They had some real impact players back there last season, but still struggled at times. I think that a focus on keeping the impact guys, and improving in other areas there, will go a long way next season.
Guys like Brandon Carr and J.J. Wilcox would be wonderful to keep, but it all depends on what kind of money they will command in free agency. I think those two guys, for example, could be left to walk, and replaced by incoming cheap free agents.
The first guy I would put a priority on keeping would have to be Barry Church. When healthy, Church stabilized the Cowboys’ secondary, and was a key cog in helping the Cowboys improve their run defense in 2016. He’s an aggressive hitter, and isn't afraid to get up into the box and defend the run.
He was third on the team in tackles, had four passes defended, and two interceptions.
More than that, however, is his command in the secondary. Without Church in the lineup, the Cowboys noticeably struggled in pass defense. Sure, there were other injuries that led to that, but Church getting back on the field, and staying healthy was a big-time boost.
Next, I would put a priority on Mo Claiborne. I know, I know, he was hurt for a good portion of this past season, and he has had an inconsistent past as a corner for Dallas. And conventional wisdom has Dallas shying away here. However, Mo showed great improvement when he was on the field this season.
In essence he was the Cowboys’ best corner when he was healthy. He vastly improved in the mental facets of the game, and became a much more consistent pass defender. If he can continue that improvement into next season, it would be a big help in the Cowboys defending the NFC East title.
Finally, shifting away from the secondary. I wish the Cowboys could put a priority on Ronald Leary. Obviously it’s going to be tough to keep him around; he will command a great deal of interest on the open market. That said, after La’El Collins went down, Leary was instrumental in the Cowboys’ continued success in the run game.
More than that, if the Cowboys’ offensive line had any kind of weakness last year, it was Doug Free. Figuring out a way to fix that weakness by, say, moving Collins, or Zack Martin over to right tackle, and inserting Leary as the full-time starter in at left guard? That could be a very potent starting five up front.
Matthew Postins: The Dallas Cowboys have about $2 million under the salary cap right now, though you can be assured they’ll move some money around to get more space before free agency begins. But my belief is that, like the past couple of years, the Cowboys will be frugal when it comes to spending. So they’ll try to combine the money value and the talent value to fill out their roster. And with 20 free agents on their own roster, the Cowboys have some real decisions to make.
Who among those 20 should be prioritized to return to Dallas in 2017? Here are my selections.
CB Morris Claiborne: Claiborne played like a first-round pick when he was healthy in 2016, but he was only healthy half the season. That may work into the Cowboys’ hands, as they could snag Claiborne for about what they paid him in 2016 — $3 million. Teams may be unwilling to take a risk on Claiborne given his injury history, and he certainly won’t get a long-term deal in this market. The market, more than anything, is why I think he’ll be back. At Matt Galatzan pointed out, the Cowboys have a lot of free agents in the secondary and the Cowboys need to find a way to keep at least a couple of those players.
QB Mark Sanchez: You can shout me down if you want, but it’s hard to find a capable backup quarterback (and you could argue that, based on that Week 17 performance, he may not be capable). But the past two years the Cowboys have been in scramble mode to find a backup at the last minute and with Dak Prescott prepared to be the long-term QB that has to stop. The Cowboys have two QBs under contract for 2017 — Prescott and Tony Romo. Romo isn’t coming back. (Fish discusses this and more in this week's CHQ Cowboys STARCast.) Kellen Moore, who spent all of last season on IR, is also a free agent. Sanchez made just $2 million a year ago and he won’t command more on the open market. Given the obvious bond that Sanchez and Dak Prescott have forged, Sanchez would be a low-risk, low-commitment priority for 2017.
SS Barry Church: I don’t think the Cowboys want to do without Church. He’s in his prime age-wise, is a solid run-stopping safety and is no longer a liability in pass coverage. Church will probably command more than the $8.8 million over four years he got in 2013, but I don’t think it will be much more than that. He’s not a safety that is going to break the market and his knowledge of the Cowboys’ defense makes him valuable. I think the Cowboys would be happy to make that commitment to Church, as opposed to J.J. Wilcox, who has been inconsistent throughout his career in Dallas.
So, there you go. Our three Cowboys free agents most likely to return in 2016. Agree? Disagree? Hit the CowboysHQ.com message boards and discuss.