The Dallas Morning News

5 FREE AGENTS LIKELY TO DEPART

- Kate Hairopoulo­s

LB Kyle Wilber

2017 contributi­on: The Cowboys drafted Wilber in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and signed him to a twoyear extension in March 2016, but he’s had only a muted impact on Dallas’ defense during those six seasons. That held true in 2017. He had four tackles and one quarterbac­k pressure on defense, according to coaches’ film. He shows up more on special teams, where he recorded 10 tackles, which ranked among the team leaders, and forced a fumble. Why he’s unlikely to return: While Wilber is valuable on special teams, the Cowboys can use Wilber’s spot on a player who provides more versatilit­y ... and just, more. Wilber played only 39 snaps on defense in 2017. That’s just 3.7 percent, down from just 4.6 percent in 2016. After six seasons, it’s likely time to move on.

LB Anthony Hitchens

2017 contributi­on: In the final year of his rookie contract, Hitchens emphasized his worth to the Cowboys defense, ranking third on the team with 92 tackles, and second with nine tackles for loss, according to coaches’ film. He played 12 games after missing the first four to a right knee injury suffered in the preseason that wasn’t as severe as originally

feared. It was the first time in his four-year career that he missed a stretch of games to injury.

The middle linebacker played multiple positions, as he had previously in his career, when weak side linebacker Sean Lee was injured. Dallas’ defense is best when it has Lee and Hitchens playing next to each other. Why he’s unlikely to return: The Cowboys will certainly prioritize bringing back Hitchens, but whether he returns could depend on what other teams are willing to pay the 25-year-old. Dallas this offseason also is looking to lock up defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and right guard Zack Martin, which will be expensive. Spotrac. com estimates that Hitchens could demand a four-year extension worth about $25 million, or $6.4 million a year. If that’s the case, it could bode well for the Cowboys keeping the player they drafted in the fourth round in 2014. If it goes higher, his return isn’t as certain.

RB Alfred Morris

2017 contributi­on: The Cowboys turned to Morris when the court system finally cleared the way for the NFL to enforce its six-game suspension of starting running back Ezekiel Elliott during the second half of the season. Morris totaled 547 yards and one touchdown on 115 carries. His average of 4.8 yards per carry was his highest mark since his rookie season with the Washington Redskins in 2012. The high point of his 2017 season came against his old team, when he rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Morris averaged 3.3 yards after contract, breaking 17 tackles, according to ProFootbal­lFocus.com. Dallas signed Morris to a two-year deal in free agency in 2016, and then went on to select Elliott No. 4 overall in the NFL draft.

Why he’s unlikely to return: Morris could use his solid performanc­e filling in for Elliott as a springboar­d for a better contract and more carries elsewhere. While Morris, 29, might not be pursued as a starter, he can likely find a situation where he’ll be featured more than in Dallas when Elliott is eligible and healthy for the full season. While the Cowboys would feel good about having Morris as insurance again, they also liked what they saw in Rod Smith last season, who returned to running back after playing fullback in 2016.

OL Byron Bell

2017 contributi­on: The Cowboys signed Bell to a oneyear deal before the season, and they needed to rely on him more than they wanted to. The backup tackle had to fill in for All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, who dealt with an array of injuries, including his back, hip, groin and knee. Dallas first turned to Chaz Green to replace Smith, but that resulted in an eight-sack disaster Nov. 12 at Atlanta, and Green never played another offensive snap. Bell didn’t have to shoulder that kind of blame, but the drop-off when Smith was out of the game was undeniable. In the four games Smith missed — including the Seattle game when he played three snaps — quarterbac­k Dak Prescott was sacked 17 times and threw one touchdown pass. Why he’s unlikely to return: The Cowboys insist they are not worried about Tyron Smith’s health long-term, but he has missed at least three games each of the last two seasons. While Smith is naturally a tough player to replace, they can’t afford for the offense to come unglued again in 2018 if Smith has to miss some games. The challenge here will be to find a more capable backup, and for the right price, too.

WR Brice Butler

2017 contributi­on: Butler totaled 15 catches for 317 yards, three touchdowns and a teambest 21.1 yards per catch, serving as the team’s primary deep threat. A foot injury forced him to miss three games late in the season. He caught 15 of his 23 targets in 13 games. He took advantage of the limited chances he got — he was never targeted more than three times in a game. Butler arrived in Dallas via a trade from Oakland during the 2015 season. He signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys before the 2017 season, hoping to parlay a strong season into a better contract in Dallas or elsewhere. Why he’s unlikely to return: During a series of interviews after the season, Butler made it clear that he felt he deserved more opportunit­ies among the Cowboys’ receivers and that he wants to be a starter going forward. While Butler pointed to a passing game that certainly had its problems last season, he hasn’t been consistent­ly reliable when the Cowboys did turn to him in key moments during his tenure. Dallas appears to be returning most of its current receiving corps in Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Noah Brown and Ryan Switzer. The Cowboys will likely look to free agency and/or the draft to add a new, speedy outside receiver instead of bringing back Butler.

 ?? Louis DeLuca/Staff Photograph­er ?? Anthony Hitchens (right) was third on the Cowboys with 92 tackles and second on the team with nine tackles for loss.
Louis DeLuca/Staff Photograph­er Anthony Hitchens (right) was third on the Cowboys with 92 tackles and second on the team with nine tackles for loss.

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