Here we sit a little under a week into free agency and the Cowboys are standing pat. I’d say that strategy is part necessity; by most accounts we have about $3.8 million, give or take, to spend under salary cap rules. That’s really not enough money to do anything significant in free agency especially given the crazy contracts (read: Oakland Raiders) being handed out. It’s also partly due to a 13-3 season and a roster that only has a few holes. Sitting in that position the Cowboys can afford to wait for the bargain deals that come later in free agency or bypass the process altogether and rely on the draft, or draft-day trades, to smooth out the problem spots.
So what are the needs the Cowboys have and how are they likely to fill those needs? The first step is identifying those needs, Right now, from my view, the Cowboys number one need is a tie at two positions, running back and cornerback. I’m having a hard time separating the two into a clear number one. We have starters at both positions – MB3 at RB and Terence Newman and Anthony Henry at CB – but behind them the roster is extremely thin.
Today I’ll take a look at the basic strategies at RB. Tomorrow, I’ll look at CB.
As of today, MB3 is the only running back we can count on being on the roster. Even though we haven’t technically signed him yet, we do have a tender on him and reserve the right of refusal by matching any contract. We can also work on signing to him a long-term deal. I highly doubt any team is going to offer MB3 and give up a 1st and 3rd round draft pick, so I’m confident he’ll be our starting running back in 2008. But after him, we got nothing unless you count Alonzo Coleman. The Cowboys have to bring in one running back, if not two, either through free agency/draft/trade. Warrick Dunn is still hanging out there as a possibility and could serve as a 3rd down/change of pace kind of guy as well as mentoring a young back and providing leadership. Personally, I think he’ll get a deal somewhere else that will be richer than the Cowboys are willing to pay. Even if we signed Dunn, I still think the Cowboys would have a priority on picking up a back in the draft although with Dunn’s presence the urgency to use an early pick wouldn’t be as great. They could also fill the "veteran" role with Tatum Bell or a similar back.
There are a few way the Cowboys could go here.
One, they could employ the "Shoot the moon" strategy and package up their 1st round picks plus some other picks or players and try to jump up to the top part of the draft for Darren McFadden. This idea has been discussed ad nauseam by many but I find it highly unlikely. It has nothing to do with McFadden as a player; I love the guy’s skills and think he’ll be a very good RB in the NFL if not a superstar. But he hasn’t played a down in the NFL yet so there is uncertainty no matter how good he looks, and the cost to get to him piled on top of the cost to sign him would be too much for the Cowboys. I’ve got little faith that this will happen.
Second, the Cowboys could go with the "Cover your bases" theory. This involves signing a veteran like Warrick Dunn or Tatum Bell, or someone who we don’t even know is on their radar, then grab a back in the draft. Doing this would bring a veteran presence to the backup position and give some kind of security in case, God forbid, something happened to MB3 like an extensive injury. It would also allow the Cowboys to play the field somewhat in the draft; they could pick a back in the mid-rounds or they could grab someone who is falling but who is highly-rated on their board. This strategy gives them maximum flexibility and allows them to wait for a back they like in a spot they think is of value. Normally, I would think this is the strategy they would use but the lack of cap-money and the lack of quality free agent running backs this year makes it less likely than normal. Still, this has a fair chance of happening.
The last strategy is "Play them as they lay." The Cowboys could simply sit back and wait for the draft to come and pick up a back, or two, in the draft. Since they have two first round picks they have a solid chance of getting a quality rookie and still have another choice to use on another position in the first round. This draft is full of running backs who have a shot to produce in the NFL and that couldn’t have worked out better for the Cowboys. Obviously, McFadden will be gone by then and Rashard Mendenhall will also most likely be gone. Jonathan Stewart is also a guy who might be gone by then. But there is a possibility of one of those guys fall, and if they don’t, Felix Jones could be there for the Cowboys. Or they could even wait until the second round (or later) and look at guys like Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Steve Slaton, Kevin Smith, Tashard Choice, etc. The point being there are a lot of quality options in this draft at running back.
With the dearth of free agent RB’s available and the money they might command, I don’t think the odds are good that the Cowboys will get one in free agency. Now, if a week or two goes by and guys like Dunn or Bell haven’t signed yet, then the Cowboys may be able to strike a cap-friendly deal. But I think the odds are that the Cowboys go into the draft knowing they have to get a running back or two and will use their draft picks to get them. My most likely scenario at this moment in time: Felix Jones at #28.