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Exit Interview: Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys exceeded preseason expectations before falling short against the Rams. Now, they’ll need to carefully manage how they extend their young stars to avoid salary cap hell.

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It’s that time of season when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Cowboys, who were run off the field by the Rams, 30-22, in the divisional round.

What Went Right

Winning the NFC East and getting to the playoffs instantly made this a successful season for the Cowboys. After all, Dallas wasn’t expected to contend for the division title when that division includes the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Winning a playoff game over the Seahawks makes this season that much sweeter, even if the team couldn’t overcome the second-seeded Rams.

Beyond the postseason success, the most shockingly positive development of the season has to be the trade for Amari Cooper. After Cooper struggled in Oakland for the last season and a half, the Cowboys’ swap of a first-round pick for him looked like an overpay. But he rejuvenated the Dallas offense, racking up 725 yards and six touchdowns in nine games with the Cowboys. Dallas went 7-2 in those nine games—it’s likely the Cowboys wouldn’t have had a playoff run without Cooper on board. And Dallas’s success with him makes the pick they gave up less valuable. It’s a win-win for the Cowboys.

Looking ahead, Cooper is just 24 years old. Along with the emergence of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch on defense, the Cowboys have a solid young core to build around in Cooper, Vander Esch, Dak Prescott, and Ezekiel Elliott.

What Went Wrong

Much was made of the Cowboys’ run defense this season, which ranked fifth by DVOA. The Seahawks came into Dallas for the wild-card round with a run-heavy approach, and the Cowboys stifled them, holding Seattle to 3.0 yards per carry. But that defense fell apart against the Rams, who gashed 273 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries (5.7 yards per carry). That would be tied for the fourth-most rushing yards any team had in a single game during the regular season.

Oh yeah, and the Rams did that mostly with C.J. Anderson, who they picked up on December 18th. L.A.’s offensive line pushed the Cowboys around, opening holes that were big enough for trucks to drive through:

On a night when Rams QB Jared Goff was off all game (15-of-28 for 186 yards and zero touchdowns), the Cowboys failed to take advantage.

Free Agency

The Cowboys are projected to go into 2019 with $53.3 million in effective cap space, the ninth-highest figure in the league, as tracked by Over The Cap. But that money could dry up quickly, as Dallas has several players that need to be re-signed.

First up is DeMarcus Lawrence, who will hit unrestricted free agency this offseason after playing 2018 with the franchise tag. The 26-year-old defensive end has recorded 10.5 sacks and 23 QB hits this year, and has Pro Football Focus’s seventh-highest grade among edge defenders. He’s one of Dallas’s best defenders, and pass rushers are valued heavily in the NFL. Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack just got contracts that pay them more than $22 million per year, and while Lawrence isn’t on the level of those two, he and his agent will likely be negotiating for something around $20 million in annual value.

After Lawrence, the Cowboys will quickly need to deal with quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Neither will be a free agent this offseason, but the Cowboys will likely extend both in the coming months rather than put them in awkward contract-year situations heading into 2019.

Prescott is currently the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the league, owing to the fact that he was a fourth-round pick. But those savings for Dallas are nearly over—since Prescott wasn’t picked in the first round of the 2016 draft like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the Cowboys do not have the ability to add a fifth-year option onto his deal. Prescott has had an up-and-down start to his career: His rookie year was incredible, but as the offense has leaned more on him, cracks have begun to show. Prescott has never passed for more than 4,000 yards or 23 touchdowns in a season, and this year he ranked 19th in ANY/A (6.22), 14th in passer rating (96.9), 18th in QBR (58.6) and 19th in Pro Football Focus Grade (74.6). Put simply, he’s been a middle-of-the-road QB.

Yet Jerry Jones has been adamant that the Cowboys are going to pay Prescott, saying in November that he wouldn’t trade the third-year passer for two first-round picks. Any extension for Prescott won’t kick in until 2020, but the Cowboys have to start planning for this now. The team is paying less than $1 million for their QB right now, but that number will soon skyrocket. Take a look at Alex Smith—the former Chiefs’ passer got a four-year, $94 million deal with $71 million guaranteed from Washington last offseason. That’s probably the floor for what Prescott’s extension will cost Dallas.

Meanwhile, Cooper will go into 2019 on his fifth-year option, which will pay him more than $13 million, but he and the Cowboys will likely also be looking at an extension, as Jones has similarly said that the Cowboys will prioritize keeping the receiver they just shelled out a first-round pick to get. Brandin Cooks and Mike Evans each began deals worth around $16 million per year in 2018, so that’s the benchmark for Cooper. Again, whatever new deal Cooper gets won’t kick in until 2020, but Dallas needs to plan for the future today. Between Lawrence, Cooper, Prescott, and, further down the line, Elliott, Jones must manage his books wisely or his team will be in salary cap hell come the 2020s.

The Draft

The Cowboys don’t have their first-round pick as a result of their trade for Cooper, which makes their draft prospects less interesting—the team won’t pick until the 50s. The team could use some help on the back end of their defense, but any rookie help will have to wait until the second day of the draft.