As Bill Parcells was fond of saying, he was in the "talent acquisition business." As such, it was imperative that he, working with the Cowboys' personnel departments, explored and exploited every means necessary to add players capable of enriching the talent on the Cowboys roster, even if it meant swapping out the 52nd player for another guy who was slightly better. In this conception, roster building is a constant and fluid operation. A successful team cannot build a roster and then rest on its laurels; rather, it must grind 24/7/356 to make even the most incremental of improvements.
This, and the nature of NFL contracts, ensures that there is substantial turnover from year to year. Each season, about 20 new players wear the star. Pop in a tape of the 2009 playoff win over the Eagles and you'll see that only three of the eleven offensive starters are still on the team. And this is not an isolated incident, a result of a necessary purge of aged vets; a similar level of turnover happened from 2007 to 2009. Its simply the nature of the beast. Its just more evident when it involves multi-year starters.
In fact, we saw a textbook example of this in the most recent offseason, when the Dallas front office was tasked with replacing as many as eleven starters or key backups. A couple of those eleven were released due to age and declining play, but the majority simply saw their contracts expire--and Dallas didn't see fit to re-sign them. I agreed with these decisions (did you want to see a couple more years of an aging Brady James?), but they did end up in a real personnel hole, from which they extricated themselves thanks to some top-notch contractual derring-do come free agent time.
As Jason Garrett made clear as the offseason began, he wanted to use free agency to plug glaring roster holes so that the Cowboys could follow a "best player available" strategy during the subsequent draft. In the past couple of weeks, Archie and I have looked at potential collegians at available at positions of strength in the 2013 draft, positions where the Cowboys are weak or need an infusion of new blood: QB, safety, OLB. But, if Dallas is to follow Garrett's stated offseason formula again next season (and I think they would be foolish not to), all of this must be preceded by free agency.
Before we examine which NFL players will offer their services to the highest bidder in March 2013, it would behoove us to take a closer look at which Cowboys are scheduled to become free agents after the upcoming season. If Garrett and Co. are indeed dedicated to filling obvious roster holes in free agency, we'll need to see what those holes are likely to be before opining on which free agents are likely to become Cowboys in 2013 and beyond.
Which Cowboys are in the final years of their contracts, and what might the team do with them? Make the jump to find out...
I've apportioned the Cowboys' potential FAs into several handy-dandy categories:
Recent Draftees (2007-09) finishing up their first contracts:
Anthony Spencer, OLB
Mike Jenkins, CB
Felix Jones, RB
Victor Butler, OLB
Stephen McGee, QB
John Phillips, TE
Thoughts: A glance at the free agency rolls serves to remind us of a given draft class. Under the old CBA, all draft choices save first rounders signed four-year contracts; first rounders inked five-year deals. So, the upcoming free agent class is comprised mostly of 2008 first-rounders and 2009 draftees from rounds 2-7. If you'll recall, the Cowboys had two first round picks in '08 and a slew of players in rounds 2-7 of the '09 draft, the fabled "special teams draft." Here is the upside to that failed experiment: because that draft yielded only three backups (one of whom might not make the team in 2012), Dallas won't have to bid adieu to a slew of low-contract, high-contribution players.
That's not to say that the Dallas braintrust won't face a couple of tough decisions. Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins and Felix Jones aren't stars, but they are key contributors, and the team would definitely feel their collective loss. Given that each plays a premium position and has flashed at some point in his career, however, the prices they are likely to command will almost certainly be prohibitive, and all three are likely to be wearing different uniforms, and sporting shiny new, big-dollar contracts, in 2013.
As for the others: McGee has already been replaced, and I'm not sure he survives training camp. Victor Butler is never going to start so long as DeMarcus Ware is on the team, so the only 2009 draftee who they might consider retaining is John Phillips. I suspect he'll come on this season, which will be both a blessing and a curse, as it will help to balance the offense, but draw other teams' interest and drive up his price. After losing Martellus Bennett, I'm not sure Dallas can afford to lose another capable backup TE. If Phillips enjoys a good first half of '12, I wouldn't be surprised to see them offer him a low-dollar extension.
Veteran free agent acquisitions on the final year of their contracts (or on one-year deals):
Kenyon Coleman, DE
L.P. Ladouceur, DS
Brodney Pool, S
Kevin Ogletree, WR
C.J. Wilson, CB
Thoughts: From this vantage point, there are no difficult decisions in this category. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Coleman, Pool, Ogletree or Wilson (or all of them) didn't make the team out of training camp. I'm not spending money to retain any of these players, with the exception of Ladouceur, who is one of the league's best and most consistent snappers. I'll re-sign him, if he's willing to accept the veteran minimum.
RFAs (players to whom the Cowboys can tender an offer, and are thus almost certain to remain in Dallas). This is a fairly long list, so I've listed only those RFAs who I think have a chance to make the team in 2012:
Mario Butler, CB
Rob Callaway, DL
Barry Church, S
Phil Costa, OC
Clifton Geathers, DE
Orie Lemon, ILB
Danny McCray, S
John Nalbone, TE
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, DB
Phillip Tanner, RB
Thoughts: Its frustrating to lose ascending players just as they develop into real contributors, so it will be important to monitor a handful of these young projects closely. The guys I'm paying special attention to are Church, Geathers and Callaway. If they continue to grow, it might make sense to offer them reasonable extensions before they hit free agency - but that would happen in 2013, so such a deal is a ways off. Tanner and McCray are the kind of players who will receive an RFA tender, but not the kind of guys to whom you offer a second contract. Before commenting on Costa, I want to see how he plays in 2012. The rest of the names on this list have about a 50-50 or poorer chance of surviving training camp.
Overall, the situation doesn't look dire; Dallas won't have to make excruciating choices along the lines of which young All-Pro caliber guy they cannot afford to keep (as Kansas City did with Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Carr this past offseason). It will be tough to lose what Spencer, Jenkins and Jones provide, but I don't think the Cowboys will be able to justify paying any of them what the market will command next March.
Assuming that the Cowboys figure out how to retain Phillips and Ladouceur, they will face the 2013 offseason with roster holes at the following positions:
Backup/ rotation running back: probably why they looked long and hard at RBs in 2012 draft)
Backup WR: the severity of this depends on how the young receiver develop
Backup TE: this will become a higher priority if Phillips leaves
Outside linebacker: Dallas will need two, one starter and one backup
Safety: If Church seizes a starting role, then the need will be for a quality backup
Cornerback: the starters will be set; Dallas will need depth
This doesn't take into account the possibility that a veteran will be jettisoned due to age or contract size (although this seems less likely considering how diligent they have been to get such players off the roster of late). Assuming no surprises along these lines, which of these positions might be addressed in free agency? I see three possibilities: a veteran tight end, especially if Phillips leaves; a mid-level OLB, as insurance so that they aren't forced to draft a first-round DE/ OLB type 2013; and safety, where they might explore another veteran stopgap, again to reduce the need to grab a safety early in the draft.
In the next few days, Archie and I will look at some of the veterans who will be on the market next year, and offer some wild speculations about which of them might be worthy to don the star. He'll take the offensive positions and I'll focus on defensive guys. So, stay tuned for that as we wend out way ever closer to training camp.
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