Everyone here at BTB is excited by the prospect of what players the Dallas Cowboys will be able to add to the roster this offseason. The draft is of course the number one topic for speculation, but with the large number of positions needing an upgrade, it seems likely that the team will also be turning to free agency to shore up the talent level.
But free agency is a two way street. Dallas has thirteen Unrestricted Free Agents on the roster right now, plus three Restricted Free Agents and four Exclusive Rights Free Agents. Some of these are like the clown in the USPS commercial - they have to go. A few are players the team needs to find a way to keep. And some are not so certain either way.
My understanding is that the team has to have a contract with a player to have them attend the offseason training, so the question is not whether or not these players are definitely going to be on the team in September, but whether they are considered as valid candidates to compete for those final roster spots. I thought I would put up the list for you to see, and make an attempt to figure out who should stay and who should go.
This is closely related to the post I did on the First Cuts for the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago, but it comes at the problem from a somewhat different angle. My conclusions may not seem totally consistent, which I do not apologize for. I frequently revise my opinions in the hopes I am getting smarter.
The lists, definitions, and opinions all after the jump. But you knew that.
The list is from the mothership player roster (just in case you are new here, that would be the Dallas Cowboys official website). I have included the 2011 salary for players when available, except for a couple of players where the 2012 salary is already negotiated despite their free agent status. For those that I could not find a salary number on, I have put the 2011 NFL minimum for them, although that may not be the actual figure they signed for. There are some inconsistencies I cannot figure out, where the figures for the 2011 salary I came up with seem to be less than the NFL minimum, but I am still putting the numbers in to give some idea of what a new contract might cost the team. Also, the minimums shown for 2011 will go up regardless in 2012, and some players will move to the next seniority step, but I just wanted to keep the comparison simple.
A brief definition of the three kinds of free agents the team is dealing with (if you want a more detailed explanation, you can check it out here). The Unrestricted Free Agent is just that. They can negotiate with any team they want, and accept whatever offer they choose. The Restricted Free Agent is a three-year veteran with an expired contract. If their old team makes a qualifying offer, they have a limited time to find a better one, and the team can still match it and retain the player. The Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a bit of a misnomer, since the team has all the power here. If the team makes these players with less than three years in the league a minimum qualifying offer, they can accept it, or sit out the season. They cannot sign with another team.
Got it? OK, let's run down the Dallas roster.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Alan Ball CB. The most glaring issue for the Cowboys in 2011 was the secondary. Stephen Jones has made comments since the end of the season that the team's top two priorities are the secondary and the offensive line (which, in interests of full disclosure, alters my conclusions that I wrote about Dallas's draft needs), which is a good thing. It seems fairly obvious to most, including me, that Ball is just not able to be an effective cornerback and the team needs some new blood here. I would say to let him try his luck elsewhere. Now, if I was really unsure I could find an upgrade through the draft or free agency, and if I could get a real bargain as far as his salary (like in a pay cut), and if you held a gun to my dog's head, I might be willing to make an offer to him to have a last ditch fall back. If my dog hasn't peed in the house lately. (2011 salary $1,200,000)
Martellus Bennett TE. How valuable is MartyB as a blocker? That is basically going to determine the course of action here. Now, one handicap I have in this is that I really don't know what the coaches see with him, and I also don't know whether he is so seldom a target for passes because he is a bad receiver, or because he is on the same team as future Canton enshrinee and Tony-Romo-security-blanket Jason Witten. One thing to consider is that he is very cheap. The team can lowball him a bit, and then see if anyone else bites. If they do, then it becomes a matter of whether they think he is worth more than the Cowboys do. This one may come down to pure economics. But I would not be surprised to see him come back to Dallas on a fairly inexpensive two or three year deal. (2011 salary $550,000)
Keith Brooking LB. I am hoping for the Kitna solution here (see below). Keith gave the Cowboys a couple of good years, but that tank is pretty empty now. The odds of the team being able to find a better answer at ILB than him are roughly the same as whether there will be negative ads used in the political campaigns this year. I have absolutely no hard feelings for him, just cannot bear seeing receivers blow past him any more. Especially for anything like what he cost the team last year. (2011 salary $2,200,000)
Derrick Dockery G. The offensive line is a close second to the secondary for the part of the team needing the most attention. However, unlike in the secondary, the play of the free agents involved was not terrible, just not quite good enough, and also was affected by injury. Here is a case where I would offer the minimum or close to it, and if he can find more money to go elsewhere, let him walk away. Otherwise, let him battle it out for a roster spot. (2011 minimum for him $810,000)
Abram Elam S. Is it right to offer a contract to someone so they can help teach the person you hope will take their roster spot? This would be an important moral question in many places, but we are talking about the NFL here where human beings are most decidedly expendable resources. This is exactly the approach I would take with Elam, and I would be fairly up front about it since he is a veteran who might choose to retire or go try his luck somewhere else. And given the comparative scarcity of safety talent out there, he might just keep his spot with some luck and hard work. (2011 salary $1,800,000)
Montrae Holland G. Lumpy's situation is pretty much identical to Dockery's, since he was cut and then re-signed. He even has the same year's experience. I will say that if he works hard at controlling the weight and conditioning, he would have me rooting for him to win out over Dockery, if it came down to the two of them. I would like to see better players take both spots - but then it really has to be decided by performance. (2011 minimum $810,000)
Bradie James LB. It's interesting how there are four pairs of players who play the same position on these lists where they should most likely handled the same way, because their value (or lack of it) is so similar. Just like Dockery and Holland, Brooking and James are both somewhat interchangeable, at least as far as the needs of the Cowboys are concerned. Bradie might be able to catch on with another team, but I just think he has seen his last season with the Cowboys, and will probably not be offered a contract. (2011 salary $3,500,000)
Jon Kitna QB. Now a moot point. Enjoy your retirement in Seattle, Jon, and I hope your memories of Dallas are good. (2012 salary would be $3,100,000)
Mat McBriar P. His drop foot came at a horrible time for him personally, because everything I have seen indicates that you often never really recover from it. Part of the problem is that it is usually a symptom of other diseases, and the list of possible causes is scary, including ALS (Lou Gherig's disease), multiple dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. Short of a complete diagnosis and clean bill of health going forward, I would not be interested in bringing him back. (2011 salary $1,700,000)
Sammy Morris RB. He was always just a stop-gap. Running backs are one of the easiest positions to fill, with more competent backs coming out of the college ranks than teams can find positions for. Thank you, and goodbye. (2011 minimum $910,000)
Laurent Robinson WR. The only player on the list so far that is a definite keeper. I want him to stay in Dallas. He wants to stay in Dallas. Tony Romo surely wants him to stay in Dallas. Stephen Jones has said the team can find a way to pay him to stay in Dallas. And he has stated that money is not the chief concern, which is making everyone but his agent giddy with joy. (2011 minimum $685,000)
Anthony Spencer LB. Almost Anthony is another controversial figure here. Is he a bad pass rusher, or very good at the role the team wants him to fill? Once, I had thought that the team needed to bring in another pass rushing OLB (see the draft post I mentioned above), but now I am thinking that the team needs to generate the needed additional pressure from the defensive line, especially after watching the way Aaron Rodgers was having his interior linemen pushed back in his face against the New York Giants. This is one place where, in addition to looking for someone to draft or sign to help here, the team may be able to grow their own as Sean Lissemore seems to be maturing into a stronger rusher, and Jason Hatcher looks good at times. So that leads to the question of whether the team keeps Anthony to do the things he does well, and at what price? He is a pretty decent bargain now. Again, I think his fate is going to be determined by what he might get from another team. Make him an affordable offer, but don't up it much to keep him. (2011 salary $1,001,000)
Frank Walker CB. This is the third matched pair on the list, with Alan Ball as the other half. After a good start with the team, Walker seemed to fall off the table. Throw in his age, and this seems like someone that just no longer has a role with the team. (2011 minimum $810,000)
Restricted Free Agents
Tony Fiammetta FB. The second definite keeper on the list, and not likely to be someone who would have his price bid up. He, like Kitna, already has a 2012 salary negotiated, so I am assuming that is the salary some other team would have to top to trigger a decision by Dallas whether or not it would match. Fortunately, fullback is not one of the high demand positions in the league. (2012 salary would be $565,000)
Chris Greisen QB. When you are talking about the roster, backup quarterback is just a strange thing. The team has seen over the past couple of seasons that it has to have three signal callers on the roster, and Chris is number three right now. I figure he gets a contract offer and gets a chance to prove himself in camp. (2011 minimum $600,000)
Kevin Ogletree WR. It is time to free the Tree. Let him go seek his fortune elsewhere, because wide receiver is the one position where I think the team can find a better option with what they have right now. Jesse Holley is more valuable already, Raymond Radway almost had a roster spot before his injury, and Dwayne Harris and Andre Holmes both will probably have a better shot at making the team than Kevin. (2011 salary $480,000)
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Clifton Geathers DE. I don't have much opinion here. He's cheap, and may be someone who will blossom in the off season. I think the team offers him a minimum contract, since they have all the power here. (2011 salary $405,000)
Jesse Holley WR. A special team ace who showed some good hands in his limited chances running pass routes, and getting the minimum. I actually think he has earned a two year deal a few dollars over the minimum with a little bonus thrown in. I just like him, because he just keeps giving it all he has, and he does a good job when he's out there. Besides, you have to love his story. (2011 salary $385,000)
Jermey Parnell T. A bit of a pet cat of mine. The word is that he has fantastic physical skills and just needs to learn how to play the position. With Bill Callahan coming in, this may be the perfect situation for him. Definitely worth a minimal offer this year, since that is all the team has to put up. (2011 minimum $525,000)
Chauncey Washington RB. The last of the paired players. If I am not going to offer Sammy Morris a contract, I don't see giving Chauncey one, either. I am banking a bit on both DeMarco Murray and Phillip Tanner being back, but there are also the college RBs that will be looking to sign as UDFAs after the draft. (NFL minimum $600,000)
I tried to look at this from both what the players bring to the team, and what the economic impact is. I also got to playing around with the dollars that these people cost the team under the salary cap. Based on who I want to keep and who I want to let go, and also assuming that the iffy cases like Bennett and Spencer get offers the Cowboys are not willing to top, I see Ball, Bennett, Brooking, Elam, James, Kitna, McBriar, Spencer, and Holland all being gone (along with some others who have little cap impact). Just those listed names counted as $20,367,000 in cap hits last year. And as free agents, that should mean the team is pretty much done with obligations.
So who could the team sign with that freed up money, I wonder?