USAToday ran a story earlier today titled "Dallas Cowboys need to rebuild defensive line." The headline encapsulates an almost universal consensus that the biggest needs the Cowboys have this year are along the defensive line, with defensive tackle probably ranking higher than defensive end. Beyond that, and beyond that specific article, you'll hear a lot of talk about the need for a free safety, perhaps some help at linebacker, a third wide receiver, depth for the offensive line, and many other positions might also come up.
Pending the outcome of the coin flip at the NFL Combine, the Cowboys are drafting at #17, #48 and #78 in the first three rounds. Conventional wisdom suggests that with those picks, the Cowboys should expect to draft first-year starters or significant contributors with their first two picks, while finding an immediate starter in the third round would be considered a big win on draft day. Beyond that though, there are virtually no expectations of coming away from the draft with significant contributors, as hitting on a prospect on the third day of the draft is largely a function of luck.
Realistically, the Cowboys can only expect two starter-level players from the draft, which of course means that they will need to fill some of their roster holes via free agency. But which roster holes? Given that the Cowboys will be operating on a tight budget (as they have done almost every year before), they'll probably have to be financially prudent in free agency.
But how do you go about building a team on a tight budget?
One way of making the cap dollars you have last a little longer is to go after position groups in free agency that are relatively cheap, and use the draft to stock up on position groups that are relatively expensive.
The 2014 franchise tag numbers provide a good indication of which positions on an NFL team are relatively cheap and which are relatively expensive. With the new CBA, the tag number is now calculated as a percentage of the overall cap figure at a given position over the last five years. For now, these numbers are based on a cap of $126.5 million, so they could change slightly once the cap is finalized.
|Position||2012 Franchise Tag Value||2013 Franchise Tag Value||2014 Franchise Tag Value|
|Quarterback||$14.4 million||$14.9 million||$16.1 million|
|Defensive End||$10.6 million||$11.1 million||$12.5 million|
|Wide Receiver||$9.4 million||$10.5 million||$11.5 million|
|Cornerback||$10.6 million||$10.9 million||$11.3 million|
|Offensive Line||$9.4 million||$9.8 million||$11.1 million|
|Linebacker||$8.8 million||$9.6 million||$10.9 million|
|Defensive Tackle||$7.9 million||$8.5 million||$9.2 million|
|Running Back||$7.7 million||$8.2 million||$9.1 million|
|Safety||$6.2 million||$6.9 million||$8.0 million|
|Tight End||$5.4 million||$6.0 million||$6.7 million|
If you are looking at the figures above and thinking "What the heck?", don't worry, those numbers are not even close to what the Cowboys should pay any potential free agents. The franchise tag number is the average of the top five salaries at a player's position. I don't think the Cowboys will sign anybody for anything close to the amounts outlined above. But what these numbers do is they provide a picture of which position groups are cheaper relative to others, i.e. it's a lot cheaper to sign a top safety in free agency than it is to sign a top pass rusher.
You'll notice that the offensive line number is not split by position in the table above. Looking at the top five salaries at each O-line position as provided by OverTheCap.com, the top five O-line salaries in 2013 averaged out as follows:
|Average of top five O-line salaries by position, 2013|
|Position||Left Tackle||Right Tackle||Guard||Center|
|Avg. salary||$14.2 million||$10.0 million||$8.9 million||$7.5 million|
With their challenging cap situation, Cowboys' best bet is to go after position groups in in free agency that won't break the bank - and for which they don't have suitable depth on the roster already. From a financial and long-term salary cap perspective, it would make sense to go after the expensive positions like DEs, OTs and WRs with the premier draft picks, while addressing the "cheaper" positions like defensive tackles, safeties and interior offensive linemen via late-round draft picks or via free agency.
Free agency starts on March 11. We have no idea what the team thinks about the players already on the roster, and where they think they have holes. But from the outside looking in, it would make a lot of sense for the Cowboys to look for one or two defensive tackles, perhaps a safety and maybe a guard (pending the status of Brian Waters) via free agency. Again, all of this depends on what the Cowboys think about their roster depth at each position.
Conversely, the higher-priced positions like a pass-rushing defensive end, a linebacker (imagine how much better the Cowboys LB corps could have looked like had they taken a linebacker like Kiko Alonso, Jonathan Bostic or Jamie Collins in last year's draft instead of a tight end!), an offensive tackle and perhaps even a wide receiver would make good targets for the first three picks in the draft.
I know it's become très chic to demand that the Cowboys draft a defensive tackle with their first pick. But for a team perennially up against the cap, that might not be a very wise choice, so don't be surprised if the Cowboys go in a different direction once again in this draft.
Which positions would you try to prioritize in free agency?