The long, slow dance between the Cowboys and Earl Thomas has come to an end.
The one player who could get the club to break from its miserly ways in free agency, the Pro Bowl safety with an eye for the star and the talent and charisma to pry open the club’s checkbook, has gone elsewhere.
Thomas will play for Baltimore. The Ravens offer of four years for $55 million, with a guarantee of $32 million was too rich for the Cowboys’ fiscally responsible blood.
The free agent watch is over. Sure, the Cowboys will pick off a player or two or three in the coming days and weeks, but the focus, as it has been for the previous six years, will be on signing their own. The spotlight immediately brightens — if it ever really dimmed — on the need to reach an agreement with DeMarcus Lawrence.
More on that in a bit.
The chance of Thomas and the Cowboys getting together took a devastating hit six months ago when the player broke his leg. No trade with Seattle, and a subsequent agreement that would be tied to the deal, put him on the open market.
After signing cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal in 2012, the Cowboys have shown an aversion to handing out big contracts in free agency, convinced that teams almost always pay inflated prices for top talent.
That stance convinced some that Thomas would never land in Dallas. But Thomas was a special case. The Cowboys were willing to make an exception to their recent free agent approach to pursue him, but only to a point.
Baltimore was compelled to go beyond that point after watching what division rival Cleveland had done.
Can the Cowboys still upgrade the position? Sure. George Iloka and Adrian Phillips are names to keep in mind.
But the interest in Thomas wasn’t just about finding a safety. It was about acquiring the best player in the league at his position. If the club doesn’t have a strong interest in the candidates left it will address the position in the draft.
With Thomas out of the picture, removing the franchise tag from Lawrence and reaching a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl defensive end takes precedence.
Defensive end Trey Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal with Detroit, with guarantees of $56 million. Consider that the floor for Lawrence. Khalil Mack’s deal of six years of $141 million, with guarantees of $90 million, is the ceiling.
Sean Lee was willing to take a pay cut earlier this week because he knows he’ll be a backup going forward. He also did it to create more cap space for the Cowboys to sign Lawrence and keep this defense together.
No direct line is drawn from the roughly $4 million in savings from Lee’s restructured contract to Lawrence’s impending deal. The veteran linebacker didn’t secure a promise that the money will be dedicated to signing the defensive end.
But Lee understands the economics of the business. He knows the size of the investment required to keep Lawrence and wants to do all he can to make it happen.
“He’s such an incredible player and a guy we all feed off,” Lee said. “He’s extremely important to the defense, down in and down out.
“It goes beyond his pass rushing ability. It’s what he does against the run. It’s how he’ll run screens down when the play is 20 to 30 yards downfield.
“We all understand how important he is. Having him is huge for us.”
Lee, who has been working out with a core of players at The Star recently, intends to call Lawrence in the next week or so to check on how he’s doing. He’ll return for a 10th season because of his belief in what this team can accomplish.
“I think that’s one of the most exciting parts of coming back,” said Lee, who reduced his base salary from $7 to $2 million with an incentive package that can pump that final figure back up. “This defense has been building over the last couple of years to play at a level we’ve wanted to play at consistently, and as some of the young guys continue to improve, we’re going to continue to get better and better.
“I know the type of team we have, and the opportunity to be part of it is something that is special, something I care about and want to be a part of.”
The Cowboys need to ensure Lawrence will be a part of this defense as soon as possible.
The same can no longer be said of Earl Thomas.
The Cowboys usually lose more players than they sign in free agency, ending with a negative total in five of the previous six years. Dallas is off to a similar start in 2019, having lost Cole Beasley and Damien Wilson while failing to add a player from another team in free agency’s opening day.