Might the Cowboys release Miles Austin to create cap room? - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The final installment of our four-part series on the Cowboys' offseason strategies offers a global overview of the Cowboys' needs and offers some speculations about how the team might use its limited resources to address them.
Before reading any further, you should read the series' last two installments, assessments of the current roster situation on offense and defense, as this post will be derived from information contained therein.
Also, an initial roster evaluation can be found here. If you'd like to read another take on the offseason plan, I suggest revisiting KD's own four-part series. Part I offered a comprehensive overview of the salary cap; the second part considered what to do with Tony Romo's contract; in the third installment, KD took a long look at some current player contracts that will have to be addressed; in the fourth and final post, he authored a detailed offseason plan.
Speaking of offseason plans, one thing each NFL front office does this time of year is to establish a set of priorities and, extrapolating from those, to decide what should happen when, and in what order. In this, our offseason series' fourth and final installment, I want to follow KD's lead and take a harder look at the delicate balance between needs and resources and, from this, offer some speculations upon what might be done to improve the roster with the limited resources available.
In assessing how I might respond to the team's many roster holes, I have based 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. In a previous post, I proposed that this offseason will look less like 2012's spree and more like 2011's comparatively prudent and patient approach (the Nnamdi Asomugah sweepstakes aside), when their biggest capital outlay was allotted to re-signing offensive tackle Doug Free.
If that pattern is indeed repeated, I'd expect this year's version of Doug Free to be Anthony Spencer. In recent interviews, Stephen Jones has intimated that the team really wants number 93 back on the team. Unlike last season, however, we haven't heard much about whether they are willing to franchise him if they can't sign him to a longer-term contract. They appear to be committed to bringing him back; the question is: how much are they willing to pay? In addition, I'd look for them to use free agency to find a some combination of a blocking tight end, a young, all-purpose back, and a strongside linebacker, with any leftover monies to be spent at wide receiver and safety.
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 - and I know this will cause a great deal of consternation among you - Dallas can get by at offensive tackle with the present cast of characters for another season. So, "find a replacement for Doug Free" is stricken from the offseason shopping list, and we count on Free or Jermey Parnell to give the team better play in 2013.
- Draft a defensive lineman in rounds one or two
- Draft a running back in rounds 3-4
Add a cheap free agent receiver
- Get a UDFA FB after the draft
- Sign a blocking tight end in free agency
- Draft a promising offensive guard in the draft's first three rounds
Acquire a replacement for Doug Free (if he's cut)
- Franchise Anthony Spencer OR sign a younger, cheaper FA D-lineman
- Sign an ex-Bears defensive lineman or defensive back
- Find a starting "Sam" linebacker
- Sign a free agent safety to a one-year, low-impact deal
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 under-performing their contracts or otherwise burdening the salary cap. When determining who these miscreants might be, the rule of thumb is to "follow the money." As has been pointed out recently, the Cowboys top ten highest-paid players take up roughly three-quarters (nearly 90 million) of the team's projected 121 million salary cap. This is a staggering number and, when compared to the top ten salaries on other teams (Patriots: 66 million; Ravens: 69 million), it's clear that the Cowboys must do something to prevent themselves from being so top-heavy. In case you were wondering, here's the the top ten:
|Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Other Bonus||Cap Figure||2013 Cap Savings (if cut)|
|Tony Romo||11, 500,000||5,318,835||16,818,835||3,319,000|
|Brandon Carr||14, 300,000||2,000,000||16,300,000||6,000,000|
The numbers in the right-hand column tell the tale: the lads in green are the ones who offer cap savings should they be cut, and numbers in red indicate the amount of money it would cost to cut the player. The cap savings can be increased should any of these guys be designated "June 1st cuts, which allows the team to distribute the dead money over two fiscal years. For more on how that works, see KD's astute cap summary (complete with a handy chart!).
Looking at this, two things emerge clearly: First, I must restructure Romo and Carr's deals, as they are killing the cap. I want both players to be Cowboys for the foreseeable future and, in Carr, I have a young building block, who I trust to play well through the end of his contract, so I feel more secure extending them. Also up for restructuring consideration is OT Doug Free. It makes no sense to cut him now, as the bonuses due him are equal to his 2013 cap charge. It also makes no sense to extend him, thus deferring the charge for a player who appears to be declining. The key is this: will he accept a restructured deal for less money? If so, I'll happily take the savings. If not, I let him battle Jermey Parnell and then, if he shows no improvement, jettison him when it will save me money to do so (cutting him one year from now saves the Cowboys 3,020,000 in 2014).
As has been pointed out, this is a strong 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 Free, sign a better player and break even (or perhaps save money). However, cutting their RT this season would save exactly zero. If the Cowboys were to designate him a "June 1" cut, thus prorating the dead money owed him over two seasons, they would save a little less than two million (his $7 million salary minus 5.1 million dead money). To do this and bring in the likes of Gosder Cherilus or Rashad Butler, players who will command at least 6 million a season, would be a very costly proposition. I'm thinking the team will push hard to restructure and, failing that, cut him if he's beaten out by Jermey Parnell.
Second, I have to determine who it makes sense to cut. There are two prime candidates, the obvious of whom is Dan Connor, who would be relegated to a back up position in 2013, unless the Cowboys' coaches think he is capable of playing the "Sam." If that's the case, his price tag is suddenly more reasonable, plus he saves me whatever resources I would have to dole out for two players: a FA OLB capable of starting and a replacement MLB. If Connor can't play the SLB in Kiffin's scheme, then he's a goner.
Other candidates whose names have been floated as possible cap casualties are Marcus Spears (cutting him would offer 600,000 in savings), Lawrence Vickers (1,200,000) and Gerald Sensabaugh (1,400,000) This is an interesting set of names, as the better players here offer the greater savings. Of the three, the most likely to be released, due to an unenviable combination of high-ish salary and middling production, is Vickers. In addition, I must give serious consideration to releasing the perpetually injured Miles Austin, especially now that Dez Bryant has emerged as the team's number one receiving threat. It's a tough call, but I sure could use the 3.6 million cap savings the move gives me.
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. Since this looks like it will be a leaner year for the Cowboys, its doubtful all their holes can be patched, so its important to prioritize them, and to fill the most glaring first. At present, the most noticeable are at blocking tight end, backup running back, defensive end, strongside linebacker and backup safety. Let's address them in order, shall we?
Backup running back: I'm assuming here that the Cowboys want to bring in a backup with a similar skill set to DeMarco Murray, so that they can run the same offense when Murray is out of the lineup, and that they may want to bring in a "change of pace" back as a third-stringer. Although there are a few "names" available, the cupboard is actually pretty bare; the guys on the market either have a lot of mileage or have been fringe players - not the kind of guys to whom you want to entrust the offense for a few games should Murray go down for an extended period. If they are to fill this hole before the draft, it must therefore be with a contract that won't do any damage should the guy be cut or demoted.
Who are the candidates? The Bengals' Cedric Peerman is a solid runner and an "RKG"; The Raiders' Mike Goodson is not, but he's got the lean receivers' type of body that Murray does, and a similar, albeit less powerful game. And, don't dismiss the possibility of bringing back Felix Jones, who might be the best veteran complement on the market. If the Cowboys want a "C.O.P." back, a guy like LaRod Stephens-Howling ("the hyphen") might fit the bill.
Blocking tight end: Here there are more candidates, but all come with questions. The two players on the market with the best PFF blocking scores are the 49ers Delanie Walker, although he's reportedly one of their top two free agent priorities (after Dashon Goldson) and the Panthers' Ben Hartsock, who's got a lot of tread on his tires, which I don't want in a free agent. Logan Paulsen of Washington is an ideal candidate, but he's an RFA, so the Cowboys would have to give up a draft pick to get him - if the Redskins decide not to match the offer. Seems to rich a price for a backup.
A couple of other names are guys in whom the Cowboys have expressed interest in the past. The first is Anthony Hill, who they liked in the 2009 draft, but was selected in the fourth round by Houston. The 280 pound beast has since floated around the league, most recently with the Colts. Might he be a viable option? Another possibility is a guy they targeted last year, Kellen Davis, who is reportedly a likely cap casualty, given that the Bears' new coaching staff might want to clean house. If he goes on the market, I'd expect the Cowboys to make another play. Speaking of former interests, how about Tony Fasano? From 2008-2011, PFF ranked him in the top six each year in terms of run blocking.
Defensive end: The first offseason priority will be to keep Anthony Spencer in the family. The question is: how much is he worth? Before his breakout 2012 season, I would have said in the range of $6 million per. After collecting double-digit sacks, however, I think his pricetag has skyrocketed. Could they get him for less than the 5-year, 50 million deal they gave Brandon Carr? I doubt it, and think the 10.5 million that it will cost to franchise him for a second straight season might actually be a bit of a bargain given the going rate for defensive ends, especially given that Spencer is almost certain to be the best one available. As a result, I'm prepared to apply the dreaded franchise tag once again. If that doesn't work, or if they can find another defensive lineman (because Jason Hatcher and Tyrone Crawford can play strongside end, it doesn't have to be a DE) for a lesser price, then I can wave goodbye to Spence and say hello to a lower-rent free agent defensive lineman.
Who might that be, you ask? I have several candidates in mind. At end, Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett, a great option, is likely to be franchised. That leaves several good strongside ends, players like Cincinnati's Wallace Gilberry, the Browns' Juqua Parker, and the Rams' William Hayes as possibilities. My leading candidate, however, is the Bears' Israel Odonije, who played for Rod Marinelli in Chicago, and can kick inside on passing downs. He knows the system and apparently fits it, as his production was very high. The only drawback here is age, so I'd much prefer that he be part of a rotation.
Defensive tackle: There are a lot of good veteran backup types here, but not a lot of dynamic players, as teams are loathe to let go of a dynamic interior player. A lot of people have been calling for the team to sign Chicago's Henry Melton, but he'll almost certainly be franchised, leaving a lot of solid vets such as Detroit's Corey Williams, Trevor Laws of the Rams, and the Panthers' Dwan Edwards. The player I have my eye on is Desmond Bryant of Oakland, who was a dynamic interior presence as a backup. Plus, he's young, on the upswing, and is an Ivy-Leaguer, so Garrett will love him. And how cool would it be to have two Dez Bryants?
Strongside linebacker: Here's the one position where the Cowboys need to find a starter, as I'm not sure they have a single decent candidate on the roster to fill the position. Luckily, there are several decent 4-3 "Sam" linebackers available in free agency. The Lions' Justin Durant tops the list, followed by the Raiders' Philip Wheeler and Nick Barnett, who was recently cut by the Bills. For my money, the guy I'm going after is another ex-Bear, Nick Roach. As he would be in Dallas, Roach was the unsung guy in Chicago, behind Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. And he knows the system, so he could be a "plug-and-play" guy from day one.
Safety: Here is the final hole Dallas needs to fill and, assuming they don't cut Sensabaugh, they might not need to do it before the draft. With the emergence of Barry Church and the (fingers crossed) addition of Matt Johnson, the organization is better off than they were this time last year, largely because they don't need a starter. Instead, they need sufficient depth to ensure that Danny McCray, who must stay on the roster because of his special teams prowess, never plays meaningful defensive snaps. So, I'm not going for a Jairus Byrd or Patrick Chung caliber of player. Instead, I'll look for a savvy vet like Denver's Jim Leonhard, Miami's Chris Clemons or the Vikings' Jamarcus Stanford - and I might not add him until after the draft.
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: DE, DT, RB, OLB, OG, DS, QB. Obviously, these will change and shift depending on what Dallas does in free agency. If they break the bank to sign a pricey FA "Sam" linebacker, for instance, then that position drops down the list, or off of it altogether.
Luckily, this draft appears that it will line up nicely with Dallas' needs. It looks to be strong along the defensive line, where the Cowboys need an infusion of talent at both positions (as well as depth behind DeMarcus Ware and whoever proves to be his linemate), and there are some great second-day options at running back. One sidenote here: 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 the best remaining undrafted fullback to compete with Lawrence Vickers in training camp - if he's not released before they get to camp. In addition, I'd try to load up on positions where depth is an issue, especially in the defensive back seven. Also, since we don't know Chris Jones' health status with absolute certainty, I'd try to add a top college punter at this juncture.
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 the might secure a veteran wideout and add defensive depth (and maybe wait to look for a safety). While it would surprise me to see Dallas aggressively pursue any of the street free agents that they brought in as injury replacements during the season last year, it wouldn't surprise me to see several of those guys, players like Michael Coe or Brian Schaefering with whom they have developed a familiarity and way of working, brought aboard during this period.
I know its not the sexiest plan, and its not designed to win now or to achieve a quick fix. That's because I don't believe in them; a preponderance of evidence has shown that the best teams are those that build through the draft, so that's going to be my plan, regardless of a closing "window" or the protestations of my spastic owner.
I suspect that Jason Garrett shares this belief...