BTB Mailbag: Free Agent & Draft Targets At The Cowboys' Positions Of Need

With Barry Church still on the mend, the Cowboys have too many questions at safety - Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE

Rabble and OCC dig deep into the BTB Mailbag for a reader's question that asks them to rank the Cowboys' most dire positions of need and offer some names of potential free agents and collegiate draftees they might target to turn them into positions of strength.

A couple of weeks ago, BTB member tommyt2 sent in the following question in response to KD's "Ask BTB" Mailbag post:

My favorites posts are when there are 2 writers giving their views on one subject. This was done with a recent Cowboys mock draft. I would love to see a post where two of you provide intelligence on the following: Grading the Cowboys four greatest off season needs (on a Scale of 5 to 1 with 5 being biggest area of need) and then providing two free agent and two draft prospects that are most likely to be available, fit, and/or we can afford.

Well, Tommy, your wish is our command. After a hotly contested tussle over the rights to this question, O.C.C. and I emerged victorious and happily provide some thoughts below. I'll go first, and Cool will follow.

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Rabble: This is an interesting question, and precisely the sort of query that NFL front offices must ask as they begin their offseason roster-building work. As your numerical needs-ranking system suggests, it's important to prioritize the various needs, especially when, as is the case in Dallas, the team has limited resources to allocate to filling holes. Although the Cowboys are in much better shape than they were this time last year, when there were as many as twelve key roster spots that needed to be filled, they also have considerably fewer free agent dollars to spend.

How might they allocate those precious resources? I addressed this in a series of "offseason plan" posts. In the first of those, I reminded readers that the Cowboys plan to use free agency to fill holes in order to avoid having to reach for a specific position during the draft. I will include potential draftees as well, largely because I can see the team bringing in both a free agent and a draft pick at each of these needy positions.

Free Agency first. What are the most significant roster holes, and how might we prioritize them? A quick rationale: I am not ranking offensive line as a "must have," as nine of the team's top ten linemen return from last year, including all five starters. To my mind, for a position to rate as a "must have," there must be an evident roster hole. For example, they can go into the season with the current offensive line, but I'm not sure they have anybody to play strongside linebacker, so SLB goes on the list and OL doesn't. Don;t worry, O.C.C. feels otherwise. For me, it's about allocating very limited resources to the highest priority needs.

Right now, I count five "must haves": DE, SLB, Safety, backup RB and backup TE. Of these, I feel that tight end is least important; Dallas has an All-Pro starter and a promising backup, and this is a deep draft for tight ends. That leaves four positions, which I have ranked as follows, with the degree of need in parentheses:

Defensive End (5): There are several issues that compound the problem at this position. The first of these is the switch to a 4-3 defense. Who are likely to be the defensive ends? Well, we know for sure that DeMarcus Ware will be the RDE, the "open side" 4-3 defensive end. Other than that, nothing is remotely certain. Both Jason Hatcher and Tyrone Crawford can play the strongside end - but both men, as former 5-tech DEs, have the bodies to succeed in Monte Kiffin's system, which values speed and quickness more than brute force in its defensive tackles.

The other problem here is free agency, where both Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler, the only players other than Ware who are obvious fits at 4-3 DE, are both unrestricted free agents, and neither is likely to be in Dallas in 2013. So, not only do questions abound about the starters, but the team is has no apparent depth at the position - unless they plan on converting Kyle Wilber and Alex Albright to DE (there is almost no evidence to suggest that this would be the case).

Potential Free Agents: Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett, a great option, is likely to be franchised. That leaves several solid, but not great, 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 new D-line coach Rod Marinelli in Chicago, and can kick inside on passing downs. He knows the system, and his production was very high.

Draftees to Consider: This is a position where the Cowboys really need to draft a dynamic player, So I'm only considering athletic guys with high production ratios. At present, Florida State's Tank Carradine is a second-rounder, but he's rising up boards, and I think he'll rise up into the first round. If he doesn't rise too far, he'd make a nice complement to Ware. If they look at other positions early, then I'd like them to draft a small school player with ridiculous production: Missouri Western's David Bass

Outside Linebacker (4): With Sean Lee and Bruce Carter on board, playing the "Mike" and "Will" positions, two-thirds of the 2013 linebacker corps is set. The burning question is: who will play the "Sam" linebacker? I've heard a series of possibilities thrown out, from Spencer to Albright to Wilber. I think we hear so many names because none of them is the right one. Unless the team feels that Dan Connor can play SLB at a high level (a doubtful proposition), I'm fairly certain 2013's starting SLB is not currently on the roster.

Potential Free Agents: Given these facts, this is a position where the Cowboys need to find a starter. Luckily, there are several decent 4-3 "Sam" linebackers available in free agency. Detroit's Justin Durant tops the list, followed by the Raiders' Philip Wheeler and Nick Barnett, who was recently cut by Buffalo. But 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.

Draftees to Consider: Again, the move to the 4-3 dictates that we place a premium on speed and quickness moreso than size. I don't think they can afford to draft a SLB before round three, so I'll start there. A couple of guys I like in that range are UConn's Sio Moore and Penn State's quick but not fast Gerald Hodges. Both showed scouts impressive athleticism during Combine drills on Monday.

(Backup) Running Back (3): Felix Jones has almost certainly 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. I'm assuming that the Cowboys want to bring in a backup with a DeMarco Murray-esque skillset, 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.

Potential Free Agents: 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? Cincy's Cedric Peerman is a solid runner and an "RKG"; Oakland's 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, if the Cowboys want a "C.O.P." back, a guy like former Cardinal LaRod Stephens-Howling (aka "the hyphen") might fit the bill.

Draftees to Consider: Although this running back class doesn't have much at the top, it boasts a wealth of potential contributors who figure to go in rounds 3-4. That's where I'm going to start shopping. The third round guys who I've developed a big man crush on recently are ex-Aggie Christine Michael and Arkansas' Knile Davis, both of whom are athletic 220-pounders. Both flashed big time at the Combine.

The third down, "C.O.P." types I'd love to see wearing the star are Clemson's Andre Ellington (likely third round) or, later in the draft, Pittsburgh's Ray Graham. And, finally, I must say that, if Marcus Lattimore is still around in the third round, I'd have to take a stab at him.

Safety (1): Early last season, Barry Church was a revelation, and his rehab from a damaged Achilles is, thankfully, ahead of schedule. He and Gerald Sensabaugh form a solid, if not spectacular starting combination. That said, they must do whatever possible to ensure that special teams ace Danny McCray doesn't have to play meaningful snaps at safety in 2013. Part of this buffer will, we hope, be provided by Matt Johnson; however, since he has shown, well, nothing thus far, they will need further insurance. 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.

Potential Free Agents: As the above suggests, 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 Minnesota's Jamarcus Stanford, the kind of player who can play well and show the young guys how to be a professional, but is likely to be around in the third week of free agency (shoot, I might not even add him until after the draft).

Draftees to Consider: One of the reasons I'm not breaking the bank for a FA safety is that this is a good, deep safety draft class. I could see the Cowboys picking up a safety in almost any round including round one, where they'd find Texas' Kenny Vaccaro. Two small school guys I like a lot are Florida International's Johnathan Cyprian (second round, probably) and Richmond's Cooper Taylor (likely seventh). One additional name that intrigues me, because of his connection to Kiffin, is USC's T.J McDonald. It wouldn't surprise me to see them pick him up if he's on the board in the fourth round.

There you go: Rabble's Offseason Talent Acquisition Adventure.

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O.C.C.: Since Rabble went heavy on the D-line, I'll go heavy on the O-line in my assessment

My rationale is that Tony Romo is easily the most important player on the roster, and ensuring that he can play to the maximum of his abilities is my key priority for 2013. It follows that the most significant offseason priorities for me are a right tackle and a guard. I'd also look for an extra tight end and add some depth at safety.

This prioritization would mean transitioning to the 4-3 defense with largely the same cast of players the Cowboys had last year, and trusting that fewer injuries next year will lead to better results. But that's something I'll let all those big new names on the defensive coaching staff figure out.

Right Tackle (5): The Cowboys may opt to keep Doug Free, and there have been some noises about how Parnell has progressed. But I believe right tackle is such a big issue that the Cowboys cannot wait and see whether a prospect will fall to them in the draft or not. They need to have a plan, and that plan needs to have a name other than Free or Parnell.

Potential Free Agents: the Cowboys are in luck this year, because it looks like there'll be a veritable flood of free agent right tackles hitting the market. The Cowboys probably won't want to bust the bank to sign one of the premier free agents like Sebastian Vollmer or Phil Loadholt, but there are two guys that could be solid additions: 26-year old Barry Richardson played at the vet minimum in St. Louis last year and replaced Jason Smith as the Rams' starting right tackle. Another option could be a guy like Miami RT Nate Garner, who filled in as the Dolphins' starting right tackle after Jake Long tore his triceps last season. The 6-foot-7, 325-pound lineman is only 28, and could likely be had at less than half of what Doug Free will cost.

Draftees to Consider: Unless Lane Johnson drops, I don't think the Cowboys will take a right tackle with their first pick. Guys I like after the first day are Florida State's Menelik Watson and San Jose State's David Quessenberry.

Safety (4): There are simply too many unknowns at safety for the Cowboys. Will Church recover fully from his Achilles injury, will Matt Johnson be the real deal and how much longer can Sensabaugh play? Stephen Jones is already on record saying safety is a key priority, so the Cowboys will likely do something here

Potential Free Agents: Kenny Phillips is probably not going to re-sign with the Giants, who look like they've found their starting tandem in Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown. Phillips has been battling knee injuries his entire career, but he'd be an excellent insurance policy for the Cowboys. Patrick Chung played mostly in the Patriots' sub-packages last year, and the 25-year old could be an upgrade in a similar role for the Cowboys.

Draftees to Consider: I'd be looking for free safety prospects in the draft; the Cowboys don't need more strong safeties. Kenny Vaccaro has already received an invitation for a pre-draft visit to Valley Ranch, but I doubt he'll be the best player on the Cowboys' board in the first round. Instead I'd look hard at Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, who's been described as "the best safety you've never heard of" and who would be the perfect centerfielder for the Cowboys, and perhaps the best centerfielder in this draft class. A personal favorite of mine is D.J. Swearinger out of South Carolina, who'd be a developmental prospect, but has shown to be a versatile, tough and incredibly physical guy while playing both free and strong safety over his college career

Offensive Guard (4): Jerry Jones said something to the effect that Phil Costa will play much better if he's paired with a quality offensive guard. I believe this is true. I believe this is also true for Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, and whoever the tackle is that ends up playing next to the new guard. Which is why an offensive guard is a top priority for me in the draft.

Draftees to Consider: the Cowboys' top target on draft day should be Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina. We've already talked about him at length here on BTB, but he'd be a much better fit in the Cowboys' line scheme than Warmack. Barring Cooper, I'd look hard at California's Brian Schwenke, who can play both guard and center, and I'd also keep my eyes peeled for Cornell's J.C. Tretter, a former tight end, although I'd consider him more of a developmental prospect.

Potential Free Agents: The Cowboys spent money on two guards last year; I don't see them spending all too much again, unless they release either Livings or Bernadeau, which seems unlikely. Keep in mind that the Cowboys also have a couple of young guys like Arkin, Leary and Kowalski who they're pretty high on, so free agency will likely not be about making a big splash. San Diego's left guard Tyronne Green could be an option, and his teammate Rex Hadnot could be a cheaper alternative.

Tight End (2): The Cowboys tried and failed to bring in an extra tight end in free agency last year. They'll probably try again this year, but who really wants to play behind Jason Witten? James Hanna looks like he could be a solid option is the passing game, so to Cowboys will be on the lookout for a tight end proficient at blocking.

Potential Free Agents: It's not really a great free agent class for blocking tight ends, so the Cowboys might well bring John Phillips back. Another option could be to sign 32-year old Ben Hartsock, formerly of the Panthers to a veteran deal.

Draftees to Consider: The draft has some interesting blocking tight ends slotted for the later rounds, including Colorado's Nick Kasa (269, 6-6) and Alabama's Michael Williams (269, 6-6), as well as a few blockers who'll likely be priority undrafted free agents for the Cowboys.

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We name-dropped 19 potential draft targets for the Cowboys in our answers above, and we thought it would befun to summarize a small draft board with the names we proposed. Of course, this was a very specific question, and we didn't set out construct a draft board, but we thought it might lead to some interesting discussions anyway.

Round Player (Pre-Combine Projected Round)
1 OG Jonathan Cooper (1), S Kenny Vaccaro (1)
2-3 S Jonathan Cyprian (2), DE Tank Carradine (2-3), OLB Sio Moore (2-3), RT Menelik Watson (2-3), S Phillip Thomas (2-3)
3-4 OG/OC Brian Schwenke (3), RB Christine Michael (3-4), S D.J. Swearinger (3-4)
4-5 S T.J. McDonald (4), OLB Gerald Hodges (4), RT David Quessenberry (4), OG J.C. Tretter (4-5), TE Nick Kasa (4-5)
5-6 RB Knile Davis (5-6), DE David Bass (5-6)
6-7 TE Michael Williams (6-7), S Cooper Taylor (7)

Although Tommy asked for each of us to comment on the other's choices, we decided to let you, our faithful readers, assess our speculations. So, go to the comments section and let 'er rip, y'all!

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