Ask most Cowboys fans about the greatest needs the Cowboys have going into the draft this year, and the answer is almost certainly going to be offensive line and defensive line, and multiple positions along both lines are likely going to be mentioned. Some might throw in a safety, and a running back will likely be brought up as well. The need for depth at tight end and many other positions might also come up.
The Cowboys are drafting at #18, #47 and #80, and they should expect to draft first-year starters or significant contributors with their first two picks, but if they were to also find an immediate starter in the third round, that would be a very big win on draft day. And there's virtually no chance that they'll be able come away from the draft with four first-year starters/significant contributors.
This of course means that the Cowboys may need to fill some of their roster holes via free agency. But which ones? Especially considering that the Cowboys will probably enter the 2013 free agency period on a tight budget that will only take them so far.
So how do you go about building a team on a tight budget?
The Cowboys 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 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.
The 2013 franchise tag numbers were distributed in early December at a team owners meeting. The numbers will be finalized in March but shouldn't deviate much from the tentative amounts below:
|Position||2013 Franchise Tag Value||2012 Franchise Tag Value||2011 Franchise Tag Value|
|Quarterback||$14.6 million||$14.4 million||$16.1 million|
|Defensive End||$11.0 million||$10.6 million||$13.0 million|
|Cornerback||$10.7 million||$10.6 million||$13.5 million|
|Wide Receiver||$10.4 million||$9.4 million||$11.4 million|
|Offensive Line||$9.7 million||$9.4 million||$10.1 million|
|Linebacker||$9.5 million||$8.8 million||$10.1 million|
|Defensive Tackle||$8.3 million||$7.9 million||$12.5 million|
|Running Back||$8.1 million||$7.7 million||$9.6 million|
|Safety||$6.8 million||$6.2 million||$8.8 million|
|Tight End||$6.0 million||$5.4 million||$7.3 million|
These are not the contract figures the Cowboys should pay any potential free agents. These are the numbers the top guys at their positions go for. 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 DE in free agency, something the Cowboys are going to find out the hard way as they try to re-sign Anthony Spencer.
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 around $6 million.
With a limited budget, the Cowboys' best bet is to go after position groups that won't break the bank - and for which they don't have suitable depth on the roster already. From a financial and long-term salary cap perspective, it would make sense to go after the expensive positions like DEs, CBs, OTs and WRs with the premier draft picks, while addressing the "cheaper" positions like tight ends, safeties, running backs and defensive tackles either via late round draft picks or via free agency.
Free agency starts on March 12. For the Cowboys it would make sense to look for safety help, a blocking tight end, a running back and perhaps a guard in free agency. Defensive tackle might also be an option, but just like with all other positions, that depends on what the Cowboys think about their roster depth at that position.
Conversely, the higher-priced positions like a pass-rushing defensive end, an offensive tackle and perhaps even a linebacker (imagine what our LB corps would look like had we indeed taken Bobby Wagner in the second round last year!) would make good targets for the first three picks in the draft.
Which positions would you try to prioritize in free agency?