With the draft behind us and the lockout dragging all of us down, it's easy to forget that there is still a potentially exciting piece of the offseason that's likely to happen at some point: free agency.
Standard lockout caveats apply with regard to when, who, what and how, but the fact that free agency will occur sometime after the draft makes for a an interesting situation. Interesting in that it may be easier than ever before go make an educated guess about what positions the Cowboys may go after once free agency opens its gates.
Uniquely this year, we can look at the past two drafts and use them to forecast the positions the Cowboys will have high on their free agency shopping list. By looking at which positions the Cowboys looked at in great detail - and did not take - in the last two drafts, we can understand all the positions the Cowboys left behind in the last two years, and it should be fairly easy to predict the positions the Cowboys could go after in free agency.
There are two sources we can use to understand which positions "the Cowboys looked at in great detail". The first is the list of draft eligible players the Cowboys invited for pre-draft visits.
In recent years, the pre-draft visits have been a pretty good indicator of which players and which positions the Cowboys were going to select in the ensuing draft. The Cowboys' last six top picks - Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Spencer, Felix Jones, Jason Williams, Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith - all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' pre-draft visits. In ‘09 and ‘10 the Cowboys drafted three players who'd been in for pre-draft visits, this year it was four players.
The second source are the players the Cowboys displayed an active interest in. Taken together, both sources give us an idea about what the Cowboys have left behind, and we can make a semi-educated guess about what positions the Cowboys are looking at:
Defensive End - As much as it pains me to write this, a free agent DE like Cullen Jenkins is probably not going to land in Dallas. While the Cowboys have shown a steadily increasing interest in defensive linemen in their pre-draft invitees (‘08: none, ‘09: one, ‘10: two, ‘11: three) that is still a fairly low number. They also picked up Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore last year, and with three free agents of their own (Spears, Bowen, Hatcher) it's highly likely that the 2011 defensive line personnel is already in Dallas. And according to Rob Ryan, that may not be a bad thing. It appears that Rob Ryan walked into the coaches office a couple of days after he joined the Cowboys and asked, "Who's that Bowen guy"? Then he said, "He's unbelievable".
Corner - The Cowboys invited six national cornerback prospects to Valley Ranch this year, and five last year. They drafted Josh Thomas in the fifth round this year, and Jamar Wall in the sixth the year before. But that doesn't mean the Cowboys are set at the corner position. Not by a long shot. The Cowboys had wild fantasies about Patrick Peterson somehow miraculously falling to the 9th spot, but that didn't happen. The Cowboys were also very high on Aaron Williams. According to a report by the Star-Telegram's Charean Williams, no less than four Cowboys staffers attended his Texas Pro Day: secondary coach Dave Campo, safeties coach Brett Maxie, scouting director Tom Ciskowski and college scouting coordinator Chris Hall. Reports are they were not disappointed by Aaron Williams.
At cornerback, if "The Right Kind Of Guy" is available at "The Right Kind Of Price" the Cowboys may well be in the mix.
Offensive Line - The Cowboys invited six national O-line prospects to Valley Ranch this year and eight last year. And they came away from this year's draft with a haul of three linemen, including a first round pick, and it looks like the Cowboys are likely set at tackle. But are they set at guard? We know that the Cowboys wanted Max Unger in '09, had Mike Iupati and Maurkice Pouncey high on their list in '10 and liked both Mike Pouncey and Will Rackley a lot this year. So much so that Mike Pouncey wrote he'd be "shocked if he wasn't in a Dallas uniform next year."
The Cowboys are reportedly pretty high on fourth round Guard David Arkin, and the likely scenario here is that they'll sign Kyle Kosier to a one- or two-year extension as they groom Arkin to be his successor.
Safety - The Cowboys invited seven national safety prospects in the last two years for pre-draft visits. That's exactly the same as the number of linebackers invited over the last two years. The difference being that the Cowboys spent two second rounders on linebackers and one fourth rounder on Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, a safety prospect who mostly played cornerback in college.
Last year, the Cowboys reportedly showed a high interest in Colts safety Antoine Bethea, but likely balked at offering a high draft pick for Bethea's services. This year, it seems like every safety that could be available in free agency and has played at least one snap in the NFL has been linked to the Cowboys at one time or another.
There's no question that the Cowboys could use a good safety or two, given that Gerald Sensabaugh is being allowed to test free agency. The Cowboys have a number of young safeties on the roster, but are any of them capable of being more than backups?
Safety is the one position where perceived need and demonstrated intent match up the closest. If I were a betting man, my money would be on safety as the top free agency priority. But from what I've gathered from Jason Garrett so far, the candidate is unlikely to be one of the the highly touted players with big name recognition. So instead of thinking about names like Michael Huff, Eric Weddle or Quintin Mikell, think more along the lines of Abram Elam.
Any other positions that you think the Cowboys have "left behind" in recent years and that might be a free agency priority this year?