There is a lot the Cowboys need to do this offseason to be contenders next year. We have holes in the interior of the offensive line, a pass rush that is not good enough to threaten Eli Manning or other passers who can carve up our defense, and serious weaknesses in the secondary. We also have other issues: interior linebacking, third wide receiver, backup QB, third tight end, fullback, and punter. How do you go about filling all these holes?
The first thing you need to do is prioritize.
LOOKING BACK AT 2011 -- Was Offense or Defense the primary culprit in our 8 losses?
Game 1, lost 24-27 @ NY Jets - late turnovers (including blocked punt). Better offense closes this game out.
Game 2, won 27-24 @ San Francisco in OT
Game 3, won 18-16 over Washington - better offense makes this an easier win.
Game 4, lost 30-34 to Detroit - turnovers cost us. Offense looked great in first half, disappeared in second half.
Game 5, lost 16-20 @ New England - better offense wins this game by getting into the end zone or getting a late first down. Don't focus on failed last minute stop.
Game 6, won 34-7 over St. Louis. Easy game.
Game 7, lost 7-34 @ Philadelphia. Defense was shredded. Offense couldn't stay with Eagles.
Game 8, won 23-13 over Seattle. Offense should have put the game away earlier. Missed goal line opptys.
Game 9, won 44-7 over Buffalo. Easiest game of the year.
Game 10, won 27-24 @ Washington. Offense should have put this one away earlier. Defense couldn't stop Rex.
Game 11, won 20-19 over Miami. Offense was outplayed by Miami.
Game 12, lost 13-19 @ Arizona. Offense could have put this away before last second missed FG. Romo sacked too many times.
Game 13, lost 34-37 to Giants. Put this on both the offense and defense. Offense couldn't do anything at the end, allowing the Giants the possessions they needed to take the lead; defense couldn't stop them. Still, a blocked field goal was the difference at the end.
Game 14, won 31-15 @ Tampa Bay. Offense did great in first half, nothing in second half.
Game 15, lost 7-20 against Philly. Game meant nothing and Romo sat after hurting hand. Offense had no chance after that.
Game 16, lost 14-31 @ NY Giants. Romo sacked heavily again. Offense couldn't keep up.
Why do I go through this exercise? Because it's my view that weaknesses in the Cowboys offense, more than its defense, was the reason we lost games. In the 8 losses, better offense wins the Jets, Detroit, NE and Arizona games. In the two games against the Giants, better offense or defense could have won the first game, and better offense might have made the second competitive. Nothing would have mattered in the first or second Philly games. First was a blowout, and second was of no consequence.
So, if I am priortizing to improve the Cowboys in 2012, where am I looking first? On the offensive side. And specifically on the offensive line.
PRIORITY #1 -- Offensive line
If the Cowboys do nothing else this offseason, what I would like to see them do is develop a dominant offensive line. A great line would give Romo more time to throw, and it would open running lanes more consistently for Murray and Jones. The line is needed to allow the skill players to maximize their potential. A better Oline wins the Jets game by allowing us to control more 4th quarter clock and finish the win. Same thing for the Lions game. When we needed one first down against NE, a better line could have gotten it for us, or put the ball into the end zone instead of settling for FGs. Same thing at the end of the first Giants game. Same for Arizona. A better line would also have made the two Washington and Miami wins much easier.
How do we get a dominant offensive line? First off, we need to keep getting younger. Montrae Holland fought gamely, but got injured at the end of the year. Derrick Dockery played one game and got hurt. Kyle Kosier had a bad foot all year, and missed time in recent years with foot injuries. None of these guys could stop rushers in December, when Tony Romo got killed.
My highest priority would be to sign Carl Nicks to whatever contract is needed to get him. He's a big, mid-20s guy who could be expected to perform for 5 years at a top level. I'd say he'd be worth every penny needed to sign him.
My second priority would be to sign a FA center, and I would target Chris Myers. Even though he's older, he would be the only guy cracking 30 in the new line. This is viable for a center. Jeff Saturday is still doing pretty well at 37.
I would fill the 3rd interior slot with David DeCastro, presuming he falls to #14 in the draft.
That would give the Cowboys 2 linemen in their very early 20s -- Smith and DeCastro, 2 in their mid-20s -- Free and Nicks, and 1 at 30 -- Myers. This line could play together for 4-5 years. The other guys we already have can be groomed as backups. They are cheap and have some playing experience.
With a dominant offensive line, the Cowboys could protect Tony Romo for the remainder of his career, and maximize the value of the Cowboys skill players, who need blocking to open running lanes, or time for Romo to get them the ball. I would go ALL IN here.
We all remember the Triplets. But would those Cowboys teams have won titles without the best offensive line in football? It would have been much harder.
The other thing to consider is how offense now dominates the NFL. New Orleans, with the best O, was probably the best team at the end of the season. Had the Giants been forced to go there, NO, not NY, would be Super Bowl champs. Green Bay lost only 1 game in the regular season despite a terrible defense. New England was within a drive of winning the Super Bowl despite a very weak D.
Plus, the Cowboys are only a few players from being able to build a great offense. It is attainable THIS YEAR. We have skill positions filled. We mostly need linemen. That's doable. So let's do it.
PRIORITY #2 -- Pass rush
Even though I believe our lack of offense is what cost us most of our games, I'm not blind to our defensive challenges. I would try to do as much as possible to fix the D, but not to the point where it keeps us from building a dominant offense.
When it comes to the defense, we had holes at pass rush, linebacking, and secondary. Which should have the highest priority? I would vote for pass rush, for a couple of reasons. First, how has Eli Manning beaten us the last few years? It's because we apply no pressure at all to him. Second, great pass rushes can cover for weak secondaries more easily than the other way around.
There may be more than one way to improve our pass rush. My view is that we should go after the biggest impact player in free agency, who is Mario Williams. You may say that Williams doesn't fit the 3-4. I say he fits perfectly. Under Wade, he was playing OLB and had 5 sacks in 5 games until he got hurt. Yet Williams is also big enough to slide inside and play anything other than nose tackle. This would allow us to play Victor Butler more on passing downs without taking Mario off the field. There is no one else likely to be available who could have a greater impact. (Calais Campbell and Cliff Avril are likely staying put.) With a rushing front of Ware, Williams, Ratliff, Hatcher, and Butler, we would have 5 guys who could bring some pressure, making it difficult for the offense to win every protection battle. I would also look to spend a 2nd or 3rd round pick here, depending on value, to give us better depth and youth on the line. One or two guys could make a huge difference here.
As a backup plan, if Williams doesn't want to sign with us or is prohibitively expensive, I think we should resign Anthony Spencer and focus on shoring up the interior rush. One reason to keep Spencer over trying to replace him with a draft pick is that we can't count on a draft pick to even be up to Spencer's speed in year one. Spencer didn't take over for Greg Ellis until year 3. Victor Butler would likely be the starter, and he would be okay, but not likely an improvement. One poster recommended signing Jason Jones of Tennessee, which could make sense if Spencer is brought back. And we could still draft here for youth and depth. That would be Plan B.
As with the offensive line, I would try to add IMPACT players because we've seen what a strong pass rush can do.
PRIORITY #3 -- Secondary
Our secondary needs a starting left CB, and starting FS, and better depth. I would try to fill the first two holes with reasonably priced free agents. Good suggestions have been made on this board. Then I would draft in this area starting in either the 2nd or 3rd rounds, depending on value, and come back to these positions again later in the draft. Clearly, Newman will be cut.
PRIORITY #4 -- Other offensive pieces
The offense will not be complete with just a new offensive line. Laurent Robinson also needs to be brought back. He has great chemistry with Romo, can sub for both Austin and Bryant, and scores TDs. Plus, he can go deep, unlike Patrick Crayton, our last good 3rd receiver. And he wants to stay in Dallas. With lots of other FA WRs for other teams to target, it's not likely the bidding for Robinson will get too high. Given health issues for both Austin and Bryant, I consider this a must sign.
We also need a new backup QB. This is a very important position, and one for which we cannot count on Steven McGee to fill. Indeed, I would trade McGee before the draft if I could get anything for him once I had a veteran signed. (Why don't I like McGee? I don't think he processes his options fast enough to be able to look and throw the ball downfield, and I don't think this is fixable.) I think there are only two names worth considering -- Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton. (Maybe Jason Campbell.) I would go after Grossman, despite his turnovers, on the view that on a good team, this can be cured, as it was for Jon Kitna. Also, Grossman has played in the NFC East, won playoff games, and been the starter on a Super Bowl team.
We also need a third TE. I'm for bringing back Martellus Bennett because he blocks well, knows the offense, would be modestly priced, and there aren't really any better FA alternatives. Plus, I'd rather use a draft pick we might spend trying to replace him on another area of need. But, if we have to do with Phillips as the #2 guy, we will survive.
And we need a FB. Fiammetta can likely be had cheaply. The question here is his health. If we keep him, we need a better backup than Phillips because we all saw how the running game suffered without a good lead FB.
My other concern is third and fourth RB. We have a great backfield in Murray, Jones, and Tanner. But it's only great if it stays healthy. With an extra fourth round pick this year, I wouldn't be surprised if we added some security at this position, who would also give us insurance in 2013 if Felix Jones moves on. The Cowboys have done very well in drafting RBs.
PRIORITY #5 -- Interior linebacking
We all want Bruce Carter to come on like Sean Lee has, but it is too much to depend on in 2012. Clearly, a stop-gap veteran needs to be signed. And we still might draft here, but likely not very high.
PRIORITY #6 -- Special teams
Bring back Matt Briar? I expect we'll be given the chance to test his health after he heals from surgery before we decide whether to bring Briar back. My concern is cost.
We also could use a much better return game. Let's hope one or more of the DBs we draft can revive our punt and KO returns.
It sounds like a lot, but if you prioritize and break it down, it seems very doable to me.
Impact level 1 -- FA/G Carl Nicks, FA/C Chris Myers, 1st DP/G David DeCastro (DP=Draft Pick)
Impact level 1a - FA/OLB/DE Mario Williams, 2nd DP -- Defensive line/OLB/CB
Impact level 2 - FA/WR Laurent Robinson, FA/ILB To be named, FA/FS To be named, FA/CB To be named
Level 3 -- FA/QB Rex Grossman, FA/P Matt McBriar, 3rd DP -- Defensive line/OLB/CB/S
Level 4 -- FA or DP - 3rd TE (might be Bennett), FA or DP - FB (might be Fiammetta), 4th DPs -- TE, OL, RB, QB, DB
Level 5 -- 5th - 7th round DPs and UDFAs, other FAs.
The wild card here is that we don't know who will sign or how much these contracts will go for. However, with all the dead money in 2012, the Cowboys should be able to structure deals to entice the players with bonuses, yet push most of the contract money into years when the 2012 dead money will be off the books. This should not hamstring the Cowboys at all.
I want to end with a few words on why I keep pushing for adding IMPACT players rather than just searching for bargains. I think we need difference makers if we want to win the Super Bowl. When we last won the Super Bowl, our offensive line was Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Ray Donaldson/Derreck Kennard, Larry Allen, Eric Williams. The last time we were close was our 13-3 year of 2007, when we had a strong O-line of Flozell, Kosier, Gurode, Bigg, and Columbo, before they got old and broke down. We need that kind of quality if we want to be a Championship team again.
The Cowboys were in nearly every game this year, but only because we have IMPACT players on our roster already -- Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Jay Ratliff, Mike Jenkins, and others. We just didn't have enough of them.