Dallas Cowboys NFL offseason preview: 2022 shaping up as win-or-else season

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy could quiet his critics with a deep playoff run in 2022. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' 2021 season was one that seemed like progress (12-5 record, NFC East title) but ended with a missed opportunity by losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs at AT&T Stadium to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Cowboys believed they were ready to make a deep postseason run with a healthy roster filled with talent on both sides of the ball that showed it could put up points (31.2, most in the league -- although with an asterisk over the second half of the season) and take the ball away (a league-high 34).

The Cowboys were buoyed by win streaks of six and four games in the regular season. They beat two playoff teams (Philadelphia twice, New England) but lost to four others -- Kansas City, Las Vegas, Tampa Bay and Arizona.

In other words, they were good enough to win the NFC East but not good enough to be a true contender, done in by inconsistencies on the offense, with too many penalties and too many big plays allowed.

It all came to a head against San Francisco in the playoffs, which meant a 26th straight season ended without the Cowboys making it to an NFC Championship Game, let alone a Super Bowl.

Projected salary-cap space: Minus-$21,474,792

Top free agents: DE Randy Gregory, LB Leighton Vander Esch, WR Michael Gallup, OL Connor Williams, S Jayron Kearse, TE Dalton Schultz, WR Cedrick Wilson

Potential cut candidates: WR Amari Cooper, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, OL La’el Collins

Cooper’s $20 million base salary in 2022 is fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year (March 21). Cutting him would free up $16 million. If they’re not going to use him like a No. 1 receiver, why pay him like a No. 1 receiver? Lawrence makes more sense as a post-June 1 cut, freeing up $19 million but they can’t replace all he means to the defense in the run and pass game. Collins’ suspension voided his 2022 guaranteed money, which puts his spot in jeopardy, and they can make Terence Steele the starting right tackle. Do they move Collins back to left guard?

What you need to know: It might be too early to say this is it for coach Mike McCarthy but it is certainly shaping up that way. Sean Payton's shadow will linger and owner/GM Jerry Jones went out of his way to keep defensive coordinator Dan Quinn with a contract extension and future raise. While there was obvious progress in his second season, McCarthy will have to do better than winning the NFC East in 2022. With how the offense struggled down the stretch in 2021, he needs to make more of an imprint on that side of the ball considering his background. There might not be an outright Super-Bowl-or-bust mandate from Jones but the pressure will be there. In 2014, Jason Garrett was in the final year of his first contract and needed to win. The Cowboys went 12-4 and made the divisional round of the playoffs only to lose to McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers. McCarthy signed a five-year deal with the Cowboys in 2020, but even with two years remaining he had better win.

Best-case scenario for the team’s offseason: The Cowboys are already sending the message they can’t keep everybody because of the cap. While true, they need to keep the right guys so they need to find a way to keep Gregory and Lawrence and improve the offensive line either in middle-tier free agency or early in the draft. The combination of Gregory, Lawrence and linebacker Micah Parsons should make for a formidable defense in 2022.

Worst-case scenario for the team’s offseason: They keep feeding at the bottom of the free-agent market. They did well there in 2021 with guys like Kearse, Carlos Watkins, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker but were they true difference-makers? Maybe Kearse. The Cowboys have done a better job drafting in recent years, but they need to make a bigger push in free agency even if it is not at the top end of the market.

Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: Known as a team that sticks to its draft board by taking the best prospect available, Dallas has landed cornerstones Parsons and CeeDee Lamb in back-to-back drafts. In a similar situation this year, the Cowboys need help along the interior defensive line and in the secondary.

Top needs: DL, CB, S

Top pick: No. 24