Disappointing? Expected? It depends on what your view of this team has been for the last couple years, but Dallas finished 8-8, and flailed through a nail biting season. Along the way, weaknesses were exposed, leaders emerged, and to say the unexpected became expected would be an understatement. Moving forward, the primary question of the offseason, personnel wise, is what to address, and how best to address it (free agency, or the draft). Let's check out our options at each position, so we have a good idea of what positions to draft, and what free agents we might want to break the bank for. I try to take as much into consideration as I can, including what value at certain positions may be available in different rounds of the draft, and what free agents will likely be on the market. You won't read anything like "We should sign an elite safety in free agency" because there are none available. This is a realistic look at our options this year, in the draft and in free agency.
I thought Romo had one of the best years of his career, and I've been far from a Romo supporter. He didn't light up the stat sheet, but he also didn't cost us many games. In fact, the one or two that he may have hurt us in, harbored a number of other areas to point fingers at besides #9. With 31 TD's to 10 INT's, and over 4,000 yards, you can't complain about the starting QB. Add in the fact that he played through a severe injury, and missed time with another. With that said though, we all know Romo's good when he's good and bad when he's bad. Is this the start of Romo figuring it out, or just another upswing in the Romo-coaster? History would suggest the latter, but seeing the highs is almost addictive. At least for Jerry Jones.
Back up QB is another matter. McGee seems to have cemented himself as a #3 QB at best, and Kitna's finished. We'd have to spend a high pick on a serviceable back up if we need one to be ready to play this year, and while that might be best, in case Romo continues the trend of inconsistency, we simply have to take another ride on the Romo-coaster, because we can't afford a high pick on a young QB this year.
We're better off looking to free agency for our back up QB, but don't expect us to sign Matt Flynn, or the next Kevin Kolb. We'll be looking at guys like Derek Anderson and Shaun Hill.
Well, Demarco Murray looks to be our featured back. He was one of the few bright spots on the roster this year. Felix figures to be the back up, and Tanner the short yardage back. Once Murray and Tanner get healthy, we should be in good shape here. I see this as an area that doesn't need to be addressed in the offseason, as long as all three guys are healthy. Tanner may have some competition in the offseason from some practice squad guys or undrafted free agents, but mostly this position is set.
Position is set.
Fiametta might be the answer. Fullbacks are cheap though, and not in high demand these days. If the team wants to bring in somebody else, it would be cheap in free agency and late in the draft, but Fiametta looked pretty good to me.
Witten is still Witten. Behind him though, Marty B is a free agent (much to the relief of some), and if I'm Jerry Jones, I let him walk. I know Jerry has been irked with Bennett in the past, and I don't expect him to return. Phillips looks to have promise, but isn't the best blocker, and is more of an offensive target than blocking tight end. I've been an advocate of adding a fullback and trending away from the 2 tight end sets, and this could be the opportunity we need. Re-signing Fiametta seems like a no-brainer anyway, and our offense had success with a fullback. With so many other holes to fill, there may be a number of reasons to lean more on the fullback next year. Our offense has proven to be effective with the fullback, and it eliminates an offseason need. Maybe pick up a third tight end late in the draft, or as an UDFA, but 3 tight ends and a fullback may be more than we need anyway.
Don't re-sign Bennett. Use Phillips and Witten on downs that require 2 TE passing options, and Fiammetta and Witten on downs that require an extra blocker.
Another one of the lesser needs on the team. Austin and Dez are the starters no question They're under contract and no need to upgrade. Robinson was huge as our #3 this year, and he should be high on our list to re-sign, assuming the contract is at least somewhat reasonable. We do have money to spend. Jesse Holley might be ok as a #4, but with Ogletree as a restricted free agent, I doubt he receives an offer. It would sure be nice to add a special teams weapon as a #4 or 5 wide receiver. If the 9ers don't re-sign Ginn, I'd sure like to see us sign him. He won't cost much, and he's one of the best returners in the game. There's also a couple guys late in the draft I'd look at, including Boykin and Demps, but I wouldn't spend a pick higher than the 5th round on a depth chart wide receiver and return specialist. We haven't had much luck drafting return specialists lately, but that's mostly because we've drafted guys that "can return" rather than actual return guys.
Re-sign Robinson. Maybe re-sign Holley. Sign Ginn if available. Sign or draft (late) a depth player, preferably with return ability.
This is one of the major needs on the team. Smith is our most solid player on the line, as a rookie, and that's frightening. If not for the atrocious play inside, Doug Free would be taking a lot more heat. He put up Flozell like penalty numbers, and if anything, regressed, more than improved. Thank god Smith played well. At the very least, we might be able to swap our tackles, and hopefully solve some problems with Free. If he still struggles at right tackle though, it'll have to be addressed. We just don't have the means to address it now, as he's the second best lineman. We have to try switching the tackles and hope that solves the problem this year.
Our interior line is a total disaster. I don't know who's to blame for so decisively and confidently going with Costa and Nagy at the beginning of the year, but it was one of the worst personnel decisions in recent memory for this team. Neither of them are NFL ready, and we had nobody behind them as a safety net. The middle of the pocket was collapsing on Romo all year, we had no short yardage push, and we could only run up the middle by cannon balling a fullback in there. Kosier is at least serviceable, but average at best as well, and declining. The other guard position, and center are much more imminent than replacing Kosier or Free right now, but it looks like they'll also have to be addressed in the next couple years. I still hold out hope that Free could get it together, but Kosier has nowhere to go but down.
We need some impact players here that can make noticeable improvements to the OL. We're not looking for role players here, because there's nobody around them. We need above average talent so that guys like Free and Kosier can benefit.
We'll likely have around $20 million in cap space this year. Looking at the free agent list at our positions of need, our money would be best spent on a guard if we want to make a big signing. Pay the money. Nicks is one of the best in the game, and with the Saints paying Evans so much last year, and Brees due for a new contract, they may not be able to re-sign him. Grubbs is another great one that could be available.
There's not likely to be much available at center in free agency, unless you think Nick Hardwick or Jeff Saturday have a couple years left in them. There are some guys in the middle of the draft that could help us out though.
The guard class is fairly deep, and at #14 we've got a shot at the best one: David DeCastro. A great prospect, that would be an immediate upgrade. He's the only one worthy enough of that pick, but there are a few more in the late first, and second round that could immediately start as well. DeCastro's a special player though.
Guard is literally the only position of need for us that has players available in free agency this year that warrant a big contract. And we're itching to hand one out, with so much cap space. By signing a big free agent like Nicks (who's also entering his prime), we free up the draft to look at other positions that may be thin in free agency, but deep in the draft, such as cornerback. Signing Nicks or Grubbs makes too much sense.
Sign Nicks or Grubbs to a big contract. Draft a center in the mid rounds. Switch Smith and Free.
This has been a topic of debate for three or four years now. "We need a dominant DE", "We need to move Ratliff", etc etc. On one hand I see that, but on the other hand, this is a 3-4 defense. It's not exactly the design of any 3-4 to get big time pass rushers out of your down linemen, or any "dominant" player really. They're normally expected to stop the run and eat up double teams to free up the pass rush for the linebackers. I'm hesitant to advocate a first round pick on a run stuffing, block eating 3-4 lineman, and I'm critical of any 3-4 that relies on a down lineman to be a pass rushing force.
If there's one case to be made here, it's that Ratliff isn't commanding as many double teams as people might believe, and that's maybe the best argument to add somebody along the line that can do that on a consistent basis. And that generally means a big, 3-4 nose tackle. Adding that big ugly in the middle and sliding Ratliff to DE could do a lot for us. I'm not sure any of the available free agents would garner a consistent double team, unless the Jets let Pouha hit the market. In that case, we should be very interested. In the draft, we're looking at a pick in the top 3 rounds for a starting caliber nose tackle. What I don't agree with is spending a high pick on a 3-4 defensive end, ala Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. A 330lb nose tackle that requires double teams is something valuable. But a guy that can stop the run at DE is not worth a first round pick in my opinion, and I'm not interested in pass rushers as 3-4 defensive ends. That's not their job. I think 3-4 defensive ends are a fairly easy position to fill, as they need only be role players, and don't require any real physical specifics, other than the size or ability to hold the point and stop the run.
I don't think any free agents would warrant moving Ratliff to defensive end other than Pouha. If Pouha hits the market, he has to be one of our top targets. Otherwise, we're looking at the draft. Nose tackle is where we're gonna have to gamble in the draft a little bit. I have our first two picks allocated elsewhere, which means we're sitting on a couple guys in the third round (Poe, Chapman, and possibly Cobble). I never like to rely on a guy being available in the draft, but that third round pick was also a debate for me between nose tackle and safety (which I'll get into later), so that would be the back up plan if we don't have a nose tackle on the board in the third.
If Pouha hits free agency, sign him. If not, target a NT in the 3rd round. If none are available, or we do sign Pouha, target safety in the 3rd round. Add depth at defensive end, but no major additions. Maybe just re-sign Coleman. Move Ratliff to defensive end if a nose tackle is added.
Demarcus Ware needs no introduction, the guy is the best in the league. Anthony Spencer on the other hand, is probably the favorite to turn in his blue and silver, if you ask this fan base. But let's not totally bash on Spencer. The guy has his upsides, he plays the run well, rarely gets blown out of a play, and rushes the passer ok. But this is a 3-4 defense, and you need your linebackers flying all over the field, not engaging a blocker and lunging at the running back. With that said though, let's give up that benefit of Spencer's run defense, and get a better pass rusher. Leave the run defense up to our linemen and our inside linebackers. That's how a 3-4 is supposed to operate, and if we're relying on our outside linebackers to stop the run, then we've got issues.
I think everyone's happy with Butler as the back up, and I could care less who the #4 guy is. The biggest debate of the offseason for coaches and the front office, might be whether or not to roll with Butler. The stats would confirm that he's a better pass rusher than Spencer, but we haven't seen him play in a starting role, and we've seen how that can go with guys that look good in part-time roles. Personally, I'm not quite convinced he can do the job, although I like the guy. If the team thinks he can, that would sure free up a big need for us.
We don't need Demarcus Ware B here. We just need a quick pass rusher, that can at least not get blown out on running plays. Free agency really has nothing to offer for us here. If Mario Williams hits the market, you could break the bank on him, but he's still unproven in a 3-4, the Texans will most likely re-sign him, and outside of him, the second best option is.... Anthony Spencer.
I'd say we're better off looking to the draft, but I just haven't been sold on many OLB prospects this year. I don't think there's that guy at #14 that would be that instant upgrade for us, I just don't see it. I saw that guy in JJ Watt last year, I just don't see it this year. People can make their cases for some of these guys, and I'm sure two or three of them will pan out, but it's not a particularly solid draft class for 3-4 OLB's and it certainly lacks that "head and shoulders above everybody" best OLB in the draft. So I'm not convinced of anybody worthy of that first round pick.
Unfortunately I'm not real high on any of our options. I want to replace Spencer, but free agency is all but worthless to us unless we want to sacrifice signing a guard to sign Mario Williams (if he's even available). I think our best option might be to draft one of these guys in the first three rounds, even though I'm not particularly sold on any of them. The only saving grace for us is that we don't need another Ware. We just need a decent guy to play opposite Ware, and the draft seems to be full of guys like that. Still though, you'd like to see the Ware upside if you're drafting a guy that high. If Mario Williams is available though, and we can sign him and a guard, I wouldn't be opposed to it.
Draft a pass rushing OLB in the second round.
Outside of Sean Lee, the position's a mess. Brooking and James are both unrestricted free agents, and I see no need to make a run at them. We've got a lot riding on Carter stepping into that role next to Lee. We know he's got the talent, but we have seen virtually nothing from him on the field. Our best option here is probably to add two depth players to replace James and Brooking, and take the gamble on Carter stepping up. Our other option is to bring in a starting caliber player and keep Carter as a back up. That'll cost more money, or a higher draft pick, and I'd rather use that elsewhere. The way we approach this situation is completely dependent on what the coaches think of Carter. If they think he's ready, that frees us up to use draft picks or cap space elsewhere. If not, we'll be forced to add a starter. The coaches have more insight than I do, but I'm all for taking the gamble on Carter.
Lots of mediocre linebackers in free agency, but not many starting caliber 3-4 ILB's out there. Might suit our needs better anyway.
Start Carter. Let James and Brooking walk. Spend a late draft pick on ILB, and add a mid-range veteran free agent.
Oh boy. Where to begin. If Anthony Spencer's the most popular player not to be offered a new contract, Newman's the favorite not to keep his. The dive tackles at the knees have become so predictable and ineffective that Giants players were laughing about it. And now the coverage skills are dissipating. Newman needs to hit the road, but we're already thin at the position.
Thankfully Alan Ball's contract is up. I can see absolutely no reason to give him a new one. He gets abused whether he plays at safety or corner. I'm sick of watching him chase receivers, five yards away from them.
Scandrick might be a #3 corner in this league, but he's looking more and more borderline playable. Certainly can't get rid of him, as he's not quite a liability, and he's under contract. Since he just signed an extension, he figures to be at least the #3 corner next year. I'm not totally out on Scandrick, but he needs to earn that contract and improve his play.
Jenkins is good sometimes, but the whole secondary is such a mess that it's difficult to tell whether quarterbacks avoid him, or simply throw at more open receivers. He's definitely given up his share of plays. Jenkins doesn't figure to be going anywhere, and he didn't quite earn a demotion this year, so he'll be one of our starting corners.
There's no Revis or Asomugha in free agency this year. There's guys like Grimes, Finnegan and Rogers that are solid, maybe underrated players, but no shut down guys out there. I know the odds of this happening are slim, with our front office, but I'd like Scandrick to be our #4 corner. I'd like to sign a guy like Grimes or Rogers, and I'd like to spend a high draft pick on corner. If we get rid of Ball and Newman, that would give us (for example): Jenkins, Scandrick, Grimes, 1st rounder. Call the starters who you will, they'll all see plenty of game time, and our corners have shown difficulty staying healthy anyway.
Draft a corner in the first round. Sign a starting caliber free agent. Cut Newman. Let Ball walk.
The other half of the disaster we call a secondary. We've got two strong safeties and no free safeties. In Ryan's scheme, the two are almost interchangeable. There is no true center fielder in this defense, but we still need a safety with some cover skills. Sensabaugh is worse than Elam, but realistically they both need to be replaced. Extending Sensabaugh was a bad decision, and it'll probably secure his status on the team, and maybe as a starter, but he needs to be a back up. Elam's a free agent. I'm not sure he's worth bringing back, but he does know the system.
We're in a tough spot here. There's not much to help us in free agency. Laron Landry is another strong safety that somebody will overpay for. They don't come much more inconsistent than Meriweather and Griffin. And every other safety available doesn't seem to be much of an upgrade over Elam or Sensabaugh. The draft is somewhat weak as well. I don't think there's any safety prospects projected in the first round right now, and they go downhill from there.
As for the draft, I think drafting a safety needs to be Plan B. Believe me, I want to upgrade safety more than maybe any other position on the team, but we just don't have any options this year. We have to resist drafting from a weak safety class, just because we need one so badly. If there's no nose tackles available in the third round, then I'm ok taking a stab at one of these safeties, but that should be Plan B.
Free agency wise, I really don't see any clear upgrades there either. Signing a replacement for Elam or Sensabaugh from that list of players might do nothing more than give us a new number to look at in the secondary. This figures to be the weakness of the team, no matter what we do, so hopefully we can do enough elsewhere to relieve some pressure from the safety position. I'm ok with signing a free agent, and I wouldn't be upset if we drafted a safety, just to get some fresh blood in here, but we're in a real tough spot at this position. I wouldn't blame the team if they re-signed Elam, gave Church some opportunities and focused elsewhere. We just don't have many options for upgrades this year, and that's the way it is.
Spend a third round pick on a safety if no nose tackles available. Sign a mid-range free agent.
So here's how it would break down:
Free agent signings:
Midrange back up QB.
WR #4/5 (Holley, Ginn?)
OG (big money- Nicks/Grubbs)
Starting Corner (Grimes, Finnegan, Rogers)
1st round- Corner
2nd round- OLB
3rd round- Nose Tackle
4th round- Center
5th round- WR/KR
6th round- Tight End
7th round- ILB
I won't lengthen this post any longer than it already is by including specific players and my opinions of them, any more than I already have. But with each suggestion, there would be real players available to us, that I would feel comfortable with. A little research of the draft prospects, or free agent list would confirm what options we would have by following my blueprint, but this has been based on real options in free agency and the draft, and the two in conjunction with one another. Perhaps that's a topic for another post, or if you're interested enough, there are plenty of other quality posts here that may present what outside linebackers might be available in the second round, for example.
With our front office, if half of this gets accomplished I'd be happy. But I think this blueprint lays out the best, and most realistic way to improve the team as much as possible in one offseason.