Why Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are taking 'holistic' view of offseason plan

Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is a candidate to be tagged this year. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

FRISCO, Texas -- Owner Jerry Jones would not budge off his answers regarding defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence's future with the Dallas Cowboys.

Jones was asked Tuesday afternoon if he was optimistic a long-term deal could be reached with Lawrence before the team would need to use the franchise tag on him for a second straight year on March 5. He was asked where the negotiations stood and whether there was more urgency to get the deal done with Lawrence because of the tag deadline.

Jones' answers were largely the same each time.

"I'm not going to get into any of our strategies or how we are going to be doing it," Jones said. "It is strategic, but DeMarcus is certainly a significant part of the now and the future.

"We are in the stages of planning on all our personnel. We've got many of our players that we want to address their contracts in the future. But the obvious ones are the obvious ones and we've got some work to do on others. But all of that, we're still in the fomenting stage, so to speak, of how we're going to approach the overall venture."

That's a wise approach for a general manager to take. The general manager has to have a wider view of the state of the team, even if as the owner Jones might have a month-by-month, if not game-to-game, view of the roster based on wins and losses.

The "obvious" players to whom Jones alluded are Lawrence, Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley.

Lawrence, Cooper, Prescott, Elliott and Jones played in the Pro Bowl in January. Beasley finished second on the team with 65 catches and is a security blanket of sorts for Prescott. They are all significant pieces to a team that won the NFC East in 2018.

Lawrence is at the top of the list because his contract is up and the Cowboys can't afford to lose him. Pass-rushers like him are hard to find. Put the other four in any order you want, but only Beasley is free to test the market when free agency begins March 13.

"We've got a holistic thing that we are looking at relative to -- and holistic being this year, next year and, if you will, even into the third year -- today," Jones said. "And in our case we really do need to make this a two- or three-year season. I'm talking about not just DeMarcus but looking at our total player roster."

Cooper, Prescott and Jones are signed through 2019, with Cooper and Jones set to play this season on the fifth-year option of their rookie contracts. The Cowboys can hold Elliott's rights through 2020 by placing the fifth-year option on him by early May.

Salary-cap management is as important as personnel decisions. For years, the Cowboys have bumped up against the cap and restructured contracts to either get under the cap or create more room, which inflated cap figures in later years. As a result, they carried a lot of dead money on the cap. Even though he has not been on the roster since 2016, Tony Romo counted $10.7 million against the cap in 2017 and $8.9 million in 2018.

This year, the Cowboys have a projected $46 million in cap room, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They have the ability to create more if they want to restructure some contracts (Zack Martin), rework some contracts (Sean Lee) or release players (Allen Hurns).

The Cowboys' stated goal is to retain their own players and use free agency only as a tool to supplement roster holes. Keeping players such as Lawrence, Prescott, Elliott, Jones, Cooper and Beasley would play into that goal, but in keeping the present in mind, the Cowboys also have to think about the future.

Besides Prescott, Cooper and Jones, starters and key contributors such as right tackle La'el Collins, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, cornerback Anthony Brown and safety Jeff Heath are set to be free agents in 2020. In 2021, Elliott could be a free agent, along with defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, defensive end Randy Gregory, linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safety Xavier Woods.

At some point, a team can't keep everybody and difficult financial decisions have to be made. It's also why a team must draft well to supplement the high-priced players with low-cost starters on rookie deals.

With Romo as the starting quarterback from 2006 through 2009, the Cowboys made the playoffs in three of four years but never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. They retained their own key players, such as Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and others, and spent big on players such as Leonard Davis, Terrell Owens and Roy Williams, whom Dallas picked up in a trade from the Detroit Lions in 2008.

The spending did not get the Cowboys to an NFC Championship Game or a Super Bowl and left them short at key positions, such as offensive line, later in Romo's career, leading to three straight 8-8 finishes (2011-13).

The Cowboys have made the playoffs in two of Prescott's three seasons. The window of finding Super Bowl success on Prescott's rookie contract disappears after this season. He will command top quarterback money, just as Cooper, Jones and Elliott will command top receiver, cornerback and running back money, respectively.

There are only so many ways to divide the salary-cap pie, which is why Jerry Jones knows the Cowboys have to spend wisely and take a holistic view.

Only a Super Bowl is at stake.