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Free agency primer for a Cowboys team with ample opportunity to upgrade

Free agency officially begins for the NFL on March 17 but the “legal tampering period” is already underway, meaning the Dallas Cowboys are free to start shopping.

DALLAS — Talent evaluation and roster construction may be a 365-day-a-year job for the Dallas Cowboys, but some days count more than others. With 2021 NFL free agency set to open, the Cowboys will have to be diligent and shrewd as they seek to improve upon a roster that was ravaged by injuries and finished 6-10 in 2020.

Here is everything fans of America's Team need to know about free agency:

1. Let the tampering begin

Although free agency officially begins at 3:00 p.m. Central Time on March 17 with the ringing in of new league year 2021, there is a 52-hour window of "legal tampering" wherein the Cowboys and the rest of the teams in the league can talk to unrestricted free agents. Dallas can also enter into negotiations with the certified agents of said players.

2. Deadlines make deals

At 3 p.m. Central Time on March 17, not only do all 2020 contracts expire, but the Cowboys have to be under the $182.5 million salary cap. Dallas can also submit qualifying offers to restricted free agents on outgoing deals if they wish to keep them. 

The Cowboys' restricted free agents this year are DT Antwaun Woods, WR Malik Turner, and LT Greg Senat. WR Cedrick Wilson was extended a contract tender earlier on Monday for $2.13 million and the team reached a one-year deal with WR Noah Brown to solidify their receiver depth.

3. Why is the salary cap down?

Cowboys owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones gave a brief overview to "Shan & RJ" on 105.3 "The Fan" [KRLD-FM] on Nov. 3, 2020, about the nature of the salary cap.

"We've already decided that it would be down," Jones said. "The NFL, in general, we decided it would be down. It's natural that it would be down because it's based on the revenues of the prior year. So, we've agreed on that and the real issue is we go forward, no one wanted to think that you could think about having further adjustments to this cap. You should be thinking about that, not just the Cowboys, but in general sport. I'm talking about sport as far as revenue as it pertains to people attending games as you look ahead into '21."

The salary cap went from $198.2 million to $182.5 million, a loss of over seven percent of the salary cap. All 32 NFL teams are missing $15.7 million that could make roster construction much more challenging for some teams than it used it to be. 

4. How much cap space do the Cowboys have?

According to Over the Cap, the Cowboys have $18,812,273, which represents the 15th-highest salary cap space in the NFL. The good news is the Cowboys won't have to make any crazy moves to fit underneath the salary cap when the new league year kicks off. The bad news is it means Dallas is more than likely going to use what space they have for depth building. 

Don't expect the Cowboys to sign a big-name safety who can play centerfield or another "war daddy" pass rusher to play opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence. The salary cap crunch could also mean that Dallas might let free agent cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie walk. 

Safety Xavier Woods could also be a goner. Tackle Cameron Erving – who started five games for Dallas in 2020 – has already agreed to a deal with the Carolina Panthers. The Cowboys may look to the draft for more impactful players to fill some of their roster needs, instead.  

As a further hindrance, the Cowboys have a total of $10.28 million in dead money counting against their 2021 salary cap.

Who would you like to see the Dallas Cowboys target in free agency? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.

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