*All cap numbers are provided by overthecap.com*
It is very obvious that Dallas’ biggest issue in 2013 was an injury plagued, badly coached, and overwhelmed defense. From the defensive line up, every unit was ravaged with underperformance, ridiculous injury to key players, and inexperienced guys starting and/or getting significant duty in big spots. Somehow, somehow, somehow, by a miracle stroke of God, Dallas was able to dodge being the NFL’s worst ever defense by just a few hundred yards. One more football game and that record would have been broken. So this offseason will need to be defense heavy. The offense could use some patching up, but any defensive position at this point is a bigger priority than even the weakest offensive spot. Dallas is about $20.7 million over the cap for 2014 (overthecap.com), so they will need to be strategic with how they manage the salary, and will need to draft wisely. Despite a horrible defense in 2012, the recent rookie crops 2 biggest contributors were on offense. Dallas needs to understand where the issue is and fix it. And here’s how they can:
1) Cut DeMarcus Ware: Man, it will be tough to see Ware go. Ware has evolved into one of the most feared pass rushers of all time in his career, which was spent entirely with Dallas. For years, he was the best defender in the NFL, but his time has come. He provided Dallas with just 6 sacks this year, while sitting out his first career games with injury. His cap hit is extremely high, and by cutting him post June 1st, he can save Dallas over $12 million (I thought it was only 8, but overthecap.com says otherwise). The NFL is a business. While Ware had a good career here in Dallas, his contract is insanely out of proportion to his production and Dallas would do well to go newer, and less expensive. After cutting Ware, Dallas will still have about $8.5 million dollars over the cap to take care of.
2) Cut Miles Austin: While this is a defensive plan, Dalla will have to give up a little on offense. Good thing is, the Cowboys most expensive receiver is their least productive of the top 4 on the depth chart. Dallas has a prime stud in Bryant, and Williams showed this year that he can be relied upon to be a starter, and he will only improve with another offseason and a little experience. Meanwhile, Beasley has basically become the man in the slot, and Harris is capable of being the 4th receiver (as he showed in 2012) and is a great slot backup, and in a pinch, would be decent enough to start. Pretty much, Austin is not needed and can be replaced with a late round rookie or a good undrafted free agent for a much, much lower cost. Those hamstrings are what really got Austin, and while its unfortunate, cutting him is best for the team. Bye-bye Austin, hello $5.5 million in cap savings.
3) Restructure Tony Romo: Romo has a huge contract, but lucky for Dallas, it is made to be restructurable. For once, the Jones’ made a contract decision, as they likely anticipated another tough salary cap offseason when they signed Romo to the big deal, and have a solution now. After cutting Austin, Dallas will still be about $3.5 over the cap. If they were to restructure Romo, they can get $6.5 under the cap. That will give them enough money to sign their rookie class.
4) Restructure Brandon Carr: Carr had a down year in 2013 and still costs a lot of money. Yet again, Dallas saw this coming and can restructure his contract. With a proper restructure, Dallas can get to about $11.6 million under the cap. That way, they can even sign a free agent and still have enough for their rookies.
5) Cut Justin Durant: Durant did not have an outstanding season this year with Dallas. Considering he was inexpensive, you can’t really complain. However, between Kyle Wilbur and DeVonte Holloman, Dallas has a couple young and capable outside linebackers. Cutting Durant will save Dallas another $1 million.
6) Forget Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher: With precious cap space and draft picks to fill lots of holes along the defense, Dallas cannot afford to chase Spencer of Hatcher. Hatcher had a great year, but it is concerning that he has never performed so well until his contract year. Secondly, some team will pay him good money this offseason. Dallas simply cannot compete with the price tag he will come with, and retaining him will inevitably be a bad contract, and the franchise tag is out of the question because of price. He is 32. With Spencer, he just had microfracture surgery (which is really really bad for pro athletes) and is right around 30 as well. He is also old, and like Hatcher, some team will take a chance on the old, used up, injured guy for big money and Dallas will not be able to lure in Spencer with their own cash. A franchise tag will cost way too much. Thank them for their efforts and contributions, wish them the best, but commit to getting younger.
With the moves listed above, Dallas will be about $12.3 under the cap. They will likely want to leave $4.2-4.5 million for the rookie class, so Dallas should go into free agency with the idea that they have about $7 million to spend (to leave space for emergency fill ins during the season)
1) Resign Dan Bailey: Bailey is the most efficient and consistent player on the Dallas roster. He is a top 10 kicker in the NFL and should be locked up immediately. I gave him a contract similar to Robbie Gould (Gould’s contract is 4 years/ $15 million, 3 million of it is part of the signing bonus, with a little under $9 million guaranteed). The details of Bailey’s contract: 4 years/ $15.5 million ($4 million is signing bonus, $8.5 guaranteed) This deal will be back loaded to give Dallas some wiggle room for 2014. The remaining cap space will be about $10.9 million, leaving Dallas with another $6.4 million to spend.
2) Sign Henry Melton: If Dallas is able to pull this off, Melton will be Dallas’ big signing of the year. (Note: This is not a prediction. Melton will be very hard to pry away from Chicago, let alone be in position to offer him a contract. But this is simply a guide on how to fix the defense, not an actual prediction of what will happen. Dallas’ chance of signing Melton this year are probably only about 20%). Melton has experience under Marinelli from 2012, in which Melton had a great year. Plus, he is from Texas. I’ve seen contracts for Melton ranging from 4/28 to 4/35. Personally, I think a team could have him for something like 4/32. However, he is coming off a serious season ending injury, so his stock is driven down a little bit. The lure of Marinelli, Texas, and a nice 4 year/ $30 million dollar contract may be able to make Melton our new star Defensive Tackle. His contract would be the mentioned 4yr/$30 million, but more backloaded, as Dallas will only have $6.4 to spend. By keeping his cap hit for 2014 at $5 million, Dallas will still have another $1.4 million, give or take a few hundred thousand depending on the rookie class.
That’s it for free agency. With the remaining $5.9 million, Dallas will have ample money to sign rookies. The remaining money can be used to resign Chris Jones (unless Dallas goes with a rookie punter) and for signing street guys midseason. On to the final stage of patching up this defense, the draft.
First Round: Hasean Clinton-Dix, Safety, Alabama: With the limited amount of money Dallas had in the offseason, the only significant thing they were able to do was add a good defensive tackle. there are still lots of deficiencies left for this team to sort out. I’m not in love with any of the edge rushers or interior defensive linemen available in the 16/17 range, but Dallas may be able to get their hands on Clinton-Dix. Dix is a great center fielder who can play the pass and is pretty good in coverage. Dallas needs a safety desperately and can no longer rely on Matt Johnson to provide any help (who will be cut this offseason after a sprained ACL, torn pectoral, dislocated shoulder, and a toothache). Wilcox is still a project and Jeff Heath doesn’t belong anywhere except special teams. Dix can provide the coverage Barry Church can’t, can occasionally deliver a nice hit, and will provide the nasty attitude in the backfield. Church is a hard hitter, but he isn’t the thug Clinton-Dix is. A scrappy center fielder with good ball skills and play making ability will be a great fit for Dallas in the first round.
Second Round: Jackson Jeffcoat, Defensive End/ Outside Linebacker, Texas: Jackson Jeffcoat was productive at Texas, and looks to be productive in the NFL. Jeffcoat has first round talent, but may drop to the second because he is undersized for a defensive and will likely need a little time to become a full linebacker. Perfect for Dallas. Not only does Dallas need some pass rushing help, but they need linebacker depth. The loser of the Holloman/Wilbur fight will be the only quality backup Dallas will have, so Jeffcoat will be a good addition. He has the versatility to be a bench/rotation player all along the front 7 and can be brought in as an edge rusher often as well. If Dallas wants to convert him to defensive end fully, he will only need to gain about 10 lbs. That works out great for Dallas as a swiss army knife type of player. Plus, he’ll be young and very good at what he does.
Third Round: Daniel McCullers, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee: McCullers is a great stuffing defensive tackle prospect who will likely fall to the middle rounds because of weight. He is 350 lbs. Usually, that’s not so good for a 4-3 defense, but what most people overlook is that McCullers is much more athletic than your typical mammoth defensive tackle. With Melton as the primary mass rusher, McCullers can fill the role of run plugger and pocket collapser. He is so huge he will often take double teams. That opens space for Melton and the edge rushers, as well as make the linebackers jobs much easier. Despite double teams, he can still cause a rift in the middle, and when he isn’t double blocked, look out. Overall, McCullers will just be a massive weapon on that D line who can scare opposing linemen, running backs, and QB’s. If Dallas can nab him and Melton, the defensive line will see a huge improvement.
Fourth Round: Michael Sam, Defensive End, Mizzou: Michael Sam is one of the better edge rushers in this years draft. However, I think his weight (only 255) may scare people away. However, Sam had a productive year with 11.5 sacks in the SEC. He had a bad day against the Tennessee offensive line (which is considered very good) but you can’t deny his production and potential. Dallas will still be looking for pass rush help. Dallas may not nab a pass rushing superstar in this draft, but a DE rotation of Crawford/Selvie/Jeffcoat/Sam looks inexpensive, young, good, and they can all stay fresh. Dallas finally finishes the remodeling of the defense with another young lineman.
Fifth Round: Tevin Reese, Wide Receiver, Baylor: That’s right, Dallas will not see any additions to this offense until Day 3 of the NFL draft in round 5. (If you hadn’t noticed, this was a pretty defensively focused offseason). With only 4 receivers on the roster, Dallas will need a wide receiver. Ideally, Dallas would like to replace Austin with a receiver of at least 6 feet and and inch or 2 in height, and over 215 lbs. Cody Hoffman comes to mind, but I like Reese for a couple reasons: 1) He is a Texas kid. He went to college right here in the Dallas area, giving Dallas a geographical advantage. 2) He was a former teammate of Terrance Williams. There’s not really a measurement for how this correlation works, but I would assume it would be easier for a player if he gets to stay at home and head to a place where there is a familiar face at the same position. I have no doubt Williams and Reese would help each other on the field. 3) Baylor has been producing some productive receivers recently (Wright, Gordon, Williams) so taking receivers out of there tends to work out. Reese can be a nice option late to add depth at receiver. Oh, and Reese is fast. Pretty damn fast. 4.40 fast.
Seventh Round: Ryan Groy, Offensive Lineman, Wisconsin: Dallas doesn’t really need an offensive lineman this year, but who drafts for need in the 7th round anyway? Groy is from Wisconsin, which automatically makes me interested, and it should make you interested too. He has experience at tackle and guard, so he has a little versatility. He also plays pretty mean and is a good blocker when he uses his technique (which can be coached up). Obviosly, he’s from Wisconsin, a school known for churning out quality linemen. For that reason, I expect him to be a better player than his stock suggests. He can be groomed for a couple years and replace Berny as a starter, or just be a good backup. Either way, it’s a value pick in the 7th, and remember, there’s that familiarity there with Frederick. That goes an especially long way between offensive linemen.
Seventh Round (2): Jalen Saunders, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma: Saunders is a tiny prospect (170 lbs, short) so this pick might not return its dividends. But again, in the 7th round you’re just looking for a surprise guy. Saunders could stick on the roster as a depth guy as a 6th receiver (if Dallas keeps that many) but will likely struggle in training camp. However, I like Saunders because of his speed as well. He runs a 4.41 and is quite the playmaker. Hey, if you’re gonna go for a crapshoot in the seventh, at least get a guy with a dangerous ability.
Seventh Round (3): Connor Shaw, Quarterback, South Carolina: Don’t know much about this guy but he throws fairly well, is a great leader, and has mobility. Wouldn’t mind him being the starter in 3-4 years if he develops well. Lets just send in the pick and pray we’ve stumbled upon the next ignored superstar.
With that, Dallas may be able to not completely fix this defense, but do a good job of at least patching it up. It will be hard to gain a star at edge rusher, interior DL and safety this year. With that crop though, I would be satisfied. As you can see, the first half of Dallas’ draft is completely defense based. With a new good safety and youth/talent injected into the front 7, Dallas will have some new weapons to work with, along with some depth on offense. Of course, as I mentioned, this is not a prediction. This is only a possible solution. I am just saying it would be great if if works out this way. And obviously, this is based off my impressions of players prior to the Combine and the rest of the months leading up to the draft.