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Cowboys Offseason Plan: Do Other Teams' Franchise Tags Affect Dallas' Plans?

As our own KD reported earlier today, the Cowboys are almost certainly going to place a franchise tag on Anthony Spencer this afternoon, before the 4:00 PM league deadline. **UPDATE: Its a done deal, as per Jason LaCanfora. Because they are only placed on players who would likely be other teams' primary free agent targets (and, yes, Spencer would qualify in this category), these tags, when placed, change the free agent landscape. For every Brent Grimes who is tagged, there is a Tracy Porter who moves up a slot in the "available corners" rankings. As NFL teams watch players come off the market at positions of need, they have to move along their contingency flowchart.

Related: Anthony Spencer likely to get franchise tag

How might the franchise tags have affected Dallas' offseason strategy? How is their flowchart tracking? Let's take a look at who's been snapped up (and consider what we've learned about the draft of late) and speculate upon what the Cowboys braintrust might be thinking.

Rabble's rampant speculation after the jump...

First, a handy-dandy table list of players who have been tagged, by division. The red players have already received the franchise tag.

NFC East Player AFC East Player
Cowboys Anthony Spencer, LOLB Patriots Wes Welker, WR
Giants Steve Weatherford Jets
Eagles DeSean Jackson, WR Dolphins
Redskins Fred Davis, TE Bills
NFC North Player AFC North Player
Packers Ravens Ray Rice, RB
Lions Cliff Avril, DE Steelers
Bears Matt Forte, RB Bengals Mike Nugent, K
Vikings Browns Phil Dawson, K
NFC South Player AFC South Player
Saints Drew Brees, QB Texans
Falcons Brent Grimes, CB Titans Michael Griffin, S
Panthers Jaguars Josh Scobee, K
Buccaneers Connor Barth Colts Robert Mathis, DE
NFC West Player AFC West Player
49ers Dashon Goldson, DS Broncos Matt Prater, K
Cardinals Calais Campbell, DE Raiders Tyvon Branch, DS
Seahawks Chargers
Rams Chiefs Dwayne Bowe, WR

A few general thoughts:

Keep your young'uns: The above list takes a lot of the "Big name" free agents off the market--especially the much-coveted guys in their mid-twenties. In February, CBS Sports' Pete Prisco engaged in a useful exercise, developing a "top 50" free agent list with age as a primary consideration. Nobody 30 years of age or older made his top ten; the target age was 26 or 27. It appears that NFL teams will adopt this strategy as well; now that tags have been applied, 11 of his top 20 are off the market--but only 14 of his top 50. NFL teams are getting smarter; tired of seeing guys not live up to their contracts, they are going to pay for youth.

Expect to see top guys in their mid-20s (Mario Williams, Brandon Carr and Carl Nicks, who go 1-2-3 on Prisco's list) sidle up to the gravy trough and drink deep in the first week of free agency. The question is: after tagging Spencer, will Jerry Jones have enough gravy to secure one of these players, each of whom will almost certainly command $10 million per annum?

Wide receiver market dried up quickly: with four of the top free agent wideouts likely to be franchised, it immediately thins the ranks at what was an impressively deep position. Whereas a player like Laurent Robinson might once have been a third tier FA prospect, he is now more likely a second tier guy, with the first tier comprised only of Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson. Whether the Cowboys have any chance at bringing Robinson back into the fold now depends on what other teams think of him in comparison to the likes of Pierre Garcon, Jerome Simpson, or Mario Manningham.

Premium on number two pass rushers, even at high cost. With a $2.6 million hit, franchising a top-flight kicker seems financially prudent. This is much less the case at positions like defensive end ($10.6 million) or outside linebacker ($8.8 million), where the premium NFL teams place on getting to the quarterback strongly impacts the pricetag. Because of this premium, however, losing a pass rusher, even if he's not an All-Pro caliber player, is a worrisome proposition. None of the four franchised pass rushers are world-beaters; all are solid guys who are probably the second best rusher on their team. The prospect of losing that valuable number two is too horrible to contemplate for the Colts, Cowboys, Cardinals and Lions, however, so they bit down and applied the tag.

Some of the franchise tags will affect the Cowboys, albeit indirectly. Lets take a look-see, shall we?

Drew Brees: Obviously, the Cowboys weren't going to land Brees. However, the fact that the Saints couldn't come to an agreement with him on a long term contract means that both Colston and Nicks come available. I've already mentioned Colston's impact on the thinning WR class; Nicks is an interesting case, less because the Cowboys are likely to take him and more because of what his presence does to the FA guard group. With him in the mix, the likelihood of Dallas snagging a decent veteran guard increases.

Why might this be important? Clearly, guard is a position that needs an upgrade; I had been thinking that would most likely come via the draft, where Dallas might spend an early pick on a promising collegian like David DeCastro. Lately, however I've been hearing that Dallas' focus, especially in round one, has been on pass rushers. This makes sense; it's an aspect of the team in dire need of an upgrade and, while good guards and corners can be found on the second and third days, good pass rushers are rarely found after the first couple of rounds. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cowboys take a page from their in-state rivals, who turned an anemic defense around by drafting pass rushers in the 2011 drafts' first two rounds. If this were to happen, it would increase the likelihood that Dallas will rely on improvement from David Arkin and Bll Nagy and add cheap veteran FA guard for insurance.

Cortland Finnegan: Much like Nicks, the Titans' decision not to franchise Finnegan adds one more good corner to the FA roster, thereby bumping all the other guys down a spot. What I'm hearing from Valley Ranch these days is that the Cowboys consider Orlando Scandrick and ideal third corner, and a good guy in the slot, but not a starter on the outside. if this is the case, they'll almost certainly have to acquire a starting corner in free agency. If Finnegan is available, he increases the supply of top-flight guys--and as we learned in ECON 101, when supply goes up, prices go down. When prices go down, the chances of Jerry having enough gravy to land a fellow like Brandon Carr goes up. Yaaaay, Titans!

Tyvon Branch and Dashon Goldson: The free agent safety crop was unspectacular to start with, and was made less so by the franchise tags applied to Branch and Goldson. The leftover players all have dings. Reggie Nelson? Michael Griffin? Thomas Decoud? Frankly, none of these guys excites me; looking over the list, I can see why the Cowboys ponied up to retain Gerald Sensabaugh. In an NFL where a new breed of super-athletic tight ends demand bigger safeties who can cover, merely decent players are getting huge paydays. If the Cowboys find long-term safety help this offseason, it will have to come via the draft.

Matt Flynn: Here's the really interesting one. If the Pack franchises Flynn, it's because they are planning on trading him, and have a pretty clear sense that what they'll get would be worth the trouble of a $14.4 million cap hit while he's still on Green Bay's books. In other words, if they tag Flynn, they must have a trading partner (or partners) lined up. Who might that be? I'm guessing Miami; from the moment former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin assumed the Dolphins' coaching reins, it's been thought that Miami would be a likely landing place for Flynn, offering a reminder of former Packer back-up Matt Hasselbeck following Mike Holmgrem to Seattle.

Given Jon Kitna's departure and Stephen McGee's demonstrated ineptitude, Dallas desperately needs an experienced backup QB. None of the available free agents seem to be good fits; the best candidates are guys like Jason Campbell and Rex Grossman. This is where the Dolphins come in. The new Miami coaching staff will want to build anew, with their own guys. If they bring in Flynn, that makes the quarterbacks currently on the Dolphins roster expendable. I'm not sure Dallas would be interested in Chad Henne, but I know they like Matt Moore, who carved them up when the two squads met last Thanksgiving. Dallas has long rued the day they got too cute and tried to sneak Moore through waivers; if Flynn goes to Miami, look for the Cowboys to spend a third-day draft pick to secure Moore's services.

In a recent post, I offered a (rather large) Cowboys free agent checklist: retain Anthony Spencer; backup quarterback; third receiver; center; blocking tight end; offensive guard; veteran ILB; cornerback; safety. At this point, the franchise tags have haven't impacted the markets for guards and cornerbacks (I'd say this is closely linked to the strength and depth of those positions in the draft; why spend hugely to retain a decent CB or OG when there will be good ones available in the first four rounds?). On the down side, the receiver and safety markets have been thinned, so teams will have to overpay to get the guys they want. As a result, I'm less sure that we'll see Laurent Robinson in a Cowboys uniform in future, and more sure we'll to see a rerun of 2011 at safety: a middling vet on a short-term deal.

What do you see, BTBers? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip!


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