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Amari Cooper among six wild cards to track as free agency nears

INDIANAPOLIS -- Seeing Mike McCarthy in Cowboys gear will take some getting used to. Seeing Mike McCarthy coach Amari Cooper in a Cowboys uniform may not happen at all.

Speaking Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, McCarthy said the Cowboys' "goal" was to get Cooper and Randall Cobb back on the roster. But I've noticed a strange confidence among Cowboys fans and media that re-signing the market's top available wideout is destined to happen just because the Cowboyswant it so. I don't see it that way, with Cooper one of the league's biggest wild cards to track over the next month.

The Cowboys front office has too much to get accomplished in the upcoming weeks. A long-term extension for Dak Prescott would open up the franchise tag to use on Cooper, but there's no reason to believe Dak's deal is directly around the corner. Depending on if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is agreed to soon, the Cowboys could also use the transition tag on Cooper. But using that tag doesn't make Cooper especially likely to stay, it would just allow them a chance to match a potentially unmatchable deal. Dallas would have the same problem if Cooper hit free agency: 31 teams would have the opportunity to steal him away. Many of those teams have greater cap flexibility and fewer needs than the Cowboys, and it wouldn't be hard to create a front-loaded deal that Dallas couldn't match.

"[Cooper] did a lot of great things on tape and he really looks like he's in sync with Dak," McCarthy said. "I'd even say Randall even more. I was very impressed with Randall last year. He was banged up a couple of years prior to that, but I thought he had a heck of a season last year in Dallas. I was very impressed with him."

That "even more" stuck out. McCarthy has a history with Cobb, who will come at a fraction of Cooper's cost. The Cowboys will also have to address an incredible shortage of snaps on their defensive line with the cap space they have, in addition to fitting Prescott's contract into their 2020 plans whether it's on a tag or not. If the Cowboys want to keep Cooper, they probably need to sign Dak before the franchise tag deadline of March 12.

History indicates that it's very difficult to get long-term deals signed at this time of year. Players like Prescott who will be franchise tagged are in no rush and have terrific leverage. Players like Cooper waited five years to reach the open market, so why not wait a few more weeks to maximize earnings and opportunities?

Cooper, who is ranked No. 3 on our Top 101 free agents list, is set up to become the NFL's highest-paid receiver or close to it. By waiting so long to finish Prescott's deal during the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys could lose any chance of seeing Cooper play under McCarthy.

Cooper hitting free agency would be a fascinating wrinkle to track in March. He's one of six wild cards to watch as free agency approaches.

2) Howie Roseman, general manager, Philadelphia Eagles: Roseman and his dueling band of traditional scouts and analytics mavens did a commendable job trying to keep the 2017 championship squad together over the past two seasons. Incredibly bad injury luck helped slow that effort during two playoff appearances, but Roseman knows that it's time to move on.

Unencumbered by some of the salary cap constraints that existed the last two seasons and fortified by a full array of draft picks, Roseman figures to be far more aggressive and creative this offseason. The Eagles GM said this week it would be a "re-tool" period for the team, like 2016 or '17. After a couple of quieter years, that will be welcome news to Eagles fans.

"We knew in '20 we would have to change that. So now we're looking at it over the course of a window -- not that we don't want to win this year, we desperately want to win this year -- but more over building this team over 2020, 2021, hopefully 2022," Roseman said. "So I think that maybe changes the complexion of some of our decisions this offseason."

The Eagles need to find some young talent in the draft and they need to refresh their veteran stable. Alshon Jeffery would be a tricky contract to offload, but Roseman has shown creativity getting out of jail before. The Eagles never can have enough linemen on both sides of the ball and the pass rush looks like a particular area that could be addressed this offseason, especially with a deep free-agent crop. The Eagles need to improve at wide receiver in order to complement their dynamic tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and they could be aggressive in that area.

If I could guess what surprise trade or signing is coming from the Eagles, it wouldn't be a surprise anymore. But I will be surprised if Roseman doesn't transform this roster in significant ways, like he did back in 2016 when he added multiple starters in free agency. This is not an organization that stays quiet for long.

3) Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings:Vikings general manager Rick Spielman did his best to quiet down the trade rumors this week by saying "there's no reason to anticipate Stefon Diggs is not going to be a Minnesota Viking."

The use of a tortured double negative is a red flag. So is the memory of Spielman saying similar things before dealing Percy Harvin.

It's unclear if Diggs removing all Vikings-related content from his Instagram handle matters, and the Vikings certainly wouldn't trade him without getting fair compensation in return. But NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport said this week he still wouldn't rule out Diggs being available for the right price. If Diggs pushes for a move -- on social media or behind the scenes -- that would only make it trickier for the Vikings to keep him.

4) Jon Gruden, head coach, Las Vegas Raiders: I wrote about Derek Carr's precarious situation on Tuesday, so will try not to repeat myself much here. General manager Mike Mayock is the one executing any trade, but surely Gruden's desires in pro personnel carry weight, especially at quarterback. If Gruden pushes hard to make a splash in free agency, the draft, or through a trade, it could start a domino effect. Of all the teams and coaches that could stand pat at quarterback or take a big swing, Gruden has the track record and the motivation to believe he could get bold. And to believe he could fix another team's problem.

The Raiders have plenty of cap space and are moving into a new stadium. They have a huge need at wide receiver, as Mayock admitted Tuesday. There isn't a position group on the defense that doesn't need work. Whether it's making a splash at quarterback or elsewhere, Gruden's impulses could spice up the coming weeks. It could be up to Mayock to convince his coach to think longer-term.

5) Taysom Hill, quarterback, New Orleans Saints: Most of the speculation regarding Hill this offseason has been overheated because of the realities of his contract. As a restricted free agent, the most likely strategy for the Saints is to place a second-round tender on the fourth-year quarterback which amounts to a one-year contract offer projected to be worth roughly $3.3 million, per Over The Cap. A richer first-round tender (approximately $4.7 million) is also possible, but I suspect the Saints wouldn't mind some outside interest in Hill.

Saints coach Sean Payton has been pumping up Hill's value to the media for years. If Hill was truly viewed as the next Steve Young, the Saints would have played him over Teddy Bridgewater last season. New Orleans doesn't have a second-round pick this season and could use that tender to see if anyone bites on signing Hill away. Hill would be free to sign an offer sheet elsewhere -- perhaps for quality backup money -- and the Saints would have five days to match the offer.

Ultimately, it's an uphill battle for Hill to get his wish granted to play quarterback elsewhere. It would be fascinating to see another team try to sign him away, and he's a name to watch during the second wave of free agency after many of the big-name quarterbacks are accounted for. The most likely outcome is that Payton will have a chance to give Hill a contract worthy of the next Steve Young whenever Drew Brees decides to retire.

6) Bill Belichick, GM/coach, New England Patriots: It's not just that Belichick could pull the lever on the most Belichickian move of all by moving on from Tom Brady. He could move on from the entire Gronkowski era 2010s, albeit a year late. Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy are all free agents. Patrick Chung and Stephen Gostkowski are candidates to be cut. The writing is on the wall to rip off the Band-Aid and return in 2020 with a dramatically different roster, no matter who is at quarterback. Belichick has shown before he's not afraid to take this approach and may just be reinvigorated by it. At least once he gets back from Middle Tennessee State.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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