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MOBILE, Ala. — Will McClay didn’t hesitate.
“We expect Dak to be our quarterback,” the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel said Wednesday from the stadium concourse at Senior Bowl practice. “If the owner/GM says we’re going to get it done, he signs the checks. So we’ll get that done.
“We’re excited about it and realize the value of him as a player.”
But team management understands: With 25 Cowboys hitting unrestricted free agency this offseason, the team likely will part ways with some 2019 starters.
“Every year’s a challenge,” McClay said. “You go through that. This is the way the NFL is made. You’ve got the salary cap, so you can’t keep everybody. We go through and find out what’s valuable for us, who will fit within our parameters and then we want to try and fill the holes in free agency and draft.”
The Cowboys have some flexibility to designate one player with the franchise tag and another with the transition tag connected to the final year of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Seven offensive starters remain under contract, with Prescott a nearly-guaranteed eighth returner, too. After trading their 2019 first-round selection for receiver Amari Cooper, front office members suggest Cooper will be back, too. They’ll need to address expiring contracts at tight end (Jason Witten) and their third receiver (Randall Cobb).
On defense, the holes to fill are more gaping. Starters entering free agency include defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackles Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins, linebacker Sean Lee, cornerback Byron Jones and safety Jeff Heath.
“It’s going to be a tough deal,” McClay said. “It’s the NFL. You have your quarterback you have to pay, you have a receiver, you have good players. And when you have good players, you have to figure out how to pay them or how to survive.
“We’ve got to go through that whole process.”
But for now, the Cowboys aren’t publicly indicating Jones will return as strongly as they are Prescott and Cooper.
Jones has played 79 games, starting 73, since the Cowboys selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft. He was a hybrid corner-safety as a rookie, then spent two seasons at safety before moving back to cornerback for 2018 and 2019. Jones has notched 347 tackles in his career, allowing an average of 6.2 yards per target in pass coverage. At times opponents have appeared to shift game plans away from whoever Jones defended. But in a takeaway-starved defense, Jones hasn’t created many turnovers. He has intercepted just two passes, and forced three fumbles, in his career.
“He’s a starting-caliber NFL corner, a really good player,” McClay said. “We have to figure out his financial value and if it fits for us.”
That player evaluation will go through McClay, vice president Stephen Jones and the personnel department. McCarthy and his coaching staff will weigh in, too, and McClay values what personnel familiar with the roster and coaches with a fresh perspective will provide. McCarthy hired Mike Nolan, most recently the Saints' linebackers coach, as defensive coordinator. Maurice Linguist from Texas A&M will coach defensive backs alongside Al Harris, who has worked with the Dolphins and Chiefs in addition to playing for teams including the Packers from 2003-10. McCarthy has said the defensive scheme and terminology will change significantly.
The offense, under coordinator Kellen Moore, will build off 2019 principles with new wrinkles from McCarthy and his staff. Ensuring success for Prescott, alongside a robust run game, will be a focus.
Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones hasn’t wavered from expressing his support for Prescott. His son Stephen reiterated Tuesday that Prescott’s contract is the team’s “No. 1 priority,” while receiver Amari Cooper is No. 2.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein