Cowboys could find 'keeping their own' even more problematic in 2019

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have yet to sign a free agent from another team, although that could change Tuesday.

Their modus operandi when it comes to free agency is to re-sign their own players, but the past two years they have lost critical pieces to their roster.

Last week, it was linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. They also lost fullback Keith Smith and linebacker Kyle Wilber to the Oakland Raiders, but neither played major offensive or defensive roles and can be replaced.

Last year, it was guard Ronald Leary to the Denver Broncos, safety Barry Church to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brandon Carr to the Baltimore Ravens, Morris Claiborne to the New York Jets, J.J. Wilcox to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Terrell McClain to the Washington Redskins, among others.

The Cowboys can argue that they did not want to pay the price to keep those players, which is fine, but if they don’t get ahead of the market by signing players to extensions before they reach free agency, then they won’t do anything but spin their wheels in free agency.

Speaking on the team’s luxury bus from the NFL scouting combine last month in Indianapolis, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was almost gloating about the compensatory picks the team received for losing Leary (fourth round), Church (fifth round), Carr (fifth round) and Claiborne (sixth round).

Depending on what they end up doing in free agency, they could get a fourth-rounder for Hitchens in 2019. The picks help make up for the loss of proven players, and the Cowboys could use them in trades to move up in next month’s draft.

But if the Cowboys’ plan is to “keep their own,” then they could face a difficult task in 2019.

They could have as many as 12 players set to hit unrestricted free agency, including three massive pieces to their success: Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin and defensive lineman David Irving.

The Cowboys kept Lawrence on the franchise tag this year, chewing up $17.143 million of their cap space. They have until mid-July to sign Lawrence to a multi-year contract or else he will have to play this season on the tag.

Martin is set to play out the year on his fifth-year option at $9.3 million. The Cowboys have wanted to lock him up to a long-term contract since last summer, but have not been able to close the deal. An extension would free up cap space this year and lock down Martin the same way they did Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. The Cowboys will not shy away from making Martin the highest paid guard in the NFL, which is now north of $13 million per season.

The Cowboys gave Irving, a restricted free agent, the second-round tender at $2.9 million. Theoretically, another team could sign Irving to a massive offer sheet, which the Cowboy won’t match in order to gain a second-round pick this year, but if not, then Irving would be scheduled to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. If Irving can put together a full season of work, then his price will be enormous.

Safety Byron Jones could be an unrestricted free agent next year as well if the Cowboys don’t pick up his fifth-year option by May 2. Add in running back Rod Smith, tight ends James Hanna and Geoff Swaim, backup tackle Chaz Green, defensive end Datone Jones and linebackers Justin March-Lillard and Damien Wilson and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, and the Cowboys will have plenty of decisions to make.

The Cowboys can sign Dak Prescott to a mega-extension for the first time next summer and the quarterback numbers are going to be astronomical.

That’s why what happens this year matters so much, especially with Lawrence and Martin.

If Lawrence has another Pro Bowl-type season, his price jumps up to likely $20 million per year. If Martin waits, then his number only goes up as well, however, he has said he does not want to play anywhere else.

There is only one franchise tag to go around. Getting a long-term deal done for Lawrence might be more difficult than Martin, but if the Cowboys want to follow through on their “keep their own” plan they need to get something done.

Compensatory picks only matter so much.