One of the most important offseason questions: what will the Cowboys do with Doug Free? - Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE
Part two of our four-part series of speculations on the Cowboys' offseason strategies takes a closer look at the necessary offensive replacements and upgrades as well as how the team might address them.
In part one of this series, I took a global look at the Cowboys roster. The article highlighted the positions that must be addressed this offseason and reminded everyone that both Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones have publicly declared they'd like to use free agency to secure stop-gaps who can hold down the fort until they can add long-term "core" players through the draft.
As I wrote last year at about this time, 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.
Unlike last offseason, when Dallas had in the neighborhood of 20 million dollars in cap room to spend towards upgrading the roster, we should not expect a lot of action in free agency - or at least not a lot of big ticket action. That said, many have correctly pointed out that Stephen Jones and his crack staff of money managers and capologists can find the necessary funds should they want to pursue a given player. To do this, of course, they will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, deferring the cost into future years. Given the flatness of the current cap, and the fact that one of the team's publicly articulated priorities has been to free themselves from the burdensome cap purgatory that has plagued them of late, it seems that they would pursue this strategy only if a remarkable opportunity presented itself: a young, ascending player coming off a first contract at a position of great need.
Other than exploring such a possibility, I'd expect our beloved ‘Boys to proceed less like they did last year and more like they did in 2011, when they patiently let the market come to them and got reasonable bargains in the process. Lest we forget the mantra, I'll write it again: the goal in free agency will be to set the team up in order to avoid having to draft for need in April.
So, what might such a plan look like? Today, I'll start with the offense; next time around, I'll do the same with the defense. Let's begin by revisiting our handy-dandy positional needs chart, which appeared in this series' first installment. As I delineated then, any roster spots that were manned last year by guys who are currently free agents (and thus not officially on the roster) were marked with a "????," and RFAs were designated with an asterisk. In addition, for this post, I've placed three asterisks alongside any players in danger of being released as cap casualties.
|QB||Tony Romo||Kyle Orton|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||????||Phillip Tanner|
|SE||Dez Bryant||????||Cole Beasley|
|LT||Tyron Smith||Jermey Parnell||Darrion Weems|
|LG||Nate Livings||Ronald Leary|
|OC||*Phil Costa||Ryan Cook||Kevin Kowalski|
|RG||Mackenzie Bernadeau||David Arkin|
|RT||***Doug Free||Jermey Parnell||Darrion Weems|
|TE||Jason Witten||????||James Hanna|
|FL||Miles Austin||Dwayne Harris||Danny Coale|
What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with what we definitely know:
1. Backup running back Felix Jones has probably played his last snap in a Cowboys uniform, and starter DeMarco Murray, while a building block, has proved to be oft injured. The team has to have a contingency plan should he be injured again. For the offense to avoid slowing down, this replacement should have a Murray-esque skillset. The free agent cupboard looks a bit bare, but there are some intriguing second-and third-day options in April. And, depending on how they feel about Phillip Tanner's long-term viability, they might want to dip into each pool, picking up a cheap veteran and then a third or fourth round rookie.
2. The search for a Darryl Johnston-type, do-everything fullback continues. Although Lawrence Vickers was a good locker room presence, adding much-needed toughness and leadership, he was much less impressive on the field. Especially noteworthy were his struggles blocking for the running game, where he and never seemed to find his groove, with either Murray or the offensive (and I do mean offensive!) line. The question is: can they find an upgrade in free agency? Looking over the likely lads, I'm not so sure. So, even though it might seem like a good financial move to jettison the veteran FB, the lack of an evident replacement is a reality that must be considered.
3. The Cowboys can't again go without a plus blocking tight end. Although the majority of Cowboys fans were happy to let Martellus Bennett go, as was pointed out in greater detail in a season assessment post, the team failed to replace his significant contributions in the running game. John Phillips never returned to the form that dazzled in the 2010 preseason, and James Hanna, although he had a fine rookie year, is more a big wide receiver than a third tackle. The goal here is to replace Bennett's blocking prowess while adding a passing threat, a dimension that 'Tellus never could manage. While this draft promises a better crop of able blockers from the position that 2012's did, one wonders if the Cowboys want to roll the dice on a rookie or pursue a plus blocker, as they did last offseason, when they went after both Kellen Davis and John Carlson.
4. Whither a third wide receiver? The question is not whether the Cowboys feel either Dwayne Harris or Danny Coale has the potential to play in three-wide situations (both probably do). Rather, after seeing how the offense stalls with either Miles Austin or Dez Bryant out of the lineup for an extended period, they must ask: is there a player on the roster who could fill in should either miss multiple games? This is much less certain. What we do know is that a third WR capable contributing to the passing game in 2013 is almost certainly not going to be found in the draft. But can they afford to compete for a guy who has the chops to start if necessary? I'd guess that the organization will eschew WR in free agency, with the hope that the Pro Personnel guys find another Robinson type: a big receiver capable of contributing quickly.
5. Balancing age and talent on the OL. The Cowboys O-line is currently comprised of three types of players: First round studs (Tyron Smith); low-rent free agents (Nate Livings and Makenzie Bernadeau) and young, late-round development guys (everyone else). Given this, it makes no sense to add more from either of the latter two categories. Think about it: how helpful might another Livings or Bernadeau be? Along these lines, if they draft a developmental lineman, that forces a guy like Ronald Leary or David Arkin off the roster before he's had the requisite three years to adapt to the pro game. As Dallas doesn't appear to be able to afford to bring in a premium free agent, therefore, when we discuss O-line talent upgrades, the most likely avenue would be a along the lines of a first-round tackle or second-round guard.
6. The exception to the previous point is at right tackle. As has been pointed out here on BTB's pages, this is a superb year for free agent tackles, especially strong-side types. What this portends, the thinking goes, is that such a surplus might well bring down prices, allowing Dallas to cut the struggling Doug Free, sign a better player and break even (or perhaps save money). This is certainly a comforting dream, but there are a couple of items that the Cowboys will determine that are outside of our interpretive purview: 1) is such a move (or set of moves) financially feasible? 2) What, exactly, has been wrong with Free? I've heard everything from injuries to technique. If in fact the Dallas brass feels that whatever has been hampering him can heal or be correctable, they may well not feel the same way about him as does Cowboys Nation. Another reality that must be factored in: if the Cowboys feel that Jermey Parnell can takeover for Free, does it make any sense to pay big money for a free agent tackle?
Given what we know, what kind of offensive plan might emerge? Extrapolating from the above evidence, I'd expect to see something like this:
Draft a running back in rounds 3-4: In last year's draft, the Cowboys showed a lot of interest in Boise State back Doug Martin, who had a scintillating rookie season in Tampa Bay, and Texas A & M's Cyrus Gray, who they were poised to take in the sixth round. Both offer a DeMarco Murray type skillset: strong between the tackles, good receivers, solid pass protectors. Although this draft doesn't have any Martins - i.e., all-around backs with first round talent, it does have a lot of Grays, guys like Stanford's Stepfon Tayler, who may not have first round burst, but otherwise possess a balanced NFL-ready skillset.
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 a the kind of active receiving role that Laurent Robinson played in 2011. 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, plus he'd be a progress stopper for the likes of Dwayne Harris, Danny Coale and Cole Beasley. A wily veteran with good size such as Mohammed Massoquoi or Austin Collie who is still lingering after the initial FA frenzy? That I can see...
Make a hard play for a UDFA FB after the draft: In the last decade, Dallas has drafted at least three collegiate fullbacks, brought in numerous UDFA fullbacks and fiddled with converting tight ends and linebackers, all in search of another do-everything fullback in the Darryl Johnston model. At this juncture, they can ill afford to spend another draft pick (in 2002, it was Jamar Martin; in 2005, Deon Anderson; the 2011 draft brought Shaun Chapas) on the position. At the same time, they cannot contentedly sit on their hands. The best solution for now is to keep trying inexpensive alternatives. If I were them, I'd make it a priority to hard-sell the top remaining fullbacks on their board as the draft winds down in late April.
Sign a free agent tight end who can block: As I suggested above, in James Hanna, the Cowboys have more of a flexed TE type, a WR/ TE hybrid who does the vast majority of his damage in the passing game. What they don't have is another in-line "Y," a brutish run blocker who can regularly seal the edge on outside running plays and take on opposing defensive ends without help, as Bennett could do. That's a rather specific commodity, and since such specificity would handcuff them were they wait to find it in the draft, I'd look for them to pick up a cheap, veteran TE who can help in the running game. A couple of guys who fit that profile are the 49ers' Delanie Walker and Redskins' Logan Paulsen. Both men were instrumental to the success of two of the league's best running games. Weaken a rival's depth and improve Dallas' running game? Yes, please!
Draft a promising offensive guard in the draft's first two days: Unlike 2012, this isn't the deepest guard class, but there are some very intriguing prospects in the first two rounds. As I mentioned above, the offensive line profile that makes the most sense for Dallas to bring in is a first or second round talent. Both Livings and Bernadeau were signed to "placeholder contracts," the kind of deals that allow them to be jettisoned once a younger, more talented player can be brought in. Guys like Leary and Arkin can then be brought along, with the hope that one of them can replace the other veteran guard in 2014.
Looking this over, we have between two and four offensive free agent acquisitions, with the least likely being a starting RT, and the more likely being reserves at RB, WR and TE. Also, I could see two potential draft picks, one in the first two rounds (OG) and the other in the mid rounds (RB) as well as a likely UDFA need at FB. Finally, it wouldn't surprise me to see them take a developmental QB, especially since the buzz around signal callers is less likely to have them skyrocketing up boards this year, so they'd be likely to get decent value.
We'll revisit these once we've reviewed the defensive plan, so check back in to see some musings upon that side of the ball, followed up by a comprehensive overall look at an offseason plan in which we'll look at and prioritize all of the team's needs.
Until then: Go Cowboys!