Is everyone in agreement here? We pretty much all know the drill as far as the Cowboys needs for this off-season. The consensus is that Dallas needs help at inside linebacker, nose tackle, safety, and maybe some depth or competition along the offensive line as well. A new backup quarterback would be nice too. Each of these needs are very important and should be addressed via free agency, or in the early rounds of the draft. While this year's free agency signing period, and draft will probably be mostly about "meat and potatoes," the Cowboys would be well served to pick up a few "sides dishes" late in the draft, or on the free agency value menu. Here are a few secondary areas of need for the 2009 Cowboys.
Situational Rusher - Wade Phillips believes that you can never have too many pass rushers. Coming off a league high 59 sacks in 2008, the Cowboys will need to keep the heat coming next season. Greg Ellis will turn 34 midway through training camp, and a hefty cap number means he is not even a lock to be on the roster come June. Anthony Spencer has been solid but not spectacular, and will move into a full-time starting role basically by default. The Cowboys can live with Ware and Spencer starting outside, but there is little depth behind them. Outside of Justin Rogers, there is not even another true outside linebacker on the roster. The way the roster sits today, an injury to Ware or Spencer would be devastating. Right now, there isn't anyone on the roster who could possibly make Wade Phillips feel comfortable about giving Ware an occasional rest.
What the Cowboys need at bare minimum is a situational pass rusher. If nothing else, the Cowboys need someone they can plug in in passing situations who can just flat out get to the quarterback. He does not have to be a polished 3-4 outside linebacker right out of the chute, but drafting a guy with future starter potential would be a plus. It is possible the Cowboys could duct tape the situation by adding depth inside, and moving Bobby Carpenter yet again back to the position he was drafted to play. The Cowboys would probably be best served to keep their eyes open in the middle rounds for a pass rusher like Cincinnati's Connor Barwin, or Utah's Paul Kruger.
Punt Returner - Bill Parcells had the right idea when he drafted Skyler Green in the 4th round of the 2006 draft. He just picked the wrong dude. Parcells knows that good return men are undervalued, and coming out, Green was considered one of the nation's top return men, and a pretty safe bet to be an okay slot receiver. That's not bad value in round 4.
The Cowboys need to find a field-flipper in the punt return game, and returning kickoffs would be a bonus. Felix Jones has proven to be more than capable as a kickoff returner, but his role on offense is uncertain, and the staff may not want to risk him on special teams if it is not absolutely necessary. Patrick Crayton is sure-handed but unwatchable as a punt returner, and even Adam Jones with all of his natural ability struggled to find daylight behind Bruce Read's return unit. A repair of the return unit as a whole will be needed, but that process would be eased by the addition of a dynamic return man. The Chicago Bears are structurally sound on returns, but there are times that Devin Hester just makes things happen on his own. The Cowboys haven't had a guy like that since Deion Sanders was here.
In today's NFL, I think it is justifiable to select an elite return man in the middle rounds even if he offers little contribution on either offense or defense. An occasional short field would be a great benefit to an occasionally sputtering offense. Once all the pressing needs are filled, it would be nice for Dallas to target a return man who can energize this team with an occasional big runback. Louisiana-Lafayette wide receiver Jason Chery is currently projected to go late, but reports of his recent 4.22 clockings in the forty may trigger a Donnie Avery like ascension up draft boards. Florida State's Tony Carter is electric on returns, and despite his size he is no pushover at corner either.
Question: Has anyone else caught themselves daydreaming about West Virginia quarterback Pat White with a star on his helmet, returning a few kicks and running a little wildcat? He'll probably be gone too early for the Cowboys to justify snatching him up, but that would certainly be a lot of fun.
Cornerback - I know the Cowboys just took two fine young cornerbacks in last year's draft, but there is little room for complacency in the secondary. Adam Jones is gone. Anthony Henry could either be moved to free safety or free agency next season. And as good as Terence Newman is, he is 30, and he has not been healthy in two years. Alan Ball has improved, but would you trust him full time as the third corner if Newman were to go down again?
There are not too many realistic free agent options for the Cowboys at this position. Nnamdi Asomugha just re-upped with the Raiders, but if you were even entertaining that idea, you should probably just sign him to your pretend Madden ‘09 Cowboys along with Julius Peppers, Ray Lewis and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. I bet you can't make the cap numbers work there either. Guys like Bryant McFadden (PIT), Ronald Bartell (STL), and Domonique Foxworth (ATL) are not elite players, but a thin market may price them out of the Cowboys range. Phillip Buchanon would fill satisfy two needs (corner and punt returner), but he is probably the type of guy who is good enough to push for a starting job. The Cowboys just need a capable body on the corner.
The 2009 crop of cornerbacks has really not yet defined itself beyond the top 4-5 prospects, so it is hard to tell who will be available late. Again, Florida State's Tony Carter makes sense late in the draft, because of his added value in the punt return game. The same could be said for Virginia Tech's Victor "Macho" Harris, who is reportedly struggling to crack the high 4.5's in the forty, and will almost inevitably slide because of it. The Cowboys can only hope to be fortunate enough to find another Orlando Scandrick in the 5th round of this year's draft.
The Cowboys have a few pressing needs that need to be filled before they kickoff their 2009 training camp, but this off-season, look for the Cowboys to acquire a few role players along the way.