Sizing up top five Cowboys priorities, starting with DeMarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper

DeMarcus Lawrence's sack total was down, but he was every bit as dominant in 2018 as he was in 2017. Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- Now comes the fun part for the Dallas Cowboys.

They have built a core of players through the draft that has led them to the playoffs in three of the past five seasons and they have the makings of a team that could be a Super Bowl contender in 2019. Now they have to figure out whom to pay and how much.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys are projected to have $43 million in cap room on a projected $190 million cap. That does not include at least $12 million they will carry over in unused space, another $10 million or so in not picking up options, cutting players or the potential retirement of linebacker Sean Lee. Nor does it account for the money they could gain if they restructured the contract of All-Pro right guard Zack Martin.

It's safe to say the Cowboys will be able to do whatever they want to do when it comes to retaining their own.

They have 14 players set to be unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, but they also have to think about the future with wide receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones, running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott coming up on contract seasons in the next two years.

To that end, here is a ranking of how the Cowboys should approach their offseason to-do list:

1. DeMarcus Lawrence

Earlier this week, ESPN's Kevin Seifert ranked Lawrence as the top free agent on the market, so that tells you he should be the Cowboys’ top priority.

He is the war daddy that owner Jerry Jones has sought since the Cowboys cut DeMarcus Ware after the 2013 season. He followed up a 14.5-sack season in 2017 with a 10.5-sack season in 2018. If you’re judging success only on sacks, you would think Lawrence took a step back in 2018, but he did not. He affected the passer. He played the run. He was everything the Cowboys needed.

The Cowboys could place the franchise tag on him for a second straight year, which could trigger an issue in which Lawrence would not be around for the offseason program and training camp. The Cowboys wanted Lawrence to prove he wasn’t a one-year wonder, and he did. Now they need to figure out a long-term deal with him, and it will be costly, most likely averaging $20 million a season when you look at the deals Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald signed before the 2018 season.

Picture the Cowboys’ pass rush without Lawrence. It’s not too great. Randy Gregory had a fine season, but he is one strike away from a long suspension if he has a misstep this offseason.

Since undergoing two surgeries in 2015 and ’16, Lawrence has proved to be durable. Also, he is no longer in the drug program after serving a four-game suspension in 2016. He turns 27 in April, so he should be entering his prime.

2. Amari Cooper

The Cowboys have him under contract at $13.8 million with the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. The Cowboys gave up a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders and Cooper helped turn around their season. He gives Prescott a No. 1 receiver option. He can win on his route running. He can make the big plays. He can play in multiple spots.

The Cowboys did not give up the financial control they would have had over a first-round pick to allow Cooper to hit the market in 2020. They need to get this one done sooner rather than later.

When free agency opened last year, the Cowboys offered Sammy Watkins $16 million a year, but he opted to take the Kansas City Chiefs’ offer. Since the Cowboys offered Watkins $16 million, the starting point on Cooper has to be at least the same figure.

When the Cowboys traded for Roy Williams in 2008, they were boxed into a corner and gave him a five-year, $45 million deal that included $27 million guaranteed before he even played a game in a Dallas uniform. With Cooper, they have seen what he means to the offense and should feel better about making him one of the higher-paid receivers in the NFL.

3. Dak Prescott

This will be the trickiest negotiation. The non-Super Bowl quarterback market has exploded with the deals signed by Kirk Cousins ($28 million average) and Jimmy Garoppolo ($27 million).

The Cowboys have Prescott under contract for 2019 to the tune of roughly $2 million. They can use the franchise tag on him in 2020 if they so choose and go down the same path the Washington Redskins did with Cousins.

The only quarterback to win more games since 2016 than Prescott is Tom Brady. Prescott has directed 15 fourth-quarter comebacks. He is a tremendous leader. He has 67 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions in three seasons.

There are plenty of things to improve upon, such as pocket presence and accuracy, but the Cowboys believe he is their long-term answer.

Is that answer at $28 million or more a year on average, or something less?

4. Ezekiel Elliott

He has led the league in rushing in two of his three seasons. The Cowboys’ offense goes through him. He controls the tempo of a game. If he runs well, the Cowboys win. If he doesn’t, the Cowboys struggle.

He is under the Cowboys’ contractual control through 2020 once they put the fifth-year option on him later this spring, but it might be wise to lock him up to a long-term deal the way the Los Angeles Rams did with Todd Gurley before last season.

Gurley signed a five-year extension to 2023 that included $45 million guaranteed. He is just 24. Elliott turns 24 in July.

Teams worry about the wear and tear on running backs, and the Cowboys have not been shy in how much they have used Elliott in his first three years. If the Cowboys follow the Rams’ lead, Elliott would be 29 on the final year of an extension. The Cowboys did not want to pay DeMarco Murray a second contract after he led the NFL in rushing in 2014, in part because he was 26.

Elliott’s importance to the Cowboys’ offense means they should make him a long-term fixture. If they don’t, then they never should have taken him No. 4 overall in 2016. If you use a resource that high on a player, he must be a second-contract type.

5. Byron Jones

The Cowboys wanted to see if Lawrence was a one-year wonder after his 14.5-sack season, so why wouldn’t they think the same about Jones after he was named to the Pro Bowl after his move back to cornerback?

He exceeded expectations when he moved from safety to corner, but he did not have an interception. That he was voted to the Pro Bowl and named a second-team All-Pro without a pick speaks to how well he played.

He is set to make $8.8 million in 2019 on the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Top corners command much more than that. The top five corners average $14 million per year or more. Before the Cowboys make that kind of commitment, do they want to see Jones repeat his success?