Byron Jones, the top free agent in his class, is about to get capital-P Paid.
Be it from the Dallas Cowboys, who’ve pushed Jones to the backburner behind Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, or another NFL team, who surely could use his pass-defending services, the 27-year-old is primed to shatter the cornerback market.
The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia recently predicted that Jones will become the league’s richest at his position, perhaps by a few million dollars.
That title belongs to Miami’s Xavien Howard, who’s earning more than $15 million annually. The Cowboys have to figure out how to proceed with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Jones this offseason. Prescott and Cooper figure to be higher priorities, and if Jones hits the market, he’s likely to see a big payday. He’ll turn 28 next season, has cornerback/safety versatility (which coaches love), has missed just one game due to injury in five seasons and has played at a high level. Marcus Peters recently re-signed with the Ravens on a deal that will pay him $14 million annually. That’s the floor for Jones. But he could easily reset the market at $16 million or $17 million.
The club’s first-round draft pick in 2015 (No. 27 overall), Jones wrapped up his rookie contract, earning $6.266 million from his fifth-year option. A Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro in 2018, he took a step back this season, totaling 46 tackles, six pass deflections, and one forced fumble. He failed to record an interception for the second year in a row.
By their own admission, the Cowboys declared Prescott the “urgent” contractual priority and his primary weapon, Cooper, a close No. 2. While the team can conceivably retain the troika, thanks to an estimated $77 million in salary-cap space, they’ve also made it abundantly clear Jones may be left wanting.
“He’s a starting-caliber NFL corner. A really good player. We have to figure out his financial value and if it fits for us,” Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay said last week, via the Dallas Morning News.
Smoke becoming fire, McClay conceded it’ll be difficult inking all three of Prescott, Cooper, and Jones — unrestricted free agents — to long-term, lucrative contracts. There’s a distinct chance the latter departs and finds himself donning a different uniform in 2020.
“I think it’s going to be a tough deal,” he said. “It’s the NFL. …When you have good players, you have to figure out how to pay them or how to survive. So, that’s what we do in the front office is to try to figure how to work those contracts and get the best possible team with those guys. We’ve got to go through that whole process.”
Reporting from last month’s Senior Bowl festivities, plugged-in NFL analyst Tony Pauline passed along a rumor that Jones could sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, who are expected to aggressively pursue defensive backs in free agency. Pauline also mentioned Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. as an option for the reigning NFC East champions.
“Word here in Mobile is that the Philadelphia Eagles will go hard after a cornerback in free agency. Chris Harris and Byron Jones are two of the names being thrown around, but I expect the Eagles to turn over every rock in free agency in an attempt to fill the position,” Pauline wrote.
The Lions, Panthers, Raiders, Broncos, and Vikings are among other teams that might be hunting for CB help in the weeks ahead.
Meaning Jones will have a robust market — and potentially a record-setting pact awaiting him.
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Cowboys Advised to Let Jones Walk this Offseason
There’s only so much money the Cowboys can throw around when the signing period opens, none of which should go to Jones.
This, according to Bleacher Report, which listed one impending free agent each NFL team must “let walk away this offseason,” naming the star defender as Dallas’ representative.
The Dallas Cowboys could theoretically bring back quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and cornerback Byron Jones. But that’d be extremely prohibitive, even for a team with nearly $80 million in salary-cap space.
So since Dallas can’t realistically let go of Prescott or Cooper without taking a big step backward on offense, Jones will likely have to go.
He’s probably their best corner, but that’s the issue. A 27-year-old outside cover man with a Pro Bowl on his resume will likely command a large deal on the open market. Dallas can’t afford to get involved in that game, especially with talented youngsters Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis already on the roster.
The Cowboys should focus on Prescott and Cooper, let Jones strike gold elsewhere, re-sign the inevitably cheaper Anthony Brown and pick up another corner early in the draft.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL