When Bill Parcells was the Cowboys head coach, he often told the media that his job, in terms of personnel, was to have a plan for all available contingencies. He spent a great deal of his time and energy developing a plan for any possible personnel scenario that might unfold, whether it be due to injury, declining production, or contract problems. Parcells was a notorious worry-wort. I can see why; with 53 guys on a roster, there are a seemingly infinite number of permutations, many of them bad, likely to dance in a coach's head.
The Cowboys personnel guys are now in meetings, coming up with their own set of contingencies. First they must evaluate the roster, determining who needs to be replaced, who deserves a promotion to a starting or key backup role, and how best to fill the roster holes created by expired contracts, retirements, contract casualties, or other cuts. Then, In addition, they must consider which positions are underperforming and need to be upgraded. Once this has been figured out, the real work begins: what avenues can be explored to get the maximum roster improvement for the minimum expenditure?
What real work might we see? Check out some speculative thinking after the jump...
When determining this, its important to consider what might be available in the draft. Each draft has strengths at particular positions--and, for those positions, through specific rounds--and weaknesses at others. Last year, for example, the strengths were at offensive tackle (particularly in round one) and defensive end (into round two). The Cowboys apparent strategy, to select a first-round offensive lineman and a second-round defensive end, was a sound one. Sadly, the run on 5-techniques began and ended before they went on the clock in round two. Nevertheless, it made much more sense than to select a DE in the first round (it would have been J.J. Watt) and hope that a Derek Sherrod would fall into the top of the second round (he didn't, and wouldn't have).
This April, the positions of strength appear to be cornerback and interior offensive line, which works in the Cowboys favor as these are both positions that struggled mightily last season. Also good news is that good players can be found at both positions into the third and perhaps even fourth rounds, so Dallas doesn't absolutely select these positions in rounds one and two. Should a higher-rated player at another position fall to them at pick 14, they can nab him and still address needs on days two and three.
The strength of the 2012 draft class should affect Dallas' free agency plans, as it would be imprudent to pursue big-ticket free agents at positions where the draft class is bountiful, especially offensive guard, and cornerback, when the team has so many roster holes to fill. The exception: because they'll need as many as three corners, they'll probably need to pick up at least one is both free agency and in the draft, with another low-round pick or a UDFA thrown in for good measure.
With all that said, what might the plan look like? Today, I'll start with the offense; next week, I'll do the same with the defense. Let's begin by revisiting our handy-dandy positional needs chart, which appeared in part one of this series. Any roster spots that were manned last year by guys who are currently free agents (and thus not officially on the roster), I've left open (marking them with a "????"). The team only has two RFAs this offseason, Tony Fiammetta and Kevin Ogletree; I've marked both with an asterisk.
|QB||Tony Romo||????||Stephen McGee|
|FB||*Tony Fiammetta||Shaun Chapas|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||Felix Jones||Phillip Tanner|
|SE||Dez Bryant||*Kevin Ogletree||Dwayne Harris|
|FL||Miles Austin||????||Jesse Holley|
|TE||Jason Witten||????||John Phillips|
|LT||Tyron Smith||Jermey Parnell|
|LG||Bill Nagy||????||David Arkin|
|OC||Phil Costa||Kevin Kowalski|
|RG||Kyle Kosier||????||David Arkin|
|RT||Doug Free||Jermey Parnell|
What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with what we definitely know:
1. The Cowboys aren't going to find either a backup quarterback or a third wide receiver in the draft. Romo's last two backups fit the same profile: aged former starters who had won in the league but were no longer keen on being the main man. Both were greybeards: Brad Johnson was 35 when he joined the team; Jon Kitna was 37 (but still had a live arm). Expect a player with a similar profile to back up Romo in 2012. Also, because rookie wideouts historically take 2-3 years to become acclimated to NFL offensive schemes, the third receiver will either be a free agent, or a promotion from within.
2. Although the majority of Cowboys fans will be happy to let Martellus Bennett go, the team is certain to miss his blocking. By 2011, he had developed into a third offensive tackle; in fact, the PFF folks were so impressed that he received a better overall season grade than Jason Witten. While John Phillips, two years removed from knee surgery, can certainly replace Bennett and add a dimension to the offense that 'Tellus never could (namely, as a passing threat), Bennett's departure will leave Dallas with a new problem to solve in short-yardage situations. Moreover, according to Mike Mayock, the TEs in the upcoming draft are all receiving types; there are no road graders. So, if the Cowboys want their 2nd/ 3rd tight end to be a plus blocker, he'll have to be brought aboard via free agency.
3. According to ESPN Dallas' Bryan Broaddus, who boasts all kind of contacts within the organization, the Cowboys have been prioritizing offensive center over offensive guard. When we look at the above chart, this makes good sense; not only was their center play abysmal, but there don't seem to be any young guys with significant upside on the roster. At guard, on the other hand, its much too early to end the David Arkin and Bill Nagy experiments. Sure, Nagy struggled some (in other games he was pretty good) and Arkin was inactive for all sixteen games. But both have the quick feet and nasty disposition the Cowboys want in their linemen and should reap much benefit from a full offseason with Mike Woicik. Bringing in a big-name free agent would relegate one of them to career backup, and I'm not sure the Cowboys are ready to do that, either in terms of development or expense.
Given what we know, what kind of plan might emerge? Extrapolating from the above evidence, I'd expect to see something like this:
Add a free agent quarterback: Its possible that an aging vet or two who still has a little game in him will be released in the coming month. If not, the available players who fit the Cowboys' recent backup QB profile are guys like Kyle Orton (who they made a bit for late last season when he was released in Denver) and Rex Grossman. Don't sleep on sexy Rexy; Grossman has a live arm, and would be better than at least 25 other teams backup signal callers. Like Johnson, he took a good defensive team to the Super Bowl.
Add a free agent receiver, but only at a steep discount: I'm not convinced that anybody currently on the Dallas roster is capable of moving up into an active receiving role. Kevin Ogletree? Please. Dwayne Harris? Let him get his first NFL reception before we consider such a thing. Jesse Holley? Dude has heart, but not much athleticism; I think we've seen his ceiling. That said, in the past the Cowboys have essentially used Witten as the third (or second) receiver, and could do so again if needed. Given how much they have invested in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, I'd be shocked to see them break the bank for a third wideout--just too much money at the position. A wily veteran who is still around after the initial FA frenzy? Much more likely.
Go get a free agent center: the obvious offensive position of need is OC, where Dallas currently has two game but physically limited youngsters. Either of them would make a terrific backup; both are smart, tough guys who will give it their all. The problem is that their "all" routinely gets steamrolled by Vince Wilfork's "all." Moreover, with Kosier on the downward slope, and the rest of the OL comprised of young-uns, a veteran center who can recognize defenses and call out protections is a much-needed commodity.
I'd love for them to finagle either of the top two free agent prizes, Houston's Chris Myers or Green Bay's Scott Wells, into a Cowboys uniform. Depending on what the market will bear, these fellows might be priced out of Dallas' reach. If this proves to be the case, a mid-level guy, like Washington's Will Montgomery or the Jets' Samson Satele would offer an upgrade at an affordable price. Furthermore, a vet would increase the likelihood of the Cowboys' center developing the same kind of rapport with Tony Romo that Laurent Robinson did almost immediately after donning a Cowboys uniform, something in short supply with both Gurode and Costa at the pivot.
Sign a free agent tight end who can block: As I suggested above, the available tight ends in the upcoming draft tend to be Aaron Hernandez types, guys who are overgrown wide receivers. In John Phillips, they have more of an H-back type, who can block a little and do some damage in the passing game. What they don't have is another in-line tight end who can regularly seal the edge on outside running plays and take on opposing defensive ends without help, as Bennett could do. I'd look for them to pick up a guy who can do that, on the cheap, a Dan Campbell type. One option is the Texans' Joel Dreesen, who tallied very good blocking grades at PFF. He can also long-snap.
Offer Tony Fiammetta a second or third round tender: Last season, the Cowboys anemic running game got a boost from three sources: DeMarco Murray, Montrae Hollland and Fiammetta, who demonstrated the ability to clear out linebackers from the hole that Dallas has been looking for for some time now. What they do to keep him depends in part on what they think if last year's seventh-rounder, Shaun Chapas. If they think Chapas can develop this offseason, then they can risk letting Fiammetta go by offering him a lower tender. Whatever the case, they'll make some kind of offer. I suspect Chapas hasn't showed enough, and it'll be one intended to keep Fiammetta in the fold.
Re-sign Montrae Holland to a short-term free agent deal: Given the severity of needs elsewhere, I cannot see the Cowboys pursuing a Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs. If they have doubts about Nagy or Arkin for 2012, a nice contingency would be to acquire a disposable guy who wouldn't be a progress-stopper should they blossom in 2013 or beyond. Holland, who actually had a pretty good year last season, would fit that profile to a "T." And, if a guy like Stanford's David DeCastro ends up being the pick at # 14, they aren't burdened by a huge FA contract, and can dump Holland (or Kyle Kosier) as soon as the youngsters are ready to go.
Draft a promising offensive guard in the draft's first two rounds: As previously mentioned, this is a deep draft at guard, so one thing the Cowboys don't want to do is to over-invest at the position only to see the likes of David DeCastro be the best available player on their board when they select at # 14. It wouldn't surprise me to see them hold off on guard until after the draft, when a guy like Holland may well still be available. With money so tight, it makes little sense to re-up Holland if DeCastro is a legitimate first round option. Much of this depends on what they do on defense, particularly at LOLB, so we'll revisit this question in the defensive post.
Find a UDFA punter: Mat McBrier has been a terrific punter since he was unearthed during the Parcells administration. He can do it all--a booming leg is matched with a deft touch inside the 20. That said, he is descending into the vale of years, and missed time last season due to a peculiar "dropfoot" injury to a neural ganglia in his knee. The kind of money it will take to re-sign the veteran punter might be too much, such that its time to find another youngster to fill his shoes.
Looking this over, we have between three and five offensive free agent acquisitions (backup QB; OC; TE, with possibilities at WR3 and OG), a potential draft pick (OG) and a likely UDFA need at P. At first glance, it seems that, since so many of the Cowboys' offensive needs must be filled via free agency (as they can't be in the draft), that the bulk of 2012's picks will be spent on defensive players (or, in the late rounds, offensive depth, including a new developmental quarterback).
How might this defensive draft pan out? Check back in on Monday to see Rabble's musings for that side of the ball, followed up by a comprehensive overall look at an offseason plan.
Until then: Go Cowboys!