In the first three parts of this series, we examined the Cowboys offseason needs (they are legion); developed an offensive plan of attack and did the same on the defensive side of the ball. One thing each NFL front office does, which I didn't do, is to establish a set of priorities and extrapolating from those, what should happen when, and in what order. In this, the series' fourth and final installment, I want to take a harder look at the delicate balance between needs and resources and, from this, devise a step-by-step roster building schematic.
In assessing how I might respond to the team's many roster holes, I based all of my decisions on the multiple public declarations, by Jason Garrett and the various Joneses, that the organization's goal is to use free agency as roster spackle, filling holes rather than bringing glitzy big-name types aboard. I speculated that this offseason will look much like 2011's, when the Cowboys used the majority of their money to re-up one of their own, Doug Free, and peppered that with a series of short-term, low-dollar deals: Jason Hatcher: 2-year, $6 milllion; Kenyon Coleman: 2-year, $3.4 million; Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh: 1 year, 2.5 million. They also, rather inexplicably, inked Marcus Spears to a 5-year, $19 million contract.
If that pattern is indeed repeated, I'd expect this year's version of Doug Free to be Anthony Spencer. In the last couple of days, reports have surfaced that the Cowboys have contacted Spencer's agent to begin working on a deal; in interviews, Garrett and Stephen Jones suggested that they are willing to franchise him if they can't sign him to a longer-term contract. In either case, they appear to be committed to bringing him back. The 2012 equivalents of the deals for Hatcher, Coleman et al.? Look for a safety, a backup quarterback, a veteran center and an inside linebacker, with leftover monies to be spent at wide receiver, cornerback and blocking tight end.
More outrageous offseason opinions after the jump...
In my offensive and defensive posts, I developed the following list of offseason "must-do"s. Unfortunately, Dallas' limited resources don't seem capable of accomplishing all of these, so I have drawn lines through those items that will have to wait--the stuff that I would like to happen but aren't absolute necessities. For example, Dallas can get by at guard with the present cast of characters for another season. So, "add a free agent guard" is stricken from the offseason shopping list, and we count on the youngsters developing. On the other hand, we know with a high degree of certainty that Phil Costa and Kevin Kowalski aren't starter material, so acquiring a free agent center remains a priority. Here's the list:
- find a backup quarterback in free agency
acquire a free agent receiver at a steep discount
- get their hands on a free agent center
find a blocking tight end in free agency add one more guard, either via free agency or the draft
- re-sign Anthony Spencer
- acquire a veteran ILB as insurance should Bruce Carter not be ready to start
go get a free agent cornerback
- sign a free agent safety
draft Spencer's replacement
- draft a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft
add a big nose tackle to the roster
Given what remains, here's how I would tackle the offseason:
Step One: Cuts and Cap savings. The first order of business is to get rid of aging vets who are underperforming their contracts. The obvious candidate is Terence Newman, which would save the Cowboys about $4 million. It wouldn't surprise me to see Kenyon Coleman get his walking papers as well; this would save another 1.5 million or so, and get rid of a "progress stopper," allowing a couple of promising young D-linemen to move up a rung on the ladder: Sean Lissemore can ably handle Coleman's snaps, and promising young'un Clifton Geathers could settle into Lissemore's old role.
In addition, as pointed out by Luke in our most recent FanPost of the Week, and have triggers in their contracts that would lower their base salaries to the league minimum, turn the difference into signing bonus and save them about $8.6 million. In addition, Dallas can re-work some veteran contracts to save a few million more, if needed. Given that they'll need about $5 million to sign their rookie pool, the Cowboys may have as much as $24million to spend, should they choose to do so. So, how would they spend it?
Step Two: Pre-Draft Free Agency. This is where the team fills roster holes so that they can go into the draft without having to cater to need. As it was in 2011 with Doug Free, the first offseason priority will be to keep Anthony Spencer in the family. I'm not going to go into "should they or shouldn't they" questions; the Cowboys appear ready to re-up Spencer, so the question isn't whither Spencer, but how much? Obviously, I'd much prefer a longer-term deal than to pay the franchise tag amount. How much is he worth? Well, guys like Quincy Black and Clint Session are pulling in 5.6 million annually, so I have no problem signing him for something in that range, and have faith that Jerry and Stephen will get it done, although I believe the final tally will be higher than Black's and Sessions' deals, let's say $6 million per.
In addition, they will have to find a backup quarterback. In recent years, they have tended to go for experienced former starters who have NFL wins under their belts but are now willing to be backups. Whoever they bring in must still have a live arm; they learned in 2008 how much a weak-armed backup can compromise the offense. Looking over the available free agent QBs, four names emerge that fit that bill: Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Shaun Hill and Jason Campbell. Orton and Hill are most content to play backup; they are also most likely to re-sign with their old teams. Between Campbell and Grossman, I'd say the least likely to get a starting offer would be Grossman, so that's who I'd target, so long as he's willing to play for something in the range of the $ 2.6 million Kitna was paid last year.
I think the one position (other than LOLB) where the Cowboys will drop a little coin is at center. This doesn't mean that they will necessarily break the bank to sign either of the top two guys, Green Bay's Scott Wells or Houston's Chris Myers. Both of those guys' agents are asking for top-five OC money which, at 2012 prices, means $6-7 million a year. If Dallas signs (rather than franchises) Spencer, then these top guys become possibilities. If their price tags prove to be too steep, there are several guys in the next tier who would present a significant upgrade at the position without draining the pocketbook; they could probably be had for $3-4 million per. The free agent roster at center is filled with greybeards like Matt Birk, Jeff Saturday and Todd McClure, and they could certainly bring one of those guys in on a 2-3 year deal. But I wonder if it makes more sense to secure the services of a younger pivotman like Oakland's Samson Satele or former Redskin Will Montgomery. Although he's been penalty prone (he was a Raider, after all), I think I'd target Satele, whose squatty-strong and has decent feet. I'll ink him for 3.7 million a year.
For several years now, the Cowboys braintrust has been trying to upgrade the ILB spot. They have thrown a passel of draft picks at the position and now--finally!--seem to have a legitimate starting duo in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. But we shouldn't be so quick to pencil Carter in. On Thursday, Jason Garrett spoke about Carter, noting that he has come along about how they expected, but didn't indicate that he was ready for starting duty. Depth is a real issue (does anyone have faith in Orie Lemon?), so the Cowboys are almost certainly going to have to add two inside 'backers this offseason. Given that Carter remains an open question, I think one of those two will have to be a veteran who isn't dead-set on starting, but can assume the starting role until Carter's ready or should he falter. They can't afford to pay starter money, but don't want to add age. Given those parameters, a guy like the Dolphins' Marvin Mitchell or the 49ers' Larry Grant would fit the bill--to the tune of just under a million a year.
The final hole Dallas needs to fill before the draft is at safety. A look at the prices commanded by last year's free agent safety class and the lack of quality in this year's roster suggests that teams desperate for safety help will overpay wildly. As a result, I doubt they will be interested in the Tyvon Branches and Michael Griffins of the world, who are likely to command crazy money. Rather, I see them re-upping Abram Elam, or targeting a solid guy who isn't snapped up in the initial free agent frenzy. The Jets' Jim Leonhard might fit this bill, as would the Vikings' Husain Abdullah. Of course, Cleveland's Mike Adams, who enjoyed good seasons in Cleveland under Jerome Henderson, could choose to follow his position coach to Dallas. Whomever they add, he'll have to be willing to accept per annum about what Elam did last summer, 2.5 million.
The above signings cost me 15.8 million. I'll have to extend a RFA tender to Tony Fimmetta, for 1.26 million, which makes the total 17 million. So, if I sign, rather than franchise, Spencer, and opt not to bring in one of the big-ticket centers, I've still got some wiggle room with which I can go after a third receiver. We would all like to bring Laurent Robinson back to Valley Ranch; if he's willing to sign for third-receiver money, I've got enough cash to make the deal. If not, there are other capable guys out there--and I'd target someone who also offers a dynamic element in the return game.
Step Three: The Draft. With the above holes filled, the Cowboys can go into the draft without being tethered to specific needs. Here are the positions I'd hope to fill in the draft, roughly in order of priority: CB, OG, DS, KR, ILB, CB(2),TE, QB, OLB, NT. Obviously, these will change and shift depending on what Dallas does in free agency. If they break the bank to sign Michael Griffin, for instance, then DS drops down the list of goes off of it altogether.
Luckily, this draft is strong at offensive guard and cornerback, which is one of the reasons I have opted not to add either of these positions via free agency. That said, I think they must draft a corner in one of the draft's first three rounds. Studies have shown that the position where NFL success most clearly correlates to draft round is cornerback. This stands to reason, as the position places such a high premium on raw athleticism. If need be, Dallas can get by with Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick as their starters. But NFL teams all need three starting-caliber CBs. As they won't be able to afford a starting-caliber guy in free agency, Dallas will have to draft one (or more) in April. In addition, if the Cowboys are going to draft a guard, I think it must be in the early rounds; otherwise, they are merely adding another player like the guys they already have in the fold.
Step Four: UDFAs This is where I engage in their some post-draft derring-do, working to add not only camp bodies but key players at positions that don't often merit a draft pick. My highest priority would be to add at least one college punter to compete for the job in training camp. Also, I'd try to load up on positions where depth is an issue, especially at linebacker, corner and safety.
Step Five. Post-Draft Free Agency. This is where I'd fill the second-level holes that couldn't be addressed in the draft. Its here that a veteran blocking tight end, another inside linebacker, offensive guard or cornerback would be brought in. Also, I'd try to add a veteran punter at this juncture. And, finally, its at this (final) stage in the game where I would bring in guys like Montrae Holland and Bradie James to sign one-year deals to add depth to thin positions.
I know its not the sexiest plan. But an overwhelming preponderance of evidence has shown that the best teams consistently are those that build through the draft. Think about it: would you rather be the 90s Washington Redskins or the 2010 Packers?