Cowboys' 2013 Offseason Plan: Playing GM, Defensive Edition

Where along the defensive line will these guys play in 2013? - Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Part three of our four-part series of speculations on the Cowboys' offseason strategies takes a closer look at the necessary defensive replacements and upgrades as well as how the team might address them.

As Jason Garrett mentioned in Wednesday afternoon's presser, we are now in the moment in the offseason when the coaching staff gathers to evaluate the roster. There is much to determine: 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, cap casualties, or other cuts. In particular, the coaches must consider which positions are under-performing and need to be upgraded. Once this has been figured out, the real work begins for the Cowboys' decision-making triumvirate: exploring avenues to obtain maximum roster improvement for minimum expenditure.

When determining this, it's important to consider what might be available in the draft. Each draft has strengths at particular positions (and, for those positions, through specific rounds) as well as weaknesses at others. Last year, for example, the strengths were, in round one, at defensive line (particularly 5-technique defensive end) and interior offensive line (well into round two). This April? Let's compare projections for the top 100 picks this year with the actual top 100 in recent drafts:

2013 (Pauline) 2013 (CBS Sports) 2012 2011 2010 2009
QB 9 7 7 7 4 4
RB 10 7 8 8 6 7
WR 10 13 15 11 13 15
TE 6 5 3 3 5 5
OT 9 10 7 11 11 8
OG 5 4 10 4 4 3
OC 3 3 2 2 2 4
DE 8 11 7 9 10 7
DT 11 9 11 12 14 10
ILB 3 2 4 5 6 5
OLB 6 10 10 10 5 10
CB 13 11 10 14 12 15
S 7 8 5 4 8 7
P 1 1

As you can see, 2013 (especially if you believe CBS Sports' Rob Rang) looks to be a heavy year for edge rushers, defensive tackles (in the first 40 picks, especially) and second-day safeties. This depth appears to work in the Cowboys' favor, as it comes at positions at which most observers maintain they need upgrades. Because these positions are deep, they are more likely to get good value in, say, rounds two or three at a position of need. Given that the defense will likely need an infusion to help the transition to a 4-3 scheme (see below), this is good news.

If the organization is operating intelligently, the 2013 draft class's various strengths 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. The exception: because they may have multiple questions at defensive end, depending on decisions about Anthony Spencer and Marcus Spears, as well as where Jason Hatcher and Tyrone Crawford best fit in Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme, the ‘Boys may need as many as three (or as few as zero) new DEs.

How might the Cowboys solve this complicated defensive puzzle? Let's begin, as we did on Tuesday, 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 "????"). In addition, I've marked potential cuts with the dreaded three asterisks and, because there is so much uncertainty in terms of who will play where, indicated the sure things by putting their names in bold:

Starter Backup Third String
LDE ???? Tyrone Crawford ***Marcus Spears
LDT Jason Hatcher Sean Lissemore Rob Callaway
RDT ???? ***Jay Ratliff Brian Price
RDE DeMarcus Ware ????
SLB ???? Alex Albright Kyle Wilber
MLB Sean Lee Dan Connor Orie Lemon
WLB Bruce Carter ????
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore Vince Agnew
FS Barry Church ???? *Danny McCray
SS Gerald Sensabaugh Matt Johnson
NCB Orlando Scandrick
RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick

What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with the defensive line (where the bulk of the questions are) and working our way to the secondary:

1. On the defensive line, what do we know? Not much, really, other than the fact the DeMarcus Ware will play the wide end (who, in Kiffin's "under" front, is effectively a nine technique). It's likely that Jason Hatcher will start and that Tyrone Crawford will be an integral cog. But where either of them will line up and whether or not Crawford will start are still very much up in the air. Indeed, where the other D-linemen play (and, frankly, whether any of the others are even on the team) remains shrouded in mystery.

The other thing that is increasingly certain is that the search for a defensive "motor," the disruptive three-technique defensive tackle, continues. In yesterday's "meet the press" session, as O.C.C. recently reported, Monte Kiffin told gathered scribes:

I think we have a chance to have a nose tackle or defensive tackle or two tackles inside - and it isn't just about the three technique, but you'd better have a darned good one....So we need an undertackle.

This, as Cool suggests, indicates that nobody currently on the roster is jumping out as a likely candidate. Which brings up the next point:

2. What to do with Rat? There has been a great deal of speculation lately about whether or not the Cowboys will keep Jay Ratliff and, if so, where he will play. On one hand, he looks to be an ideal three-technique: he's built like former 3-techs John Randle and LeRoi Glover and has a very similar game, utilizing leverage and superior quickness to beat opposing linemen. But he's 32 (at the same point in his career, Warren Sapp had been shipped off to the Raiders) and 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.

So, the question looms: do the coaches trust an old, beat-up, oft-injured warrior to be their defensive engine?

3. Anthony Spencer won't be easy to replace. For years, it was fashionable to bash Anthony Spencer for not being DeMarcus Ware. In 2012, however, he was the better player, continuing to collect tackles, forced fumbles, and tackles for a loss, and having a breakout year in terms of sacks. Now, he's on the open market again - and the Cowboys have far fewer dollars to spend. Sure, they can franchise him - for a cool 10 million plus. But that will almost certainly eat up all the available cap space they might be able to conjure up by cutting players and restructuring others' deals.

The fact that Kiffin said (with a smile) that he couldn't talk about it suggests that the team doesn't want to give Spencer's agent, Jordon Woy, any fodder for raising his asking price. Would they be so careful if they didn't want number 93 back? I think not. The real question is: can they get him to agree to a long-term deal, with a cap-friendly total in the first couple of seasons?

4. Where on the DL are the real thin spots? The questions we have just examined indicate that there are many possible defensive line permutations. If Hatcher and Crawford play end, or if the Cowboys sign Spencer, then defensive end might well be talent-rich position, and tackle might prove to be the thin spot (a situation that would be exacerbated should they decide to release Ratliff). On the other hand, if Hatcher and Crawford move inside and/ or Spencer is released, then defensive tackle looks to be a position of strength and it's at end that they become wafer-thin.

One interesting sidebar here: when Kiffin said to the press that he had several players who used to stand up that were now going to play with their hands on the ground, I wonder if he wasn't referring to Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber, both of who played defensive end in college (Wilber played both DE and OLB). If this is the case, it will add much-needed DE depth, but exacerbate the problem that drives the next point:

5. Dallas' linebacker corps is two-thirds awesome, but only two-thirds. In 2012, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter demonstrated that they can thrive as 3-4 inside linebackers. That said, neither seemed an ideal body type for the scheme, which tends to favor bigger, stouter players who can take on guards at the line of scrimmage. They are, I would argue, ideally suited to Kiffin's defense, which is predicated on speed and quickness, qualities both players have in abundance. Yesterday, Kiffin confirmed as much yesterday, telling reporters that "we got two really good young linebackers." He then continued, adding, "hopefully there's some others there too that can fit in because we need three linebackers in a 4-3 defense."

And there's the rub; they only have two out of three. Who will play the "Sam" linebacker? I've heard a series of possibilities thrown out, from Spencer to Albright to Wilber. I think one of the reasons we hear so many names is because none of them is the right one. In fact, I'm fairly certain 2013's starting SLB is not currently on the roster. If he is, he's probably a stop-gap, a bridge to a better player and better schematic fit.

6. They need a safety, but they don't need a safety. For the first three games last season, the Cowboys starting safety tandem looked very good, making plays on the ball, taking good angles, and being in position much more frequently than we had seen from the position in 2011. This dream scenario ended when Danny McCray had to sub in for an injured Barry Church. McCray, a superb special teams player, was exposed in coverage and it we soon evident that Rob Ryan's primary strategy each week was to ensure that McCray wasn't beaten deep. With these memories still fresh, Cowboys Nation has been calling for one, if not two new players to upgrade the position.

The good news, therefore, is that the Cowboys don't need a starter and thus 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 DS in the draft's early rounds. That said, Matt Johnson has shown exactly zero thus far, so they have no sense of what he is capable. And, if they are to avoid being an injury away from the McCray show again, they'll need another backup. Consequently, I'd expect them to proceed much as they did last season, bringing in a cheap veteran on a one-year contract, who they can then jettison should Johnson or a 2013 draftee make him expendable.

If they sign a cheap veteran, a Charlie Peprah type, then, as far as DBs in general (i.e., including CBs) are concerned, the Cowboys can let the draft come to them, striking where the proverbial iron is hot.

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

Franchise Anthony Spencer. Why franchise Spencer and not sign him to a long-term deal? Because of his age. The prudent protocol in free agency - indeed, one of its fundamental commandments - is to sign players coming off of their first contract, which for everybody except first-rounders happens after four years in the league. Typically, they are about 26 at that point in their careers. Indeed, this is exactly what they did with Brandon Carr last offseason.

Spencer, on the other hand, turned 29 in January. If they ink him to a five-year deal, especially one that defers a big payday until later in the contract, they are likely to be paying top dollar for diminishing production. If I'm ponying up the cheddar for a big free agent, he's going to have to fit the Brandon Carr Model. As much as it will hurt in 2013, the more reasonable alternative is to franchise Spencer and draft his replacement. The alternative is to:

Sign a young free agent lineman other than Spencer: Given the position flexibility of Jason Hatcher and Tyrone Crawford, both of who could play either end or tackle in this scheme, the team can afford to bring in the best available defensive lineman and then move those guys around where they are needed. For the money that I'd have to give to Spence, I could bring in another player, one who might not be as good but might prove a better fit for my basic free agency commandment.

Instead of Spencer, I could bring in a 26-year old defensive lineman, who would be much more likely to still be in his prime as he neared the end of his contract. And, thanks to Hatch and Crawford, this guy could be either an end or a tackle. So, somebody like Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett or Chicago's Henry Melton might not play as well as Spencer, but they are close - and provide more long-term bang for the big free agent buck.

Sign an ex-Bears defensive lineman: As often happens, a new coaching staff brings players in from their previous team, both because they trust them and because these former players understand the system they are trying to implement. The Bears have three free agent defensive linemen: the aforementioned Melton, as well as Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye. I'd bring one of them in to help ease the transition to the 4-3.

Draft the highest-ranked defensive lineman in one of the first two rounds: Again, because of the position flex offered by Hatcher and Crawford, the Cowboys aren't tied down to need in the way they might be if they desperately needed, say, a weakside end. Thanks to these fine gents, they can afford to draft the best defensive lineman and plug him in where he fits best. The one caveat here is this: if the Cowboys pay big money to secure the services of a player like DT Melton or DE Bennett, then they will have to go with the other position in April to avoid redundancy. This is one benefit to Franchising Spencer: if it's understood he'll only be here for one more season, they can then draft either an end or a tackle early in the draft, because that guy will have an open starting spot no later than year two...

Find a starting "Sam": As previously noted, the starting strongside linebacker is probably not currently on the roster. This is the least dynamic of the three linebacker positions in Kiffin's scheme, so he doesn't need to be a first rounder or a big-ticket FA signee. But he does need to be fast, good in coverage and able to outrun opposing ballcarriers to the sidelines. To avoid being hamstrung in the draft by the need to get such a specific skillset, I'd prefer to find a short-term, low-rent veteran to man the position until a younger guy can make him irrelevant. Rod Marinelli drafted Ernie Sims to play the weakside in Detroit, and Sims filled in admirably in the middle in Dallas last year. Might he be a legitimate candidate?

Sign a free agent safety to a one-year or low-impact deal: Just as they did last year, when the safety cupboard was relatively bare, the Cowboys will need a serviceable vet to man the safety position. The key here is that it will be as a backup, rather than one of the starting spots. Because of that, it's even more important that his contract be the kind that won't hurt the team should they bring a promising rookie into the fold, because the 2013 safety platter is much richer than 2012's meager fare. This way, they can walk that fine line between ensuring that McCray sees the field only on special teams (where he can be a Pro Bowler) and eliminating any potential progress stoppers.

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What do you think, BTBers? 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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