Since 2011, when Jason Garrett began to wear the head coaches' helm, the Cowboys have labored to get out from underneath a slew of bloated veteran contracts. In the 2011 offseason, they released veterans Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, Roy E. Williams. In 2012, we waved buh-bye to the likes of Kyle Kosier and Terence Newman. In 2013, it was Dan Connor and Gerald Sensabaugh. More recently, of course, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin were shown the door.
The players released had two things in common: a big contract and a declining skillset. The Garrett mantra, as has been well documented of late, has been to get younger and cheaper. What this requires, in an ideal world, is that the team draft a replacement before they get rid of the veteran who possesses the nasty big-money-declining skills combo. In turn, this requires that finding these younger replacements be a critical part of the team's draft strategy. And it appears that the Cowboys have been doing exactly that.
In the 2011 draft which, you might recall, happened before free agency due to the labor dispute and lockout, the Cowboys drafted replacements for all the players they had decided to cut: Roy Williams (Dwayne Harris); Marion Barber (DeMarco Murray); Leonard Davis (David Arkin); Marc Columbo (Tyron Smith); Andre Gurode (Bill Nagy) and veteran kicker Kris Brown, who was released to make room for a little-known UDFA kicker named Dan Bailey.
In 2012, since they had spent all their 2011 draft chits on 2011 cuts, the Cowboys turned to free agency to secure younger (if not cheaper) replacements for Kyle Kosier (Mackenzie Bernadeau and Nate Livings were both signed before Kosier was cut) and Terrence Newman (Brandon Carr was signed the day after Newman was released, suggesting that the Carr deal was securely enough in place to warrant the move).
In 2013, the team continued to play catch-up, releasing three high-priced vets. Dan Connor and Gerald Sensabaugh were released at the start of the league year; in training camp, the Turk visited Nate Livings. One of the reasons the team could make these moves is they had younger, cheaper (and, the team felt, better) replacements in-house: Bruce Carter (2011), Matt Johnson (2012) and Ronald Leary (2012 UDFA).
More importantly, however, is that they began to get ahead of the bad contracts. In last year's draft, many were puzzled by the acquisition of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams. But the moves made great sense when we stopped to "follow the money"; both were looked at as replacements for Jason WItten and Miles Austin, players not likely to play to the value of their contracts for much longer. Indeed, we have already seen this come to pass in the case of Williams and Austin.
The question now on the table is: might we see the team use the 2014 draft in a similar fashion (i.e., to help rid them of bad contracts in 2015) and, if so, whose contracts will be replaced? To answer that question, let's look at the top eleven salaries currently on the team's ledger for 2015:
|Player||2015 Cap Total||Dead Money (if cut)||2015 Cap Savings (if cut)|
|Brandon Carr||12, 717,000||12,151,000||566,000|
A glance at this table shows that the club will take a huge financial loss to release either Lee or Bailey, both of whom have recently received new contracts, and the savings for guys like Carr and Claiborne are scanty enough that they'd have to be playing really poorly to warrant being cut. Thus the likeliest candidates to get the axe are Romo, Free, Witten, Orton and Scandrick. As noted above, they already have a replacement for Witten in the stable, which leaves QB (Romo and Orton), OT and CB as possible target positions in the upcoming draft. Of these, I'd argue that CB is the lowest need, as they have a good core threesome, all of whom are young and whose contracts don't yield much value when terminated.
That leaves QB and OT. In many ways, the puzzling addition of Brandon Weeden makes a lot more sense when we look at Orton's deal. The Cowboys didn't want to be hamstrung by subpar quarterback play should Romo be injured, but Orton's contract offers financial hamstringing (I apologize for the "h"-word; I realize it brings up traumatic memories). As a result, I think they'd like to see Weeden give them sufficient cause to release Orton. Although I'd be a bit surprised to see them take a signal-caller really early, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see a quarterback drafted in the third or fourth rounds.
Which brings us to offensive tackle. I think they may well spend a premium pick on an OT to replace Doug Free (who would only be retained if the team uses its club option for 2015). "What?" you may be asking, "But the Cowboys need to go defense, defense, defense, right?" Well, maybe. Last year, a lot of observers were puzzled when the Cowboys' list of national invitees featured three second-round caliber receivers: Williams, DeAndre Hopkins and Markus Wheaton. At the time, I wrote:
...when trying to divine a team's drafting plans, its critical to "follow the money." If we look at the contracts that the team needs to get off the books, we see not only the already-prioritized positions, but others, such as CB, TE and WR, that might not ostensibly be immediate needs, but that emerge as such once we understand that need is often driven by finances as much as it is by a dearth of talent. So, if the Cowboys spend an early pick on Baylor's Williams, don't pull out your hair and gnash your teeth, bemoaning the fact that they passed on an O-lineman. Well, you can do that - but temper it with the knowledge that the front office is operating with a bit of financial foresight, getting a replacement for Miles Austin early enough so that he'll be ready when they have to unload number 19's bloated contract after the 2014 campaign in what we should all hope is an attempt at restoring a modicum of financial sanity to their cap situation.
Unless they are absolutely certain that Jermey Parnell or Darrion Weems is the long-term answer at right tackle (and how could they?), expect the team to draft one in a little over two months - and higher than we'd expect. If they are looking to find a starter by 2015, they'll have to spend a first or second day pick. Thus it should not surprise us to see several offensive tackle candidates come to Dallas for mid-April visits, much like WRs did this time last year.