The Dallas Morning News
Cowboys must decide which free agents they will retain
Free agency starts next month, and the Cowboys have to devise a plan of attack: Which players do they keep and which can go?
With the start of free agency only a few weeks away, fans will focus on who the Cowboys can acquire. But the bigger question is who can they retain?
The Cowboys won’t try or won’t be able to re-sign all of their unrestricted free agents.
Here’s a look at five free agents likely to return, and five free agents likely to depart when the league year begins at 3 p.m. March 14:
5 FREE AGENTS LIKELY TO RETURN
LS L.P. LaDouceur
2017 contribution: It was another flawless season for the Cowboys’ long snapper. LaDouceur worked with two different kickers — three if you count those two extra points by safety Jeff Heath in the game Dan Bailey got hurt — and was on the money with every snap. That was 66 snaps on punts, 38 on field goal attempts and 38 on extra point attempts if you’re keeping count. He also accomplished a first in his 13year NFL career. Ladouceur recovered a fumble on a punt in the first quarter of a win over Washington in December.
Why he’s likely to return: You can say LaDouceur’s perfection is taken for granted. At this position, that’s exactly what a team wants. He has snapped the ball 1,875 times in his Cowboys career without a mistake. Ladouceur has played in 205 consecutive games for the franchise since taking over for Joe Condo in Week 4 of the 2005 season. Tight end Jason Witten is the only player on the current roster who has been with the Cowboys longer. He signed a five-year, $5.5 million contract the last time around and is looking for a slight increase with this deal.
C/G Joe Looney
2017 contribution: Not all the players a team needs to keep are starters. Looney didn’t start a game for the Cowboys last season. But he’s a veteran presence in the offensive line who can step in at all three interior line positions. He was part of the team’s jumbo package when it replaced a tight end with an extra lineman. Looney accepts his role, is well-liked among his teammates and has a positive impact on the locker room, helping to keep things light.
Why he’s likely to return: He knows the system and has shown he can step in and play at an acceptable level — he filled in for guard Ronald Leary on two occasions in 2016 and graded out well. Looney is also a cost-effective backup option. His initial two-year contract with the Cowboys paid him a total of $1.675 million. Only $100,000 of that came in a signing bonus with another $100,000 guaranteed. He won’t command much more this time around.
G Jonathan Cooper
2017 contribution: He was inactive the first three games while the Cowboys gave Chaz Green a chance to start at left guard. But a hip injury to Green opened the door for Cooper and he stepped through to secure the position. Cooper started the last 13 games of the season and was solid. Was he as good as Ronald Leary the previous season? No. But he did establish himself as a starter after starting only 14 games in his first four years in the league.
Why he’s likely to return: Could the Cowboys upgrade this position? Sure. But they don’t appear to have anyone in place at the moment. Cooper just turned 28. He’s proved he can be an effective starter on a prolonged basis and would be quality insurance on the interior of the offensive line if the club does draft someone better. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract to prove his worth last season. Cooper will command more going forward but is still a cost-efficient option.
DT David Irving
2017 contribution: Irving missed the first four games of the season while serving a suspension. He missed the last four with a concussion. What he did sandwiched between the start and end to his season was impressive. Irving came back from his suspension with a vengeance, picking up six sacks in his first four games. He finished with a career-high seven sacks and 19 quarterback pressures for the season. Irving also used his length to knock down six passes. He’s a force in the interior of the defensive line when he’s on his game and improved his consistency.
Why he’s likely to return: Young, productive defensive linemen who can rush the quarterback rarely escape in free agency. Irving is a restricted free agent, meaning the Cowboys will likely place a tender on him to prevent him from getting away if they don’t agree to a longer-term deal. The club can place the lowest tender on Irving — it was $1.79 million last season — to retain the right to match any offer he receives or go with a second-round tender — cost was $2.74 million last season — to keep him tethered to the team. While he was productive in 2017, he hasn’t enjoyed the sort of sustained success that is usually rewarded on the freeagent market. Even the lowest tender represents a significant increase over the $615,000 Irving made this past season.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
2017 contributions: The Cowboys defense went three consecutive seasons without a player reaching double-digits in sacks. Lawrence made sure that dubious streak came to an end. His 141/2 sacks were the NFL’s second-highest total, behind only Arizona’s Chandler Jones with 17. The only Cowboy with more in a season since sacks became an official stat in 1982 is DeMarcus Ware. Lawrence picked up at least one sack in each of his first seven games and finished with a team-leading 52 quarterback pressures. He also forced four fumbles and had two recoveries. Lawrence did all this while being a solid run defender. He does a good job of setting the edge.
Why he’s likely to return: Owner Jerry Jones has been searching for what he calls a “War Daddy” since Ware moved on to Denver to finish his career. He’s not about to let Lawrence get away after a breakout season, but retaining the defensive end won’t come cheap. The franchise tag that prevents Lawrence from hitting the free-agent market will likely be over $17 million once the final figure is tabulated. The club will do all it can to lower that cap hit in 2018 by signing Lawrence to a long-term deal. What can he expect? Well, Olivier Vernon hit the free-agent market two years ago coming off a season in which he had 71/2 sacks. That earned him a fiveyear, $85 million contract — $52.5 million of that total was guaranteed — from the New York Giants. Lawrence will expect more. In case you’re wondering, Lawrence is represented by the same agent who got that deal for Vernon.