The NFL is a league of rich and time-honored traditions. You know that there will always be fierce rivalries. Fan bases like Raider Nation and the Dog Pound will come out with fervent loyalty, no matter how miserably their teams perform on the field.
And every significant free agent name will be rumored to be a target of the Dallas Cowboys. You can no more stop the rumors from springing up than you can keep the swallows out of Capistrano, the buzzards out of Hinckley, or the lemmings out of the ocean.
The latest one involves just waived safety Will Hill, formerly of the New York Giants. His release follows his third violation of the NFL substance abuse and PED policies. Facing a six-game suspension, he hardly seems like immediate help for the Cowboys, who may still have some questions at safety, but who would need answers sooner rather than later. And yet the pixels were hardly dry on the article announcing his waiver before speculation sprang up in the blogosphere about how hard it might be for Jerry Jones to resist him. After all, this was just like the Adam Jones (the player formerly known as Pacman) situation, right?
This comes fresh on the heels of all the 'speculation' concerning Dallas' interest in Brian Urlacher and Jonathan Vilma after the knee injury that makes it almost certain (to just about everyone except Jason Garrett, who still awaits the results of 'evaluating' it) that Sean Lee will not play in 2014. Yeah, let's reach out to two beat-up, aged, injured vets to replace Lee as the Mike linebacker. That makes so much sense.
Although many people laugh at it, there is indeed a process in place at Valley Ranch. While it is not inflexible, in general the process of acquiring players works like this, in order:
- Figure out who you have at the end of the season
- Get some free agents prior to the draft to address the most critical needs.
- UDFA signings
- Occasional 'bargain shopping' during the offseason, but very sparingly used
- Evaluate where you are after OTAs and early in training camp, and then look for affordable stopgap free agents if needed
There is really no way that players like Hill, Urlacher or Vilma would fit in the process now. It is arguable that they never would fit given the specifics of their situation and the way the front office is being run now. Things have changed. It is no longer Jerry Jones out hunting for 'finds'. It is Stephen Jones, Will McClay and Jason Garrett working together to determine who is a good fit for the Cowboys, and who the Cowboys can afford.
However, it seems that most of the NFL fans out there will not soon forget Pacman Jones or Terrell Owens or Roy Williams (the wide receiver). So every time a big or medium name comes up, it is linked to Dallas, and the better known the name is, the more persistent the rumors.
All of this flies in the face of a simple conclusion: The Cowboys would essentially be admitting they were in full alarm, season-going-down-the-drain panic mode if they were to sign someone now. It could only be interpreted as the staff saying 'We have seen our team, and we are in deep stuff here'. It would mean that they had given up hope on the players they have on the roster now.
That would contradict the messages coming out of Valley Ranch for the past few weeks. Concerning the safety situation, the Cowboys did not use a high pick on a safety because they feel better about the players they already have, particularly J.J. Wilcox, than do most outside observers. Turning to the linebackers, they used a fourth-round pick to get Anthony Hitchens largely to backup Lee. Now he is in the mix at the Mike position along with Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman (and perhaps Orie Lemon, too, based on the fourth day of OTA practices). As has been observed by wiser men than me, Durant is pretty much the equivalent, at least, of anyone Dallas could sign right now, so it really makes no sense to sign anyone until they see how this group handles the job. And don't forget the new Dallas emphasis on players, well, not being old and beaten up, as expressed by the head coach.
"Again, we're focused on the guys we have," Garrett said. "If you look at our team, we have a really young roster. If you go position-by-position on both sides of the ball, there aren't many guys who have played that long in the National Football League, and we think that's good."
And don't get too hung up on the drop off in athletic ability and sheer killer instinct from Sean Lee to just about anyone. You are not going to replace those facets of his game unless you are willing to pony up some major bucks for a major talent. Obviously, that is not going to happen in the cap strapped environment the Cowboys are in. (Although, as our own KD Drummond has pointed out, the Cowboys now have about $8.3 million in space to work with. If you don't take out the money for the two remaining draftees the team has to sign, Dallas is now ranked fifteenth in the league for available cap space. Cap hell became cap heck, and now is just cap meh.)
Cap costs aside, what is going to make or break the Mike position for the Cowboys is not speed or talent. It is going to be how smart the player is. This is still the position that is slated to be the quarterback for the defense, something Lee is very good at. How the replacement has the other 10 players lined up is far more important than him being in position to try and make every play himself. Given that, players like Holloman or Durant, who have already worked a year with now-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, may be better choices than veterans regardless of health and creakiness. Even Urlacher, who played under Marinelli while he was at Chicago, would have to get up to speed with the way things are done in Dallas, which certainly will have some subtle differences. And there would be a lot of rust to knock off mentally as well as physically.
The decision for now to go with the players on the roster is unquestionably the right one for the Cowboys to make. Any additional free agent signings are better kept in reserve as a way to respond to future contingencies.
So quit speculating on who the Cowboys will sign next. It's going to be DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin, probably in that order. And then, hopefully, we won't need anyone for a while.