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The 2024 NFL season will be different for the Dallas Cowboys

There's a cliche among Cowboys nation that each year is "their year" to make a Super Bowl run, but the mindset from the top has changed. Team owner and general manager Jerry Jones has long said he thinks "longer term" and is "real hesitant to bet it all for a year" when it came to his Cowboys team-building approach. 

Jones' methodology temporarily, or rather in name only, changed after a third 12-win season in a row ended without at least reaching the NFC title game, making the 2021-23 Cowboys the first team ever to do so. 

"I would anticipate, with looking ahead at our key contracts that we'd like to address, we will be all in," Jones said at this year's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama back in February. "I would anticipate we will be all-in at the end of this year. We will push the hell out of it. It will be going all in on different people than you've done in the past. We will be going all in. We've seen some things out of some of the players that we want to be all in on. Yes, I would say that you will see us this coming year not build for the future."  

Jones called the second-seeded Cowboys' 48-32 wild-card-round loss to the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers "the most painful [in his 35 years owning the team]" because of the "great expectation and hope" for his 2023 Dallas squad. Jones made it clear to his team that "he doesn't have too many years left in this business" and wants another Super Bowl ring "badly" when Dallas met for its 2023 exit meeting and locker room clean-out.     

Then when it came time to make good on that "all in" promise at the start of free agency in March, Jones became more conservative with his salary cap management than ever before. He let multiple starters move on to other teams and thus far has signed one external free agent: 32-year-old inside linebacker Eric Kendricks, whom Dallas gave a one-year, $3 million contract with $2.5 million guaranteed.

Jones has since clarified that the actual mantra for the Cowboys' 2024 offseason is to "get it done with less." It's a paradoxical idea that stands on the logic of Dallas somehow being able to achieve better on-field results in the upcoming season with a seemingly less talented roster. 

"I have been more all in before," Jones said Sunday at the NFL's Annual League Meeting in Orlando, Florida, via The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "By any definition, and I have been more all in to make a run back to the line of scrimmage than I've been to run for 50 yards. It took more all in just to get back to the line of scrimmage than it did to run for 50 yards. Sometimes that is really the gist of what we're about this year. We've got to get it done. I think that we have been in a situation where we can get it done with less. More doesn't necessarily beat Green Bay. There are other things. Maybe having it better strategically in different spots, but more didn't necessarily beat them either. So, we're going to be asked to do some things different because we got some different players."

For those wondering why Jones would take this approach, his reason is because of the team's dead salary cap hit of just over $16 million. The highest individual player contract figure from that total is $6.04 million being charged the Dallas Cowboys' cap because of their 2022 release of running back Ezekiel Elliott from his six-year, $90 million deal the team signed him to in 2019, two years before the expiration of his rookie contract. For reference, the Packers team the Cowboys lost to in the 2023 postseason carried a $40 million dead cap hit on their books after trading quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets

"My point is that clarity," Jones said. "I think, as we move through, the clarity of the relationship to the salary cap to where and how you want to coordinate your roster, to me, has gotten clearer and clear and clearer over time. If you want the running back to be 70 percent of your offense, maybe you'd better pay him a lot more. But if you're not going to use him like that, you're right, you might can do it with less. ... Get used to it. We're going to have to have some young ones step in. Young ones being some of your younger draft picks. You're going to have to have them and make no mistake about it. You're going to lose some people that in the perfect world you had all the money in the world [they would re-signed]. Let me say this, sometimes you make a decision and you got the money. But you're anticipating looking ahead at something that's coming. So, that's what you're seeing."

What are the Cowboys looking ahead to? Well, let's take a look at that and where Dallas can go from here to field a relatively competitive roster in 2024 while maintaining a foundation for future seasons. 

1. Re-sign stars to long-term contract extensions now before their market values jump again

Dak Prescott
DAL • QB • #4
CMP%69.5
YDs4516
TD36
INT9
YD/Att7.65
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In order for the Cowboys to avoid a total rebuild, something the 81-year-old Jones likely doesn't have the patience for, they need to keep their three best players for the long haul. Signing their All-Pro trio of quarterback Dak Prescott (2023 Second Team All-Pro and 2023 NFL MVP runner-up), wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (2023 All-Pro) and edge rusher Micah Parsons (three-time All-Pro, 2023 Second-Team All-Pro) to long-term extensions of at least four or five years is a must.

"Without being theatrical, I'm going to drop to a knee and say thanks for the problem," Jones said Wednesday, via The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, when talking about Prescott, Lamb and Parsons all needing new contracts. "It's an outstanding problem. You work to get problems like that."

Extending them now would allow Dallas to lock in its top talent to current market values, which is key since the only direction the NFL's salary cap is trending is upward thanks to its latest media deal, so that means contract values will increase in tandem. While some Cowboys fans were done with Prescott after Dallas went down 27-0 against Green Bay in the playoff defeat, he is its present and future at the quarterback position.

He had the most efficient season of his career in 2023 with a 105.9 passer rating, and Prescott became the first Cowboys quarterback to lead the NFL outright in passing touchdowns (36) in a season. 

Dak Prescott 2023 season



NFL QB RANK

Completion Pct

69.5%

2nd

Pass Yards4,516
3rd

Pass Yards/Att

7.7

6th

Pass TD

36

1st

TD-INT

36-9

2nd

Passer Rating

105.9

2nd

Expected Points Added/Play0.182nd

Prescott's current $59.5 million cap hit in 2024 is the second-highest in the NFL behind only Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson's $64 million. He enters the final year of his current contract with a no-franchise tag clause and a no-trade clause. Prescott has all the leverage. A five-year deal locking him down for his age 31 through 36 seasons is the Cowboys' best path forward. Dallas waited too long to extend him the first time, and he became one of a select few quarterbacks averaging $40 million per year starting in 2021. Make that mistake again, and in a year's time as unrestricted free agent, Prescott could become the first player in league history with an average annual salary of $60 million or more. 

Don't believe it? Look at what the quarterback-starved Atlanta Falcons gave a soon-to-be 36-year-old Kirk Cousins coming off of a season-ending torn Achilles injury: $180 million over four years with $100 million guaranteed. Prescott is currently healthy and five years younger. 

CeeDee Lamb
DAL • WR • #88
TAR181
REC135
REC YDs1749
REC TD12
FL2
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Lamb, who led the league in receptions (135) and ranked second in receiving yards (1,749) and third in receiving touchdowns (12) as a 24-year-old, enters the final year of his rookie deal (a fully guaranteed $17.991 million fifth-year option) in 2024. He is clearly a piece the Cowboys need to keep in their building long term. Locking him down now allows them to push his higher cap numbers many years down the road as well as get ahead of the booming wide receiver market. 

Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and three-time Pro Bowl Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase are also extension eligible with Jefferson on the same contract timeline as Lamb. If Jones doesn't like what Lamb's market value is now, he definitely doesn't want to see what it will be after Jefferson's and Chase's new deals. The Cowboys need to get Lamb's deal done this summer, same as Dak's.

Parsons led the NFL in quarterback pressures (103), quarterback pressure rate (21.8%) and pass-rush win rate (35.3%) in his third NFL season in 2023 while also racking up a career-high 14 sacks, which was tied for the seventh-most in the league with 2023 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett. He is extension eligible for the first time this offseason. It would behoove Jones to secure Parsons' services long term now to move his money around to maximize cap space and additionally secure his contract payments before they also take another jump if he goes off for fourth consecutive All-Pro season to start his career. That's a realistic outcome given his past production.

2. Re-sign important vets to team-friendly deals if possible

Many more key contributors to the Cowboys' three consecutive 12-win seasons is currently set to become a free in the 2025 offseason even outside of Prescott and Lamb. 

This list includes the following veterans:

All of the aforementioned players are age 32 or older with the exception of Turpin, who turns 28 on Aug. 2. It would be totally reasonable to wait on a couple of these names, but Martin and Lawrence both have the look of vets with plenty left in the tank. They are also critical locker room leaders. Turpin's value recently increased after the NFL passed its new kickoff rules designed to generate more returns. Getting those three players' deals done now could save Jones and the front office some work and money in the future. 

3. Make a small free agency splash after June 1 cuts

Post-June 1 releases are designed to give teams salary cap relief. If a team knows they want to cut a player, but they want to reduce the amount of dead money on their salary cap, they can designate a player as a post-June cut. That means a team keeps a player on their roster until June 1, after the first few waves of free agency and the draft, but then they have more financial flexibility upon letting that player go. 

Perhaps once wide receiver Michael Gallup's June 1 releases processes, Dallas could re-sign 33-year-old, five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore's presence in Dallas in 2023 was pivotal with Pro Bowl corner Trevon Diggs going down with a torn ACL in Week 3. His 60.3 passer rating against as the primary defender in coverage ranked as the ninth-best in the NFL among the 39 players with 80 or more passes thrown their way. 

The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year's mentorship of second-year corner DaRon Bland also paid massive dividends. The 2022 fifth-round pick led the NFL in interceptions (nine), pick sixes (five, the most in a season in NFL history) and passer rating against as the primary defender in coverage (27.6). Gilmore will be 34 years old on Sept. 19, so he should be able to be signed for a relatively team-friendly number. Having him ensures the Cowboys retain depth in their secondary just in case another season-ending injury occurs in 2024. 

A younger option in the same spot could be four-time Pro Bowl corner Xavien Howard, who turns 31 on July 4. The Houston native was released by the Dolphins for salary cap reasons in 2024. He said he would be open to taking a pay cut to join the Texans. Perhaps the same is true with the Cowboys? His presence could allow Bland to go back to be the team's nickel corner, pushing Jourdan Lewis into an off-the-bench relief role. 

4. Select a top-tier OL prospect in Round 1 of 2024 NFL Draft

Tyron Smith is now a New York Jet. Prioritizing stability while protecting Prescott's blindside makes all the sense in the world. The team has talked about moving Pro Bowl left guard Tyler Smith to left tackle, a position he played in college. The Cowboys have also compared him to Hall of Fame Cowboys guard Larry Allen, a versatile lineman who played the bulk of his career at left guard. Georgia's Amarius Mims (6-foot-7 and 340 pounds), Washington's Troy Fautanu (6-foot-4 and 317 pounds) or Arizona's Jordan Morgan (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) would all be solid selections for offensive tackle. 

Should Jones deem Smith to be a left tackle going forward, Jackson Powers-Johnson, an interior offensive lineman out of Oregon, could make sense with the 24th overall pick as this mock draft lays out

5. Shore up RB, LB, DT positions throughout draft

Tony Pollard is now a Tennessee Titan. Drafting a player or two at the running back position makes sense. Wisconsin's Braelon Allen and Texas' Jonathon Brooks are two solid draft choices. They could form a thunder-and-lightning combination, but it's unclear how likely it is that Dallas gets both of them. 

Allen (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) can be the thunder to Brooks' lightning (6-foot, 216 pounds). He joined fellow Badger Jonathan Taylor as the only Big Ten running backs since 2014 with three seasons of at least a 5.25 yards-per-carry rate and double-digit touchdowns with at least 150 carries each year. Wear and tear isn't an issue, either, as he'll enter his NFL rookie season as a 20-year-old. Allen is thought of as third-round pick by many at the moment. There's a chance he could slip down to the fourth round.

Brooks (6-foot, 207 pounds) is a similarly sized player to Pollard, and he can provide plenty of juice. His agility is a high-level trait. However, he did tear his ACL in the Longhorns' game at TCU on Nov. 11. Dallas does have an inside track on his recovery, though. Dr. Dan Cooper, of the renowned Cooper Clinic, did Brooks' procedure, and also works as the team's head doctor. The school of thought on him currently is that he will be selected in the second round. 

Defensive tackle is also an area of need after losing Johnathan Hankins to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, and with 2023 first-round pick Mazi Smith not making much of an impact in his first NFL season. Texas defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat (6-foot-4, 366 pounds) could certainly help anchor the middle of the Cowboys run defense, an area Green Bay dismantled in the postseason. He'll likely go in Round 2. Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Leonard Taylor could be available in Round 3. 

Two options at inside linebacker in the middle of the draft could be Clemson's Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr.