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Sports

Cowboys NFL Free Agency Tracker: Thomas & March Returns to Fortify LBs - and with Something to Prove - Sports Illustrated

FRISCO - The Dallas Cowboys said they'd prioritize Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. And by gosh, after Day 1 of 2020 NFL Free Agency, they got 'em both ... kinda.

Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Raiders are trying to build in a new city, with a trio of ol' Cowboys as Jason Witten, Maliek Collins and Jeff Heath are moving West ... and Dallas pulls off a Gerald McCoy blockbuster ...

And on Day 3: A collection of friendly faces stay home, including kicker Kai Forbath, QB Cooper Rush, DB Anthony Brown and O-lineman Joe Looney.

Now comes Day 4, a Thursday re-signing of linebacker Joe Thomas to a one-year deal. All good, because of what coaches believe is his "star-power potential. Oh, and linebacker Justin March is back, too. And just one "if,'' on both guys, as we detail below.

And a late-night Day 4 signing is in as well: In 2016, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix represented the Green Bay Packers in the Pro Bowl after recording a career-high five interceptions. In 2020? He represents new Mike McCarthy's idea of a ballhawk as the safety, 27, has signed a one-year deal to join the Dallas Cowboys secondary.

Clinton-Dix, who played for the Cowboys coach in Green Bay from 2014-18, gets $4 million, including $2.5 million guaranteed to come to Dallas, per NFL Network's Jane Slater, where he'll be a top candidate to supplant Jeff Heath, who has moved on to the Las Vegas Raiders via NFL Free Agency.

More on Clinton-Dix here, and ...

UPDATES as we go ...

SALARY-CAP SPACE

The Cowboys entered the process with about $80 million of room under the $198-mil cap. Much has been made about Dallas' ability to "flip switches'' on the way to opening up $120 million of room, but we're told that's not presently the central plan. (Maybe a flip on one or two guys, like the contracts of Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence, who likely have such switches purposely built into their deals. And maybe a money slice with Tyrone Crawford, too.)

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: The tagging of Dak, the signing of Blake Jarwin and the signing of Cooper (see below) figure to slice that $80 mil down to a little over $30 million.

DAY 3 UPDATE: Read below for the dollars and sense on the three-year contract given Gerald McCoy, the six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

FREE AGENT GAME PLAN - PLAYER-BY-PLAYER

Meanwhile, what is the plan for the about-to-be-free Cowboys? Our best guesses, ranked in order of importance/keep-ability, updated as we go ...

Dak Prescott - QB: Neither side wants the franchise tag used here, as Prescott has hinted at withholding his services. Call us optimists, but recognizing that according to our sources, as of Sunday, March 7 the team had offered a cumulative deal higher than the reported "$33 million APY and $105 million guaranteed,'' we still think a deal making Prescott the highest-paid player in franchise history happens in the coming days.

Worst-case scenario? They get a deal done by July 15, when otherwise the tag goes permanent.

We are told Jerry Jones doesn't believe Dak will fail to show for work. We are about to find out if Jones' "you're like family to us'' approach will work.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: "Call us optimists,'' all right. Dallas couldn't seal a deal with Dak agent Todd France before the deadline. So even though France made a proposal this weekend and even though Dallas' bid is "in excess of Goff ...

No deal.

Yes, tag.

But, in the end, Dallas has contractual control. That counts as plenty.

Amari Cooper - WR: There is logic in predicting that Dallas signs Dak and then uses the franchise tag on Cooper. That would pay him $18.4 million for a "prove-it'' season in 2020. The danger? Cooper might think he's proven too much to be disrespected so.

For now, that - the chess-pieces retention, one way or the other, of both Dak and Amari - is our prediction.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: As is happens, we reported on Monday morning that Dallas was "closer to'' a deal with Cooper than with Dak. Alas, not close enough. So Cooper was free. ... for a second.

In the end, we were right; Dak getting $33 million for one season (so far) and Cooper getting a five-year, $100 million deal counts as Dallas "keeping'' both guys. It isn't perfect. But it's a goal achieved.

DAY 3 UPDATE: We also have the numbers on Amari's deal. The five years and the $100 million? Yes, but ...

When you really dig into the numbers, it can also be a two-year deal.

Robert Quinn - DE: Quinn tells us he'd like to return to his "brothers'' with the Cowboys. But his team-high 11.5-sack season has alerted the NFL to the gas left in his tank.

We predict he'll get offers in excess of $11 mil APY, will be blown away by them, and will be gone.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: Quinn is indeed a "hot commodity, a source tells CowboysSI.com. Story here.

DAY 2 UPDATE: And now, at 11 a.m. CT, Quinn is gone, to Chicago. Story here.

Byron Jones - CB: We think the Cowboys have prioritized Quinn over Jones - but don't want to "set the market'' with either guy.

Some other team, though, will do so with Jones.

We're told the Cowboys were not interested in paying $15 mil APY - and now we're told there are teams willing to go to $18 mil APY.

Bye-bye, Byron.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: Byron got his money in Miami ...

But sent a love letter back to Dallas.

DAY 3 UPDATE: The Cowboys did sign two corners on Wednesday. One of them is Anthony Brown (addressed below), the other Jets ex Maurice Canady. His story is here.

Sean Lee - LB: The reader doesn't need "sources'' here. Jerry Jones sees Lee as a central part of the Cowboys, and Lee tells CowboysSI.com that while he "loves the Cowboys,'' he owes it to shop himself.

We see him spurning offers, though, and staying.

POST-DAY 2 UPDATE: An afternoon phone call from him and we've got the story on Sean Lee staying in Dallas with a one-year deal.

Jason Witten - TE: Witten is a human tug-of-war rope inside The Star. The old guard can't let go; the new regime respectfully sees the need to.

In the end, we don't think Jerry will force this on coach Mike McCarthy. Witten will move on.

DAY 2 UPDATE: And the "move on'' is on. Witten is now a Las Vegas Raider. Story here.

Blake Jarwin - TE: Jarwin has been given a second-round tender worth a $3.2 million salary as the team continues to negotiate. 

He's an easy keep - and a valuable weapon as long as he isn't just given 35 percent of the snaps, as was the unfortunate case a year ago.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: Forget the tender. Jarwin has what is in total a four-year deal worth at least $22 million.

And he's also got some charitable plans for that dough.

Antwaun Woods - DT: Dallas would like to get bigger and better here. But Woods is an Exclusive Rights player, so retention of him is easy. "The Human Log'' is also a producer as a try-hard guy.

Maliek Collins - DT: The other starting tackle has talent that's been negated by injury. He's a threat to be stolen away.

DAY 2 UPDATE: And "stolen'' he is. Maliek is going to Las Vegas.

But ... he's just been replaced by Gerald McCoy, which represents a "pedigree upgrade.'' Story here.

Randall Cobb - WR: The hiring of his old Green Bay boss McCarthy renders his return sort of "assumed.''

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: That's what we get for "assuming.''

Cobb jumps to the Texans with a three-year, $27 mil deal.

DAY 3 UPDATE: Could Emmanuel Sanders be in line to come to Dallas in Cobb's spot?

Kai Forbath - K: Dallas might not hand Forbath a job. But after what the kicking game looked like before his too-late 2019 arrival, the Cowboys will surely hand him a contract.

POST-DAY 1 UPDATE: There is no change on Forbath.

But maybe we should sniff around on where the Rams are with Greg Zuerlein?

DAY 3 UPDATE: Forbath is in. Here's the story on the reasoning.

L.P. Ladouceur - LS: We won't see how valuable he is until he's gone. After 15 years, Dallas doesn't even want to think about that.

POST-DAY 2 UPDATE: L.P. is back on another one-year deal worth about $1 million.

Jeff Heath - S: He's a core special-teamer. But Dallas doesn't pay the position and Dallas doesn't want to do so here. Is a "home-team discount'' in play? Or can a better player be purchased?

DAY 2 UPDATE: Jeff Heath is one of a trio of Cowboys who today is signing on with the Las Vegas Raiders.

DAY 4 UPDATE: Ha-Ha Clinton Dix is the fix.

Joe Thomas - LB: Something about Thomas' level of play - level of intensity? - went south late last year. The Dallas personnel department would like to find it again.

DAY 4 UPDATE: Again, all good on LB Joe Thomas being back with a one-year deal, including a reunion with his old Packers-turned-Dallas staff led by Mike McCarthy. But also again: he didn't end 2019 strong. He can be better - on special-teams and even as a linebacker with 'star-quality,' coaches think.

Kavon Frazier - S: A glue guy and special-teamer and you want him on the cheap.

Anthony Brown - CB: Easy to understand if he wishes to reinvent himself elsewhere.

DAY 3 UPDATE: We missed the mark here. Brown gets a three-year deal to stay.

Tavon Austin - WR: John "Bones" Fassel worked with Tavon with the Rams. And they are together again in Dallas. 

A "blank slate''? Surely Fassel fights for Austin's retention.

Cooper Rush - QB: He got his tender to stay. But there are people inside The Star who think Dallas is "hanging out'' (a bad thing) without a better Dak backup. And there are others who think Clayton Thorson is the backup Cowboys QB with the real potential.

An unsettled spot.

DAY 3 UPDATE: Rush is signing his RFA tender worth $2.1 millionto stay.

Kerry Hyder - DL:  McCarthy wants D-line bodies. Hyder might stay on as a cheap rotational guy.

Joe Looney - OL: He's re-made himself into something more than a "class clown.'' Is there another team that might offer him a first-team shot?

DAY 3 UPDATE: Joe Looney likes it here. He signs a one-year deal to stay put.

C.J. Goodwin - DB: He can't really play a position. He was supposed to be an ace on teams. There's no reason to "pay'' here.

Xavier Su'a-Filo - OL: A solid backup who might get overpaid elsewhere.

DAY 3 UPDATE: Bingo. Good guy gets a three-year payday in Cincy. Also gone is swing tackle Cam Fleming, but Dallas has a host of kids who can pitch in there. Not really a worry.

Christian Covington - DL: There's no room to prioritize Covington. But a bargain return is possible.

Daniel Ross - DL: Ross is a journeyman who conducts himself like a "pro'' - or at least the RFA before his arrest in November. We're told that case is "going away,'' so maybe Ross won't be.

Justin March - LB: Quality guy with position flex and special-teams skill. Good cheap keep.

DAY 4 UPDATE: March is indeed returning, and this is a good thing, except ... just as Thomas could be a star special-teamer, March will be the first to say he is capable of big things there as well. And yet ... Dallas was the worst (or second-worst) special-teams group in 2019.

And that's what March, like Thomas, need to fix.

"You know I can’t wait to turns special teams into a real factor with Coach Fassel here,'' March tells CowboysSI.com on Thursday evening.

Adam Redmond - OL: He's re-upped with a one-year minimum deal.

Malcolm Smith - LB: Signing the former Super Bowl MVP was a late-season emergency add. No reason to chase this.

Ray Ray Armstrong - LB: Same as above.

Michael Bennett - DE: Not quite the "locker-room leader'' he's reputed to be by people who've never been in the locker room. He's a "different-drummer'' kind of guy who has talked openly about retirement, about going back to Seattle, about whatever.

Darian Thompson - S: Try-hard guy did not grade out well enough in his time as a spot-starter.

DAY 2 UPDATE: Darian Thompson's agency says he's coming back to Dallas.

FREE AGENT TARGETS?

We'll use a question mark above because at this early stage, this is purely educated guesswork. But a fun stab at six names? Sure. Let's try ...

-Damon "Snacks'' Harrison - DT: The Cowboys are whispering that the McCarthy/Mike Nolan defense will favor more wide-body defensive tackles than the previous regime. "Snacks'' is 6-3, 350, and just got dumped by Detroit one year after giving him an $11-million extension for one season of play. Oh, and he happens to live in Dallas in the offseason.

POST-DAY 2 UPDATE: Dallas didn't do this player, but did go down this road with the McCoy signing. Here's all the numbers on what many consider a three-year "steal of a deal'' on the six-time Pro Bowler.

-Ron Leary - OG: He got his big deal in Denver and now he's free again, and tells CowboysSI.com here that he's love to return to DFW, where he has an offseason home.

DAY 3 UPDATE: Even with Su'a-Filo leaving, the fact that Looney is coming back likely shuts the door here.

-Aqib Talib - CB: The Dolphins are done with him. He's 33. Does he have much left? Don't know. But we do know this: He shares an agent with Leary. Who shares an agent with Dak Prescott. Yes, CAA's Todd France, the point man in the Dak talks, has plenty of reasons to drop Talib and Leary into a Cowboys conversation, too.

Oh, and yes - Talib went to high school in DFW and maintains roots here.

-Ndamukong Suh - DT: His habit of signing one-year contracts puts him on the Cowboys Gossip Radar every summer ... but he's always been too pricy. Dallas has huge respect for what he does on game days. But alas, he'll probably be too pricy again.

-Karl Joseph - S: A logical fit who has a first-round pedigree, was a Raiders playmaker who somehow fell into disfavor, who would seem to be a semi-affordable upgrade from Jeff Heath.

DAY 3 UPDATE: An interesting opportunity lost here, we say, as Cleveland signs Joseph to a one-year deal.

-Dez Bryant - WR: You're probably familiar with his work - and with our many visits with him. Oh, and he lives in DFW.

DAY 3 UPDATE: How about an Emmanuel Sanders DFW homecoming


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