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Dallas Cowboys free-agency overview: Finding, keeping depth will be test

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Should the Cowboys draft a QB? (1:21)

Marcus Spears suggests the Cowboys consider drafting a quarterback if they can't get a deal done with Dak Prescott. (1:21)

The Dallas Cowboys enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 6-10 season in 2020 and have 17 unrestricted free agents.

While they will not be big spenders in free agency because of the Dak Prescott talks and their unwillingness to go after top-price players, the Cowboys will use the period to fill roster holes, especially on a defense that allowed a franchise-record 473 points last season. A case can be made for needs at all levels of the defense. The Cowboys thought they made solid additions last year in free agency with Gerald McCoy, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dontari Poe, Daryl Worley and Everson Griffen, but McCoy was hurt in the first padded practice of camp, Clinton-Dix was cut before the season, Poe and Worley were cut during the season and Griffen was traded.

Dallas can't afford these kinds of misses in 2021.

Here's what to expect from the Cowboys when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci

UFA: Prescott, Andy Dalton

Game plan: The Cowboys want to sign Prescott to a long-term deal before the March 9 deadline to use the franchise tag. Without one, they will tag him again at a cost of $37.7 million while opening up the door to his departure in 2022 via free agency. Dalton wants to see if there could be a starting job available somewhere else, but he could be back as Prescott's No. 2 if he doesn't see a spot that fits.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Jamize Olawale, Rico Dowdle, Sewo Olonilua

UFA: None

Game plan: Elliott's base salary is not only fully guaranteed for 2021, his 2022 base salary will be fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. He is going nowhere and the Cowboys believe he can get back to the form that made him an NFL rushing champ with the return of Prescott and a healthy line. Olawale opted out of last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Jon'Vea Johnson, Chris Lacy, Aaron Parker

UFA: Noah Brown

Game plan: Maybe they keep Brown on a one-year deal because of his special-teams ability, but he might want to opt for a new team to find a better playing opportunity. Cedrick Wilson is a restricted free agent who had a 100-yard game last season and also can return punts and kicks. Any major additions? Not likely.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon, Cole Hikutini

UFA: Blake Bell

Game plan: Jarwin is expected to be 100% after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener. Schultz had a breakout season. Bell played his role well as a backup and is the best blocker in the group; bringing him back on another cost-effective signing makes sense.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, La'el Collins, Brandon Knight, Terence Steele, Connor McGovern, Adam Redmond, Eric Smith, Marcus Henry, William Sweet

UFA: Joe Looney, Cam Erving

Game plan: The Cowboys traded into the fourth round to get Biadasz a year ago with the idea of him being their future starter. He was on the way to becoming that as a rookie before an injury took him out. Looney is great in the locker room and a solid center, but he might attract more money elsewhere. Erving's season was a disappointment because of injury and his return doesn't seem likely.

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Is Dan Quinn the right DC hire for the Cowboys?

Stephen A. Smith is unsure about Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys as he was the coach for the Falcons' botched onside kick recovery earlier in the season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, Justin Hamilton, LaDarius Hamilton, Justin Hamilton, Walter Palmore

UFA: Aldon Smith, Tyrone Crawford, Eli Ankou

Game plan: Aldon Smith's return seemed more like a given midway through the season than by the end of it. Smith likely played too many snaps and wore down, but in the right role, he can be effective. Crawford is looking at possibly retiring after nine seasons. Ankou, picked up in a trade from Houston, was not much of a factor last season. Keeping Antwaun Woods, a restricted free agent, under the low tender seems like a smart move, especially with a move back to a familiar scheme.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, Azur Kamara

UFA: Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Justin March

Game plan: No group has a bigger evaluation that needs to be made. Can Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch return to form? Lee and Thomas could be back on the right price for the value they bring on and off the field. Lee remains the best leader on defense, and Thomas can play every special-teams group and all three linebacker spots if needed. This group could look wildly different in 2021 than it has the past few years.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Rashard Robinson, Saivion Smith, Chris Westry, Maurice Canady, Kemon Hall

UFA: Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, C.J. Goodwin

Game plan: Awuzie did not have the contract year he or the team wanted in part because of injury, but he has never had more than one interception in a season. Lewis is the most natural playmaker in the secondary but he gets penalized too much. Of the two, he would appear more likely to return. The easiest decision is keeping Goodwin, who is the Cowboys' best special-teamer.

SAFETY

Under contract: Donovan Wilson, Darian Thompson, Steven Parker, Reggie Robinson II

UFA: Xavier Woods

Game plan: Woods had a disappointing 2020 season, failing to record an interception for the first time in his career. Maybe it was the scheme change. Maybe it was the pressure of a contract year. The Cowboys have not made a huge financial or draft investment at safety for years. That could change in 2021.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: Greg Zuerlein, Hunter Niswander, Chris Jones

UFA: L.P. Ladouceur

Game plan: There should be no doubting Ladouceur's return for a 17th season, when he would set the team record for service and games played. There has been no drop-off for him. Jones might find himself in a cap crunch because of the money the Cowboys could need to add more help after Niswander did a solid job as a fill-in at punter.