Cowboys Offseason Plan: Playing GM For A Day, Defensive Edition

In part one of this series, I took a global look at the Cowboys roster, highlighting the positions that must be addressed this offseason and, unlike many of the pundits who have been offering offseason plans, noted that I'd be shocked to see a lot of big-ticket free agent signings in Dallas. Rather--and in no small part because both Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones have publicly declared that they'd like to operate this way--I'd expect the team to focus on building through the draft, using free agency to secure stop-gaps who can hold down the fort until they can add long-term "core" players through the draft.

This isn't because I don't want the Cowboys roster to improve, and in a hurry. Rather, I believe firmly that what they must avoid is to fall into the uneven talent-trap that plagued them during the Wade Phillips administration: stars at several positions and average guys at others, all backed up by marginal UDFA types. One way to avoid falling into that hole is to eschew the big-ticket signings that tend to happen during free agency's initial frenzy.

We have learned that Dallas is likely to have about 20 million dollars in cap room to spend towards upgrading the roster. At first glance this seems like quite a lot. But if we look at the reserves other teams have amassed, the Cowboys savings account looks a lot less impressive. ESPN's John Clayton recently published a partial list of 2012 salary cap numbers. It looks like a good year to be a free agent: the Kansas City Chiefs top the list at $62.995 million, followed by Tampa Bay with $60.496 million, and Cincy with $60 million. Some other numbers of note: Denver, $50.735 million; Washington, $47.56 million; Jacksonville, $45 million.

As Clayton notes, there will be about $711 million of cap space league-wide, which averages out to $22.2 million per team. So, not only will the Cowboys will come in below the league average in terms of cap space (even after cutting Terence Newman), but with so many other teams having so much money to play with, the top FAs, guys like Mario Williams and Brent Grimes, are sure to get huge, top-of-the-market deals. Dallas simply won't be able to compete, at least not for the handful of players who have been on blast at ESPN since the clock expired on Super Bowl XVI.

Make the jump...

As a result, I think they will proceed more or less as they did late last summer, sans the Nnamdi Asomugha extravaganza, letting the market come to them and getting reasonable bargains. The goal in free agency will be to set the team up in order to avoid having to draft for need in April. On Friday, I attempted to lay out an offensive plan of attack that took that goal plan into consideration. Today, I'll do the same with the defensive side of the ball.

Let's begin, as we did on Friday, by revisiting our handy-dandy positional needs chart. 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 "????"):

Starter Backup Third String
LDE Kenyon Coleman Sean Lissemore
NT Jay Ratliff Josh Brent
RDE Marcus Spears Jason Hatcher Clifton Geathers
LOLB ???? Victor Butler
LILB ???? Bruce Carter
RILB Sean Lee ???? Orie Lemon
ROLB DeMarcus Ware Alex Albright
LCB **Terence Newman Orlando Scandrick
SS ???? Barry Church
FS Gerald Sensabaugh Danny McCray
RCB Mike Jenkins ???? Mario Butler

What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with the defensive line and working our way to the secondary:

1. Jerry Jones likes his defensive line. As the Senior Bowl, much to the astonishment of Cowboys fans, he told reporters, "our defensive front is one of the strengths of our team." In looking at the above chart, however, we can see why he'd utter such blasphemy. Compared to the shambles that is the back seven (er, eight), the DL is quite settled. Of course, this is one of those "In the kingdom of the blind..." situations. Considering how much work needs to be done at linebacker and in the secondary, it's hard to believe that there will be a major DL overhaul, unless a terrific DL falls to them in the draft--a rarity, given how highly defensive linemen, especially pass rushers, are valued.

2. Rumors have circulated about plans to move Jay Ratliff to end. Every offseason, Cowboys fans clamor for the Cowboys undersized nose guard to move out to end, and are treated to the same rebuttal: his quickness and strength are a mismatch for centers, who tend to be the smallest players (and worst athletes) on the offensive line. Why move him out to end, where he'll have to battle mammoth tackles with great feet? This year, we may get an answer, as Ratliff seems to be getting worn down inside by constant double-teams: his sack totals have declined each year since 2008, although his pressures and tackles have remained more or less the same.

3. They only have one sure-fire, reliable ILB on the roster. The contracts of aging veterans Keith Brooking and Bradie James have expired, leaving the Cowboys with one solid roster piece, Sean Lee, and a bunch of questions. Is super-athlete Bruce Carter ready to start after logging only 41 defensive snaps? Is Orie Lemon (zero snaps) anything more than a camp body? Other than cornerback, this is the position at which we'll see the most new faces...unless they decide to re-up ether Brooking or James, a known quantity to help them through the rebuilding process.

4. Anthony Spencer won't be easy to replace. Sure, it's easy to bash Anthony Spencer for not being DeMarcus Ware, and I have done so on many occasions. Since the season's close, however, several writers whose work I admire greatly have made compelling arguments that Spencer has not been the problem. The first of these was by our own Kegbearer, in his "Anthony Spencer Challenge." He offered a healthy dose of perspective, noting that, in 2011, Spencer led all LOLB in tackles, forced fumbles, and tackles for a loss, and was in the top 5 in sacks and tied for second in QB hits. More recently, Bob Sturm penned an excellent piece in which he dished out many of the same statistical comparisons, concluding:

In fantasy football, you acquire "pass rush specialists" at every spot an think you will get 100 sacks. But, in real football, if you don't have a player setting the edge and shutting down strong side rushing plays, then you get beat. Spencer, of all outside linebackers in the 3-4 in the last two seasons has more tackles than anyone.

Indeed, Spencer has excelled at a lot of the unglamorous work required of his position: setting the edge, being stout against the run, etc. And when it comes to rushing the quarterback, the only strong side OLBs who can boast better numbers are Lamaar Woodley and Clay Matthews, neither of whom are available. So, before they just dump # 93 out of frustration, it's important to consider who would fill his spot--and to contemplate how steep the dropoff might be.

5. Terence Newman has suited up as a Cowboy for the last time. Although none of the Cowboys brass has come out and said it, I think it's safe to say that T-New's career in Dallas has run its course. As many of our members have pointed out, he was very good for much of his career; when he was healthy, he was capable of making some astonishingly athletic plays (recall him running down Randy Moss, who had a big lead, when the Cowboys visited Oakland in 2005). But age and injuries have taken their toll, and he has been a shell of his former self in the past two seasons--especially late in the year. He is now a liability and the Cowboys must move on. Good night, sweet prince...

6. Rob Ryan has been scouting defensive backs. Another sound bite that emerged from Senior Bowl week is that Ryan was "only looking at DBs. Nothing else. DBs." This should come as no surprise, of course. But it's pretty clear that the organization's top offseason priority is to engineer a talent infusion into the defensive backfield. If they do indeed release Newman and his bloated contract, Dallas will be left with only two corners, Jenkins and Scandrick, and three safeties, Sensabaugh, Church, and McCray. Most teams carry roughly five CBs and five safeties; if the Cowboys follow this model, they will need as many as five new defensive backs. That's a lot; no wonder Ryan has been scouring the college ranks.

The good news--and I know many of you will disagree with this--is that Dallas doesn't need to find a starting corner. Jenkins and Scandrick can start in 2012 (as many have noted, Scandrick is being paid like a starter), so the Cowboys aren't chained to need at the position, which would likely result either in an expensive free agent purchase or a frenzied reach for a CB in the draft's early rounds. As far as DBs are concerned, the Cowboys can let the draft come to them.

Given this, how would I proceed If I were playing GM? Extrapolating from the above evidence, I'd do something like this:

Franchise Spencer: This is a brutal choice, and it dictates the rest of my offseason plans, as his 8.8 million franchise tag significantly limits what I can spend at other positions. But I feel strongly that good pass defense depends more on good line play than good secondary play (see: Giants playoff runs) The Cowboys pass rush is already average; without Spencer, it will be anemic and I fear that, no matter how many elite cover guys they bring in, it won't matter because opposing signal callers will routinely have six seconds to throw.

Yes, the Cowboys could let Spencer walk and then target a first-round talent like Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw to take his place, but there's no guarantee the newcomer will be better than Spencer in the long run--and he almost certainly will not be in 2012, as he adjusts to the big boy's game. And, as Bob Sturm sagely notes in his Spencer piece, "I cannot fix this defense by subtracting a reasonable piece while adding another. That is called running in place..." The Cowboys can't get caught up in whether or not Spencer is "worth" franchise money. Let's be clear: he's not. They have to focus on what their defense will look like without him. It's a terrifying prospect, frankly. So, they have to keep him around until somebody who is clearly as good (or better) is on board.

Re-sign Bradie James or another veteran ILB to a short-term deal at the veteran minimum: As noted above, they Cowboys have a startling lack of depth at ILB. Since Carter is a question mark and Sean Lee has been a bit injury prone, can they afford to fill the back-up spots with rookies or UDFA types? I don't think so, and propose to bring back the athletically limited but highly dependable veteran James as insurance. He's a smart player, a hard worker, and a good locker room guy. If he comes cheap, it'll be money well spent--even if he doesn't play a down.

Acquire a FA cornerback: Since Dallas will need as many as three corners, depending on whether or not they think Mario Butler can serve as the fourth or fifth guy, they'll have to exploit as many avenues as possible to get them. Since the two guys they have on board can potentially start, they don't need to break the bank to get a Cortland Finnegan type, but another veteran would be a welcome addition. Remember that they prefer their corners to be size/ speed athletes, so we should strike quick, smallish guys form the list. A couple of possibilities might be the Saints' Tracy Porter, who they liked a lot coming out of college, or Green Bay's Patrick Lee.

Move Jay Ratlif to defensive end: I have been one of the loudest proponents of keeping number 90 at nose tackle, where I think he enjoys the most noticeable advantage. But this move is less about Ratliff and more about the overall state of the defensive line. Simply put, Dallas needs to get more rush from its defensive ends, and Ratliff's the best pass rusher on their DL. Consider: if the Cowboys aren't going to get much interior pressure with Ratliff double-teamed, why not let somebody else absorb that and see what he can do as a defensive end knifing inside, shooting the tackle-guard gap? Both Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore have shown a bit of upside, and deserve more playing time. Conversely, we have seen the ceiling for Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears--and it ain't too high. One way to get the young'uns some more snaps is to move the guy in front of them, Ratliff, to the position manned by the middling vets. It's a simple matter of talent distribution, really. And, what would you rather have: a couple of young guys who could get better, or the known quantities who won't?

Draft a player who can be groomed as Spencer's replacement: Franchising Spencer is only a one year band-aid, so to take that route necessitates that his replacement be brought into the fold. There are pass rushing OLBs available in the draft in the first couple of rounds. If they pass on the likes of Alabama's Courtney Upshaw in round one, a fellow such as West Virginia's Bruce Irvin might be available in the second (or perhaps even the third). The key is that, by franchising # 93, the Cowboys aren't forced to take an OLB in round one, thus potentially missing out on a player with a higher grade.

Draft at least one cornerback in rounds 1-3: Luckily for Dallas, the 2012 draft is rich in cornerbacks; good players can be found throughout the first three rounds. From BCS guys like Dre Kirkpatrick to small school players with NFL tool kits like Montana's Trumaine Johnson, there will be a veritable smorgasbord of CB talent. The Cowboys need to sidle up to the feed trough, and then come back for seconds.

Sign a free agent safety to a one-year or low-impact deal: on the other hand, the cupboard for 2012's safety class is relatively bare. There is only one sure-fire first rounder, Alabama's Mark Barron; after him there are a couple of solid guys, but no Eric Barrys or Earl Thomases, plug-and-play week one starters. If they draft a safety, it will most likely be a developmental guy. So, in the meantime, they'll need a serviceable vet to man the open safety position. We know new defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson loves Abram Elam, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Elam brought back on a short-term or low-dollar deal.

In addition, it wouldn't surprise me to see Dallas go after a nose tackle, either in free agency or the draft. If they can secure a huge 340 pound type, then Sean Lissemore can join Ratliff at end, thus giving Dallas a significant pass rush upgrade at the position, with Hatcher, Lissemore and Ratliff supplanting Coleman (who would probably be cut) and Spears, who would become the designated run-stuffer.

What do you think, BTBers? I know some of these choices are controversial, so go to the comments section and let 'er rip!

In the final installment, we'll look at the overall plan and speculate more specifically on what targets might be in Dallas' sights.

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