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Cowboys Offseason Plan: A Lot Of Holes To Fill

What level tender will the Cowboys offer RFA fullback Tony Fiammetta?
What level tender will the Cowboys offer RFA fullback Tony Fiammetta?

Earlier this month, in another look at the Cowboys' offseason plan, I noted Jason Garrett's optimal talent acquisition strategy: use free agency to cover all the team's "must haves" so that they are freed from having to target (and reach for) a player at a specific position in the draft. In a perfect world, Garrett noted, the Cowboys would "draft without needs." Indeed, this is what the top organizations have been doing for some time now, since they began to figure out the salary cap universe's financial nuances.

More recently, as KD reported, Jerry Jones seems to be echoing Garrett's sentiment. Jones noted that if the team was to pinpoint a player it wouldn't happen during the draft - where they would pursue a "best player available" strategy - but in free agency. This strategy makes tremendous sense. The draft is a living, protean entity; trying to target a specific player beyond the first three or four picks is a suicidal endeavor. Free agency, on the other hand, allows you to target a guy--and to get him, if you're willing to spend the right amount of cash.

On a side note, Jones is influenced strongly by his coaches' philosophies--when they actually have a clear, global plan. For years after Jimmy Johnson's departure, he continued to parrot elements of Jimmy's coaching mantra, even as it became more corrupt. If you'll remember, one of the things he loved to say was that he's a "risk-taker." That's pure Johnson. After he hired Bill Parcells, Jones began to incorporate snippets of Billspeak into his interviews. Now, we have evidence of his taking on the RHG's mantra, which can only be a good thing. If Garrett's long-view thinking can begin to influence personnel decisions, the Cowboys will get draft more consistently - making fewer bad free agent reaches as a result - and will improve their personnel. Which is important, as there's a lot of overhauling to be done.

See what needs to be done after the jump...

If, indeed, Garrett's taking the philosophical lead (as I believe he is), then this won't happen in one offseason, as its precisely that kind of knee-jerk, "we've got to make a Super Bowl run now!" kind of thinking that perpetually gets Jones and his NFL plaything into hot water. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'd be shocked to see a lot of big-ticket free agent signings. Rather, I'd expect the team to focus on building through the draft, and using free agency much like they did last year: either to re-sign their own "nucleus" guys (Doug Free) or to secure stop-gaps who can hold down the fort until they can add talented players through the draft (Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears, Abe Elam--and even Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Sensabaugh fit this category: the team had a lot of holes)

So, let's assume that they will proceed more or less as they did late last summer. As we imagine that we are the Dallas brass looking at this roster, we need to ask a couple of questions: first: what positions need to be filled and/ or replaced? and second, how might we best address those roster spots: via free agency? the draft? a combination of the two? Today we'll take a quick, global look at the roster; on Friday, I'll focus on potential strategies for the offense, then early next week, I'll do the same for the defense.

What I've done here is to break the team up by unit, going three deep on the depth chart (so guys like Andre Holmes and Ray Radway don't appear). Any roster spots that were manned last year by guys who are currently free agents (and thus not officially on the roster), I've left open (marking them with a "????"). The team only has two RFAs this offseason, Tony Fiammetta and Kevin Ogletree; I've marked both with an asterisk. None of this information should be particularly new or revelatory. But its important to take a look at to the overall picture when assessing how to address the whole team. Here's the offensive depth chart:

Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo ???? Stephen McGee
FB *Tony Fiammetta Shaun Chapas
RB DeMarco Murray Felix Jones Phillip Tanner
SE Dez Bryant *Kevin Ogletree Dwayne Harris
FL Miles Austin ???? Jesse Holley
TE Jason Witten ???? John Phillips
LT Tyron Smith Jermey Parnell
LG Bill Nagy ???? David Arkin
OC Phil Costa Kevin Kowalski
RG Kyle Kosier ???? David Arkin
RT Doug Free Jermey Parnell

Most of the offensive priorities can be immediately seen in this chart: the Cowboys must find a backup quarterback, a third receiver, a backup tight end and acquire depth at offensive guard. In addition, several questions emerge: at what level do they tender Tony Fiammetta (a significant part of this equation must be: what do they think of Shaun Chapas)? Will they give Stephen McGee another year or will they seek to groom another young QB? Will they offer Kevin Ogletree a tender of any kind? And, perhaps most importantly: how desperate are they to upgrade the OC position?

And here's the defensive depth chart:

Starter Backup Third String
LDE Kenyon Coleman Sean Lissemore
NT Jay Ratliff Josh Brent
RDE Marcus Spears Jason Hatcher Clifton Geathers
LOLB ???? Victor Butler
LILB ???? Bruce Carter
RILB Sean Lee ???? Orie Lemon
ROLB DeMarcus Ware Alex Albright
LCB **Terence Newman Orlando Scandrick
SS ???? Barry Church
FS Gerald Sensabaugh Danny McCray
RCB Mike Jenkins ???? Mario Butler

What leaps out from viewing this is how many holes Dallas has in its back seven. They'll need to add as many as seven new players just to maintain the status quo; that's a lot of offseason work. The holes are clear: the Cowboys must find somebody to play LOLB--even if its to re-sign Anthony Spencer); acquire two inside linebackers, either as starters or for depth purposes (we might see Bradie James return on a one-year deal), need a strong safety and multiple cornerbacks. Questions abound: will they really move Ratliff out to DE? is Bruce Carter ready to step in and start? Can they afford to get rid of Terence Newman (who I've marked with the dreaded double asterisk)? Can they afford not to? If they get rid of Newman, Dallas will need three corners, so is Mario Butler capable of taking over the fifth corner spot? The fourth?

What is the larger takeaway from this exercise? When we look at the roster this way, it makes more sense that Dallas is looking more at centers than at guards and that they are seriously considering giving Anthony Spencer a franchise tag (who else out there, either in the draft or free agency, is any better than Spencer?). It also makes their interest in Stanford Routt seem more reasonable: a team that needs three corners must explore every available means. Lastly, it seems to justify Jerry Jones' peculiar declaration that the defensive line is a strength. This offseason, it is--because at least the cupboard is stocked.

There are as many as twelve key roster spots that must be filled. Given that a superb draft haul will net three 2012 starters, they would need to sign as many as nine free agents. Given that Spencer's tender would cover almost half of the team's 20 million dollars in cap space, that hardly seems realistic. If, as Garrett and Jones claim, the Cowboys want to pursue a "BPA" drafting strategy, then addressing positions in free agency (like offensive guard and defensive end) that are currently stocked with serviceable (if unspectacular) players seems a luxury they cannot afford.

This suggests that Dallas cannot afford any of the big-name free agents whose names have been bandied about of late, especially if they franchise Spencer. I think its much more likely that we'll see them re-sign Montrae Holland than Carl Nicks or add a Joel Dreesen before a Jermichael Finley.

But that's a topic for further post...

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