Jason Witten's return will hinder Cowboys; Jaguars' smart move

INDIANAPOLIS -- The most exciting moment of the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine was an inbox notification: "Dallas Cowboys agree to contract terms with Jason Witten."

After making sure this wasn't the email equivalent of a RapSheeeet tweet, the transaction initially looked like a classic win-win-win-win scenario.

Witten is able to do what he loves best in the world, "getting back in the dirt," as he put it. The Cowboys were able to add a veteran presence at a young, thin position on the roster. ESPN and Witten were given a smooth exit strategy from an unfortunate alignment that had grown untenable by Witten's final two broadcasts in Oakland and Orlando. Viewers who cherish Monday nights have better days to look forward to next season.

And then I saw Witten's contract terms and what they say about the Cowboys. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Witten will earn up to $5 million, with a $3.5 million base salary. Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports Witten has agreed to play roughly 25 snaps a game, making him an awfully expensive backup. Who, exactly, were the Cowboys bidding against?

Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect Witten to accept a salary that is closer to the league minimum, but he's a 37-year-old tight end who did not move well recently, averaging 8.9 yards-per-catch in 2017, before taking a year off the sport. Already, there is talk about Witten's value as a "coach on the field," and his potential future coaching prospects, but that's valuable salary cap space to spend on redirecting a franchise legend's career path.

If there has been one consistent failing of the Cowboys' personnel moves during the Jerry Jones era, it has been sentimentality. Jones often rewards his favorite players too well for too long, the opposite of Bill Belichick's approach of sometimes letting go of a player a year too early. They haven't alwaysself-scouted well.

Witten's signing won't make or break the Cowboys' 2019 season, but it's part of a larger trend that has held the organization back. And it arrives during an offseason where the team has crucial decisions to make and contracts to create.

The team waited for Randy Gregory and David Irving to turn their careers around for too long. With Gregory suspended indefinitely and Irving likely to leave in free agency, they are more desperate than ever to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence to a massive contract extension. (They could have signed Lawrence last offseason for cheaper.) The Cowboys tried and mostly struggled to develop a successor to Witten, with Blake Jarwin in-house and Geoff Swaim about to hit free agency. Adding Witten to the team's offense will immediately make them slower, so they will need to add speed to a receiver group undergoing major turnover with Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley and possibly Allen Hurns all likely on the way out. Jones needs cap space to work on extensions for Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Byron Jones and Amari Cooper.

Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said this week that coach Jason Garrett needed to take the "next step" this season before getting a new contract, throwing down the gauntlet that an early playoff loss isn't good enough. It's hard to take a step forward, however, when the front office so often struggles to let go of the past.

"Monday Night Football" viewers aren't the only winners right now. Below are the rest of the winners and losers from this week with head coach and general manager press conference availability wrapped up, with a focus on Thursday's sessions:


The Jaguars: In a move that slipped under the radar Wednesday, ESPN's Field Yates reported the details of Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus' pay cut. The move opened up $5 million in cap space, with Dareus reducing his 2019 pay by roughly $2.5 million in exchange for more upfront money and the final year of his contract in 2020 being eliminated. Convincing any quality veteran to take less money is always a coup, and the extra space should help the Jaguars spend on finding a new quarterback.

That task grew a lot easier this week following the news that Nick Foles will hit free agency. As March gets closer, it's becoming harder to find a reason to believe Foles won't end up in Jacksonville. The Giants appear satisfied with Eli Manning, the Redskins are already spending too much at quarterback and the Dolphins don't appear likely to fork over the necessary money.

The only teams that could get in the Jaguars' way would have to come seemingly out of nowhere ...

Top of the draft QB intrigue: Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock trading Derek Carr so that they could either draft a quarterback or sign Foles to a contract is almost too crazy to be true, but I wouldn't rule out Gruden doing anything. With the Giants and Jaguars hovering at picks No. 6 and 7 and two of the top five picks (Arizona at No. 1 and Oakland at No. 4) capable of seemingly anything, the next few months should be ripe for delicious rumors.

After Cardinals GM Steve Keim's seemingly cautious comments about Josh Rosen on Wednesday, folks noticed that all of the quarterback's Cardinals-related posts were no longer on his Instagram account. Rosen had tweeted earlier in the week that the account was hacked, and the timeline indicates it could all be a strange coincidence, but this is the type of draft nonsense we need to fill the weeks until April!

Kyler Murray measuring in over 5-foot-10 Thursday, along with the growing league-wide consensus expressed by Raiders coach Jon Gruden that Murray's height was no big deal, leads me to believe that the Giants and the Jaguars will have to trade up if they want Murray or Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins.

Lamar Miller truthers:Texans GM Brian Gaine indicated that the team wants Lamar Millerto remain the starting running back, with the position not sounding like a priority in free agency or the draft. It's a bit surprising in light of Miller's ho-hum Texans track record, but the team has bigger needs. Gaine was far less certain about cornerback Kevin Johnson coming back on the fifth year of his rookie option. It's expected that Johnson will be released. Houston has looming secondary questions with Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu also set to hit free agency.

Greg Olsen:Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that Olsen intends to play again in 2019, and the team wants him back. Witten's departure from ESPN, however, could open up a broadcast opportunity for Olsen after he tried out for the same role in 2018. Olsen wins either way. (Panthers fans who were hoping for a new left tackle didn't win, though, after Rivera indicated Matt Kalilwill be back with the team in 2019.)

Rams free agents: General manager Les Snead announced the team is definitely not planning to use the franchise tag and cast doubt on whether they could work out long-term deals with safety Lamarcus Joyner, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or defensive end Dante Fowler before free agency starts. It sounds like all three starters will be allowed to test the market. The Rams may want Fowler the most of that trio, but he also could inspire the most interest from outside parties.

Gary Kubiak: After listening to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and VP Rick Spielman this week, it's clear that Minnesota is fired up about running Kubiak's offense. The team will implement stretch zone running concepts and Kubiak's system in a variety of ways. Incumbent Kevin Stefanski has the offensive coordinator title, but it sure sounds like Kubiak is running the show.

The safety market: A year after safeties were ignored in free agency, they could get paid well across the board this year. Giants GM Dave Gettleman's comments indicated that Landon Collins may be allowed to shop his wares to set a new market, if Earl Thomas doesn't sign to huge bucks first. Lamarcus Joyner and Tyrann Mathieu should also avoid franchise tags and see long-term guaranteed money.


Chiefs fans with Justin Houston jerseys: One way or another, Houston is set to become an ex-Chief in the coming weeks. GM Brett Veach was noncommittal when I asked about Houston's future Thursday, admitting that there will be a "lot of dialogue" with Houston's representatives and possible interested teams, noting that "everything is fluid." NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport believed that a Houston trade was realistic despite the hefty contract he's carrying. My guess is that Houston would only cost a late-round pick or a pick swap, because he's due $15.5 million this season.

Anyone wanting tangible Antonio Brown destinations: There has been a lot of talk surrounding Mr. Big Chest this week, but not a lot of specifics. The 49ers, Jets and Browns all denied making contact with the Steelers about Brown, even though Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said that more than three teams have reached out to Pittsburgh.

Brown is due a roster bonus on March 17, and it's possible that teams will wait until after the free-agent market dies down and that bonus is paid before getting serious about a trade. It's even more likely that the best deal for Pittsburgh won't arrive until closer to the NFL draft, so we could be circling this story for a while.

49ers GM John Lynch did express his "respect" for Brown, even if the team has yet to reach out.

Jamie Collins:Browns GM John Dorsey said that he was meeting with Collins' agent to discuss his future and whether he was a fit in the team's new defense. That sure sounds like a precursor to a request for a pay cut or possibly putting Collins on the trade block.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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