What's going to happen with Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz and other key Cowboys?

INDIANAPOLIS -- So, what the heck are the Dallas Cowboys doing ahead of the start of free agency on March 16? What will they do with several of their key pass-catchers whose futures are unclear?

After four days at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last week, let’s see if we can explain a confluence of events at wide receiver and tight end specifically.

Amari Cooper is expected to be released

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday the Cowboys are "likely" to release Cooper. This should not come as a surprise considering all of the explanations that have been available to the readers. The Cowboys never restructured Cooper’s contract last year, a sign that they would be willing to move on from the $20 million-a-year wide receiver after the second season of the $100 million contract he signed in 2020.

“A lot of things affect [Cooper’s status] in terms of obviously we’ve been so fortunate to have those three great receivers [CeeDee Lamb, Cooper and Michael Gallup] on our roster and obviously that’s hard to keep doing under a salary cap,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said last week.

Had the Cowboys restructured Cooper's deal to create added cap room a year ago, they would have made it more difficult to walk away after 2021. Instead, they chose to rework other contracts, including running back Ezekiel Elliott's, to get more space.

The design of Cooper’s contract made it essentially a two-year deal. By making sure Cooper’s $20 million base salary in 2022 was guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, they gave themselves a $6 million out. If they decide to release Cooper, they open up $16 million in cap room. The Cowboys are currently projected to be more than $21 million over the cap.

A trade remains an option, although the Cowboys have not yet given him permission to seek a trade. But why would a team give up a pick when it knows it can get Cooper in a few weeks if he is cut without forking over a pick? A pay reduction is a possibility but, again, seems unlikely. Cooper enjoys playing in Dallas. He said on 105.3 The Fan that he wants "to be a Dallas Cowboy for life." He knows he has a good situation. How much would he be willing to give up to remain a Cowboy?

The bet: Cooper is released.

Michael Gallup is close to re-signing

Close is always in the eye of the beholder, but the Cowboys have some optimism they can retain Gallup on a long-term deal.

Gallup is coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery in early February and the hope is he is ready for game action in September, though that could be optimistic.

One thing to know: The Cowboys can’t keep Cooper at $20 million and keep Gallup. It’s one or the other.

What favors the Cowboys? Director of rehabilitation Britt Brown for one. Players have a tremendous amount of respect for Brown’s work. They know he has their best interests at heart and has a track record of getting players healthy. Would Gallup want to go to another team with an athletic trainer he does not know for his recovery? Doubtful, unless the money for a new team is so outlandish that he has no choice but to go. However, how many teams will make an outlandish offer to a receiver coming off an injury who has one 1,000-yard season?

Brown’s work also gives the Cowboys confidence that Gallup will make a full return even if he misses a game or two this season.

The bet: Gallup is re-signed.

Dalton Schultz and the franchise tag

This should happen by Tuesday and cost the Cowboys about $11 million. The money is fully guaranteed and hits the salary cap immediately. It also could affect the decision on Cooper. More than $20 million over the cap, the Cowboys need to be under the cap by March 16. Can they carry Cooper’s $22 million cap figure? Yes, but that likely would force them to rework some other contracts that they might not want to rework.

The Cowboys could sign Schultz to a long-term deal, but the tag at least buys them time since they would have until June 15 to work one out. If Schultz hits the open market, he would likely command a deal worth more than $11 million annually. By tagging him, the Cowboys keep one of quarterback Dak Prescott’s trusted playmakers and potentially could tag him again in 2023 if necessary.

"He's developed into that safety valve for Dak in critical situations, similar to a trust that Tony Romo had with Jason Witten," said former Cowboy and current ESPN analyst Marcus Spears.

The bet: Schultz is tagged.

Blake Jarwin's future

The tight end had surgery on his hip last month that will likely keep him out for a portion of the regular season. It is possible he never returns.

The Cowboys signed Jarwin to a four-year deal worth as much as $22 million in 2020, but he has been hurt in each of the past two years, with a torn ACL in 2020. He is set to make $4.25 million this season, but he could accept a reduced salary with the chance to make money back based on incentives.

Brown factors here, too. Jarwin has worked extensively with him the past two seasons and trusts he will get him right. But if the hip does not respond to the surgery, Jarwin’s career could be over. Even if the Cowboys cut Jarwin, they would still owe him money because he is injured. They would gain some cap space but not as much as they could have if he were healthy.

When Mike McCarthy discussed the tight ends last week in Indianapolis, he didn’t mention Jarwin’s name, which seemed ominous.

The bet: Jarwin accepts the pay reduction.

Cedrick Wilson is set to cash in

Among the combine chatter last week was how well Wilson was going to do in free agency, which was not good news for the Cowboys.

Multiple sources believe Wilson could be in line for a deal that averages $6 million to $8 million a year. The Cowboys might be able to make the low end of that market work but not the high end, even if they cut Cooper. (This is with the assumption Gallup will be retained.)

Wilson looks to be this year’s Kendrick Bourne. He signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the New England Patriots last year despite never catching more than 49 passes in a season. Wilson had career highs in catches (45), yards (602) and touchdowns (six) while filling in for Gallup, Cooper and Lamb at times last season.

The bet: Wilson lands a larger deal elsewhere.