Free agency begins just three weeks from midnight tonight.
You've certainly noticed that discussion and activity in NFL circles has slowed dramatically the past few days. That's because most coaching decisions have been completed, unless your name is Al Davis and teams are moving towards the difficult decisions of who to keep, release and pursue.
On the Cowboys' side, there are some difficult choices to be made, particularly on the offensive line. That unit needs a dramatic upgrade, but at the same time has some money poorly distributed. Here's a position-by-position look at what could occur.
Quarterback: Drew Bledsoe is the subject of a lot of back and forth on this site. My take is that the team was very happy with his performance. Working behind the worst set of tackles in the NFL, he put up 23 TD against 17 interceptions.
To put his 83 QB rating in perspective, know that it was his third best ever and his best since his 2002 Pro Bowl year in Buffalo. Bledsoe led the NFC with a 98 rating at midseason, just after he had lost Flozell Adams to a knee injury. He faded and that's a cause for concern, but the question is how much that was due to swapping Adams for Torrin Tucker? He had no protection in the Giants and Redskins December meltdowns.
To put Bledsoe's season in greater context, that 83 is the best season by a Cowboys QB since 1998. It was better than four of Troy Aikman's last five seasons as a starter. It's only the second time since the Super Bowl year of '95 that a Cowboys QB has posted a rating above 80, the other being Aikman's '98.
There are no cheap veteran upgrades available and any youngsters cough Philip Rivers cough will cost the Cowboys' #1 and then some. For those reasons, Bledsoe remains the man.
The team may seek a youngster to groom behind Bledsoe, but I've heard Bill Parcells praise the development of Tony Romo. I saw him for a week at camp last year and he's improved his arm strength quite a bit. He had also moved miles ahead of Drew Henson in their race to be the backup. Romo was far more decisive in his reads and has much better accuracy than Henson.
The Cowboys may look for a second day QB option like Fresno State's Paul Pinegar or Texas State's Barrick Nealy, but that's as much as I can see them dabbling in the QB market.
Running Back: Coke or Pepsi? Julius or Marion? The debate raged on this site for most of the year and a good part of the offseason. It will surely warm up again. Regardless of your position, the fact is that Dallas has youth and depth with Julius Jones, Marion Barber and, if he can learn to stop fumbling, Tyson Thompson. Thompson's development pushed Anthony Thomas off the active list and ultimately off the roster. I doubt the Cowboys will select another player here this offseason.
Tight end/fullback: I've combined these positions because they have morphed together in today's NFL. With so many college teams running spread offenses, fullbacks have become nearly extinct. Pro teams who want power attacks use two tight ends or rely on that aging last generation of fullbacks. Look at all the team that play two back sets. Seattle, San Diego, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Francisco and Carolina have all had effective running attacks in recent years spurred by quality fullbacks. But look at their respective ages. Seattle's Mack Strong has 13 seasons on his resume. San Diego's Lorenzo Neal has 14. K.C.'s Tony Richardson has eleven, as does Green Bay's William Henderson.
Dallas needs an upgrade at this hybrid position. Bill Parcells wants a power running attack but his team posted one of the worst yards-per-rush average in the league last year. Think back to all the trouble Dallas had punching in the ball from the one or two yard line and the need for a quality lead blocker becomes apparent. Given the age of the fullback pool, I don't see any obvious options.
Dallas also needs to add some depth to the tight end position. The Jason Witten-Dan Campbell duo worked effectively in '03 but has struggled to regain its effectiveness since Campbell was lost to a serious foot early in '04. He played last year but showed a loss of speed and mediocre hands. Campbell has said he wants to return next season but Campbell's agent told the Star-Telegram last week that they were waiting for the Cowboys to call and initiate negotiations.
Parcells may be waffling because he will have veteran options as good or better than Campbell next month. Pittsburgh's Jerame Tuman, San Diego's Justin Peele, St. Louis' Cam Cleeland and New England's Christian Fauria will all be available.
I expect Dallas to take another player at either TE or FB even if the team re-signs Campbell or signs another veteran. Take the Daryl Johnston test to see my reasons why: from '89 through '95 Dallas had an ideal duo in TE Jay Novacek and FB Daryl Johnston. Novacek was a passable blocker with excellent hands, speed and an understanding of how to find the holes in zone defenses. Johnston was simply the best FB of the decade. He could block, he could catch and he was a leader on special teams. He didn't have Larry Csonka's or Mike Alstott's running ability, but he did everything else well.
Until he lost his legs, Johnston was often moved to the slot or sometimes lined up wide, pulling linebackers out in space and giving the Dallas offense a versatility only the '90s 49ers could match -- they could show a defense power or spread looks with the same base personnel package. Johnston won the '96 49ers game by lining up wide and wearing out former Cowboys' LB Kenny Norton.
Flash forward to 2005: do FB Lousaka Polite and Campbell combined add up to Daryl Johnston in his prime? The answer is clearly no. Polite and Campbell both have poor hands. Polite is not half the blocker Johnston was; remember that Dallas regularly substituted him on the goalline, something it would never consider for Johnston.
There has been some debate already about what Dallas would do if Maryland TE Vernon Davis fell to spot 18. While I put the odds of that at less than 5%, I might take him. This year's first round is short on sure-fire offensive playmakers. I see the USC backs, the QB trio of Leinart/Young and Cutler and Davis. If you get a shot at a skill position stud, even if you already have Jason Witten on your roster, how can you pass it up?
The good news for Dallas is that TE is one of the deepest, if not the deepest position in this year's draft. I will not be surprised to see the team select one on the first day.
Wide receiver: Age is creeping up on this unit, which was productive in '05. They know it too. J.J. Taylor mentioned in the DMN sports blog that Keyshawn Johnson had called him at the Senior Bowl to ask, "have you seen any [receivers] there who can help us?"
The problem Dallas faces is that after several drafts filled with big, fast wideouts, this year's crop looks smaller, thinner and less distinguished. No senior receiver made noise in Mobile. There is no receiver rated in the top 25.
The free agency pool also appears shallow. Top target Reggie Wayne will likely be franchised by the Colts, making Steelers WR Antwaan Randle El the free agent catch of '06. And he's a number two receiver.
Dallas will be looking but they've been good at avoiding forcing a fit, especially at CB in '04 when they needed one badly but a reasonably priced option never turned up. I think they'll be disappointed here in '06, which is one more reason why I think they'll look for more explosiveness at the TE position.
Offensive tackle: Right tackle. It is the most obvious need on both sides of the ball. And Dallas will have options. RTs generally get less than LTs, which should help Stephen Jones and the salary cap folks. But which one to take? Do you spend more money to get a player who will fill your needs for your years or do you economize and draft a rookie to develop behind your band-aid vet?
If Dallas wants to go the big money route, Detroit's Jeff Backus and Philadelphia's Jon Runyan should be available. I say "should be" because Backus plays LT for Detroit and teams have franchised their LTs of late, because the demand so outpaces supply.
That gets us to Runyan, the press' favorite. He's the best RT available, but I have two words to say against him -- Marco Rivera. Runyan is 32 and has ten years of mileage on his guage. Rivera was 32 and had nine years of wear on his treads when Dallas signed him last spring. Rivera's many injuries don't mean Runyan is damaged goods or would himself be injured but giving big contracts to older veterans is not smart. Especially when Dallas already has three players over the age of 31 -- Rivera, Larry Allen and Flozell Adams signed to big deals.
They can look for younger or cheaper vets to fill the void, look for a young player or select a tackle with a high pick.
In the younger/cheaper bin we find:
Tom Ashworth The Patriot worked himself up to starter after being an undrafted free agent. He's played both left and right tackle. He's not the run blocker Runyan is, but he's a good pass protector. He earned respect from his teammates when he ignored a nasty stomach virus to play LT in the playoff loss to Denver. Ashworth would likely carry a medium-sized sticker price and would buy the team time to develop Rob Petitti. He would also give Dallas protection in case Adams' rehab was set back.
Jason Fabini The Jet is 31 and under contract. So why is he on this list? One, he's one of Bill Parcells late-round finds, a sixth round pick from Cincinnati who started sixteen games as a rookie RT in 1998, helping the Jets reach the AFC Championship Game. He's been miscast the past two seasons at LT and would welcome a move back to the right side. Two, the Jets are way over the cap and will likely cut some older veterans with big deals. Fabini is a prime target.
Kevin Barry The Packers young OT barely rates on many lists, but his OL coach Larry Beightol claims the four year vet is on the verge of a breakout and has the size (6'4", 320 lbs.) to dominate. He's a high risk, high reward player who likely won't cost much. And if you hit with him...
The Cowboys will almost certainly sign a veteran here. Petitti was rushed last year and needs more time to develop. Don't rule out the selection of a young RT, even if Dallas obtains an Ashworth or a Fabini. There are several names to watch in rounds one and two -- Auburn's Marcus McNeill, Texas' Jonathan Scott, Cal's Ryan O'Callahan and Boise State's Daryn College.
Guard: The Cowboys have a ton of money invested in Allen and Rivera and got a poor return on their investment last year. Allen did anchor of the line but Rivera was the offseason bust of '05. He suffered a herniated disc in his lower back less than a week after signing his contract. He then injured a hamstring at Oxnard and watched much of practice on an exercise bike. He injured his neck in the second Washington game and completed the injury cycle by having both elbows scoped after the season.
We can hope the injured elbows were the cause of Rivera's problems. He ran well but lacked the punch out linemen rely on, on running plays but especially on pass downs. Rivera seemed to be playing belly bump, trying to block defenders with his gut. Bad elbows could be the cause. That said, he's got a lot to prove this year.
Dallas will almost certainly draft a guard, probably on the first day. Former LSU standout Stephen Peterman backs up Allen at LG and may be ready to finally step in and replace him after a nasty '04 knee injury that tore three ligaments. Right now, however, he's the only young backup the team has. If Dallas gets a shot at one of Pitt's Charles Spencer, Oklahoma's Davin Joseph, Georgia's Max Jean-Gilles or USC's Deuce Latui in rounds two or three, I expect the team to grab him. Guards generally fall on draft day. Peterman was ranked either one or two in '04 and Dallas got him early in round three, so they should get a chance at this position.
Center Third year pro Al Johnson played the entire season, but had trouble with big nose tackles. He's agile and can pull on toss plays, but can also get pushed backwards. Dallas would sub backup C/G Andre Gurode when it wanted a bigger push inside. Gurode is a free agent and will test the market. Dallas has made it known that it would like Gurode back. He solves two headaches, since he can back up Johnson and Rivera at RG. He filled in superbly at RG in the Carolina win, providing better run blocking than Rivera showed all year. However, he reverted back to his inconsistent ways the following week against the Rams. Had Gurode put two strong games together, he might have made a case to challenge Rivera for the starting spot in '06. But consistency has always been his problem.
Overall: Of the players in house, Gurode is option one. I think the Cowboys will also get a modestly priced veteran TE, either bringing Campbell back or looking at somebody like the Steelers' Tuman, who blocks very well.
The team will also go for a veteran RT. I say Ashworth or Fabini will be added sometime in early March.
In the draft, I look for a young guard and a tight end to add depth and explosiveness to that position. Dallas may also pursue a true fullback in free agency. There are no clear-up options coming out of college. However, that veteran will have to be willing to play on special teams.
You can never fill every position, and I think WR will be the one that goes needy this year. That won't make anybody happy, but I don't see any good free agent options. Dallas will likely draft one or two but I'd be surprised if one is selected on day one.