Cowboys' 2021 decisions in free agency could be tricky, if not costly

Did Cowboys overpay Amari Cooper? Stephen A. weighs in (1:30)

Stephen A. Smith reacts to an unnamed NFL executive's comments that the Cowboys overpaid Amari Cooper. (1:30)

As they entered the 2019 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys knew they had franchise-defining decisions to make regarding wide receiver Amari Cooper, quarterback Dak Prescott and cornerback Byron Jones. Some even envisioned the issue that became running back Ezekiel Elliott's contract, as well.

Cooper, Prescott and Jones came into last season on the final years of their contracts. The Cowboys had Elliott's contractual rights at least through 2020 because of the fifth-year option, but the running back pressed the issue on an extension.

Those four now have contracts totaling $302.5 million -- at least $90 million guaranteed -- but that would grow dramatically when (if?) Prescott signs a long-term deal that will have guaranteed money of more than $105 million. All remain with the Cowboys except Jones, who left Dallas and found his fortune with the Miami Dolphins.

As the Cowboys enter the 2020 season, the decisions looming next offseason are not as dramatic, especially if Prescott signs a long-term deal before July 15.

Excluding Prescott and the players who agreed to one-year, free-agent deals this offseason, Dallas has eight players set to become unrestricted free agents next March: quarterback Cooper Rush, wide receivers and Noah Brown Devin Smith, offensive lineman Cody Wichmann, defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis and safety Xavier Woods.

Defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, offensive lineman Adam Redmond and cornerback Deante Burton are to be restricted free agents, so, theoretically, they would remain under the team's control in 2021 if the Cowboys opted to tender them contracts.

Of the eight who can become unrestricted free agents, Awuzie, Lewis and Woods would be at the top of the list. They have much to prove and the most to gain.

Awuzie, a second-round pick in 2017, has started 36 of 41 games and has had one interception in each of his first three seasons. He struggled down the stretch in 2019 and was replaced in the base defense in the biggest game of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Lewis, a third-round pick in 2017, has started 13 of 46 games, spending most of his time as the team's slot corner. He has four interceptions and has made big plays in key games despite less playing time than Awuzie.

Woods, a sixth-rounder in 2017, has started 33 of 45 games, including all 29 he has played over the past two seasons. He has five interceptions.

The Cowboys have been clear about their free-agent strategy in recent years. They want to keep their own because they feel it best mitigates high-priced mistakes that happen when teams pay good players great money in free agency.

A longtime agent, who for years has been able to predict contracts for upcoming free agents so accurately that some teams seek him out, projects Awuzie to come in between $7 million to $8 million per season. He projects Lewis at about $5 million and Crawford at about $3 million. If Woods can play at a high level, he would check in at $9 million per season.

The Cowboys have not made that kind of financial commitment to a safety since Gerald Sensabaugh in 2011 (five years, $22.5 million) or Ken Hamlin in 2008 (six years, $39 million). Woods would have to really produce for Dallas to want to pay him that kind of money, but it's not what the Cowboys want to pay -- it's what the market will bear. The Cowboys did not pay Jones $16.25 million per season, but the Dolphins did.

Awuzie has struggled to take the ball away, almost like Jones, who had two interceptions in five seasons. However, Awuzie has given up more yards and touchdown passes the past two seasons: 1,496 yards and eight touchdowns compared to Jones' 981 yards and five touchdowns, according to Pro Football Reference data.

Lewis allowed 683 yards and two touchdowns the past two seasons, working mostly in the slot.

The Cowboys retained Anthony Brown on a three-year, $15 million deal as free agency opened, but they were aided in that because Brown suffered a torn biceps that cost him the final six games of last season.

It is possible the Cowboys do not re-sign any players from their 2017 draft class (Noah Brown is the other member of the class with an expiring contract after this season) to a second-contract. Last year, the Cowboys cut their 2017 first-rounder, defensive end Taco Charlton, and they traded their fourth-round pick, receiver Ryan Switzer, in 2018 to the Oakland Raiders. Three other picks that year did not make the 53-man roster out of training camp.

The last time that happened was in 2009, and any draft that can be compared to the '09 nightmare is not good. The lack of success in that draft played a part in the failings from 2011 to 2013 because the Cowboys had to chase players in free agency to fill in for all their misses. That contributed to three straight 8-8 finishes as the Cowboys looked to rebuild on the fly.

Given the uncertainty surrounding their potential 2021 free agents, it's no wonder cornerback and safety are among the Cowboys' top draft needs in 2020. So is finding a pass-rushing defensive end.

The impending financial commitments might not be franchise-defining in 2021, but the decisions could be.