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Which Need Positions Will Cowboys Address Via Free Agency?

Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones, director of player personnel, ponder what to do in free agency this year.
Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones, director of player personnel, ponder what to do in free agency this year.

Ask most Cowboys fans about the greatest needs the Cowboys have going into the draft this year, and chances are you'll get some combination of interior offensive line, cornerback, defensive line and pass rusher. Some might even argue that a seven round draft isn't enough to fill all the Cowboys needs.

Even though the Cowboys are drafting fairly high this year, there's virtually no chance that they'll be able come away from the draft with four first-year starters/significant contributors at all four positions of need. At #14 and #45, the Cowboys should expect to draft first-year starters or significant contributors, but if they were to find an immediate starter in the third round, that would be a very big win on draft day.

This of course means that the Cowboys may need to fill at least two of their most gaping holes via free agency. But which ones? Especially considering that while the Cowboys are not exactly cash-strapped, they are on a budget. The reported $20 million or so in cap space the Cowboys could create for 2012 will only take you so far in free agency.

After the break, we look at which positions could be particularly attractive if you're trying to build a team on a budget.

For us normal humans, $20 million sounds like a whole lot of money. But compared to the cap room some NFL teams will have in 2012, it isn't all that much. Here are the six teams with the largest amount of cap space for 2012, according to ESPN's John Clayton:

1. Chiefs: $62.995 million
2. Buccaneers: $60.496 million
3. Bengals: $60 million
4. Broncos: $50.735 million
5. Redskins: $47.56 million
6. Jaguars: $45 million

So the Cowboys will be on somewhat of a budget entering free agency, and need to be financially prudent in their free agent acquisitions. One way to do that is to go after position groups in free agency that are relatively cheap, and use the draft to stock up on position groups that are relatively expensive.

As a measure of the relative cost of a position, I'll use the franchise tag numbers for each position. In the past, the franchise tag was calculated based on the the top five salary-cap salaries at a particular position. This was reworked in the new CBA, and the tag number is now calculated as a percentage of the overall cap figure at the position over the last five years. Here are the 2012 franchise tag numbers:

Position 2012 Franchise Tag Value 2011 Franchise Tag Value
Quarterback $14.4 million $16.1 million
Cornerback $10.6 million $13.5 million
Defensive End $10.6 million $13.0 million
Wide Receiver $9.4 million $11.4 million
Offensive Line $9.4 million $10.1 million
Linebacker $8.8 million $10.1 million
Defensive Tackle $7.9 million $12.5 million
Running Back $7.7 million $9.6 million
Safety $6.2 million $8.8 million
Tight End $5.4 million $7.3 million

Importantly, I'm not suggesting that these are the contract figures the Cowboys should pay any potential free agents. But what these numbers do is provide a picture of which position groups are cheaper relative to others, i.e. it's a lot cheaper to sign a top tight end than it is to sign a top cornerback in free agency.

You'll notice that the offensive line number is not split by position in the table above. Using the old approach of the top five salary-cap salaries at the position and some dirty math, a tackle would come to roughly $12 million, a guard to about $8 million and a center would come in at close to $6 million.

Jason Garrett is a big proponent of filling needs in free agency, and then trying to go BPA in the draft.

"In a perfect world, what you want to try to do is go into the draft without needs," Garrett said in a Year-End Special TV interview with Brad Sham. "I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position. And regardless of how objective you want to make that process, you invariably say, 'OK, we have a need here, so maybe we bump a player up ahead of this guy when they're really probably pretty similar.

"In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible. Couldn't do that last year."

If the Cowboys are trying to fill as many needs as possible during free agency - and with a limited budget - their best bet is to go after position groups that won't break the bank.

With a limited budget, it would make sense to acquire a center, a safety, and a guard or two and perhaps some defensive line help in free agency. Tight end could also be an option, but that depends on what the Cowboys think about their roster depth. And the higher-priced positions like cornerbacks or pass rushers would make good targets in the draft.

Which need positions would you try to prioritize in free agency?

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