In the first three installments of this series, we've noted Jason Garrett's (and Jerry Jones's) public declaration that they'd like to use free agency to fill holes so they can have as "pure" a draft as possible; taken a look at the Cowboys' long list of expiring contracts, and what they mean for the roster going forward; and taken a stab at addressing the roster holes on the offensive side of the ball. In all of these posts, we've stuck to the same mantra: the Cowboys will re-sign their own top guys like Dez Bryant to market deals but will almost certainly eschew the big-ticket signings that tend to happen during free agency's initial frenzy.
Indeed, I think they will proceed more or less as they did late last summer, letting the market come to them and getting reasonable bargains in the process. The goal in free agency will be to set the team up in order to avoid having to draft for need in April. On Monday, I attempted to lay out an offensive plan of attack that took that larger goal into consideration. Today, I'll do the same with the defensive side of the ball. This is likely to be a tall order; the Cowboys have at least eight, and as many as ten key roster slots on the defensive depth chart that must be filled with quality players if they are merely to return to the level witnessed in 2014, much less register improvement.
And this is complicated by myriad moving pieces, most of which are in the front seven: how much do they value the contributions of overachieving street FAs like Nick Hayden and George Selvie? Surely, they won't pick up the option on Henry Melton's deal, right? What, exactly, is Sean Lee's status? Do they think they can find a way for he and Rolando McClain to play side by side? If so, who plays where? How does that effect Justin Durant's status? Is Anthony Hitchens ready to step into a starting role? If so, where is his best position?
How might the Cowboys solve this complicated defensive puzzle? Let's begin, as we did on Monday, by revisiting our handy-dandy positional needs chart. Any roster spots that were manned last year by guys who are currently free agents (and thus not officially on the roster), I've left open (marking them with a "????"). In addition, I've placed a single asterisk (*) next to their lone defensive RFA (Sterling Moore), and marked potential cap casualty Brandon Carr with the dreaded triple asterisk (***):
||????||Kyle Wilber||Dekoda Watson|
||????||Anthony Hitchens||Cam Lawrence|
|LCB||***Brandon Carr||Mo Claiborne
What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with what we definitely know:
1. The Cowboys must secure at least one strong-side DE before the draft. With both Anthony Spencer and George Selvie no longer under contract, Dallas will need two strong-side ends capable of holding the edge and winning some fair share of pass rush battles. Although this is a rich year for collegiate ends who fit that description, they cannot go into the draft absolutely needing one, much less two. The question here is: who should they bring in? I'd expect their preference would be for Spencer to return on a team-friendly short-term deal.
2. Priority one this offseason will be to find guys who can pressure the QB. Just as the season ended, our resident insider, Birddog26, offered up this gem about the Cowboys' offseason priorities:
Cowboys will be very transparent on wanting to upgrade pass rush this offseason. Already putting pressure on NFC East to keep up.— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) January 13, 2015
Simply put, Dallas needs to upgrade both talent and depth on the defensive line, and I expect them to do it through a wide variety of means: free agency, the draft, trading first born sons, etc.
3. The linebacker least likely to return is Bruce Carter. Although it's still an open question what they will do vis a vis Rolando McClain (and, then, depending on McClain, with Justin Durant), it's a pretty safe assumption that the talented but wildly inconsistent Carter will be allowed to search for greener ($$$) pastures. That's something...
4. Brandon Carr hasn't played up to his contract. Every year, during the offseason, I write a "follow the money" post, in which I look at the Cowboys whose contracts exceed their production. A testament to the success they have had in cleaning up the roster over the last few years is the fact that the only Cowboy who fits this description is Carr. In response, the Cowboys have several options: convince him to sign a less lucrative deal (best); stick with him at his current pay level (less good); or cut him, creating another roster hole and eating the remainder of the contract (worst).
5. The one defensive position where the Cowboys can stand pat is at safety. After years spent chasing safeties, it finally appears the Cowboys are set at the position. Sure, we'd all like an Earl Thomas-ish, ballhawking free safety. But we have to ask: how many of those are out there? The answer: Earl Thomas. If we look at safety play league-wide, we soon realize that Dallas could do a lot worse than the present set-up. And, hey, they just might extend Matt Johnson a training camp invite...
Given this, how would I proceed If I were playing GM? Extrapolating from the above evidence, I'd do something like this:
Sign at least one free agent LDE: As noted above, the Cowboys can't afford to go into the draft needing to secure a strong side defensive end; as we saw last year, chasing defensive ends leads to overspending to make sure you get a good one. With that in mind, my preference would be for them to bring back either Spencer or Selvie (Spencer, please!) on a short-term deal that will allow him to be a "bridge" to a newer model. That said, this is the one position where I can see the Cowboys going after a upper-middle-class player, a guy like the Ravens' Pernell McPhee, the Eagles' Brandon Graham (who is probably more of an open-side DE), or the Browns' Jabaal Sheard.
Draft at least one defensive lineman in the draft's first two days: Because we have no idea how the draft will break, mandating that Dallas draft a D-lineman in the first round is evidence of madness. That said, if priority one is upgrading the defensive line, they will have to obtain a promising young player and, unless they get lucky and find another seventh-round gem in the Jay Ratliff mold, that selection will have to come on Thursday or Friday. Note that the two youngsters they are building around, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, fit that description. Another one (or two) would go a long way towards giving Dallas dominant lines on both sides of the ball.
Sign Rolando McClain to a multi-year deal: Yes, he struggled with injuries all season. But go back and look at the tape; there were stretches when he was making play after play after...well, you get what I'm saying. This boils down to two questions. One: does the team think an offseason in their workout program will help his body withstand the rigors of a full season? Two: do they think either he or Sean Lee can scoot over to one of the outside linebacker positions and have success? If the answer to both of these is yes, then I believe giving him a longer-term deal is a safe bet.
Wait to make a decision on Justin Durant until after the McClain deal is decided, and then play hardball with him: The Cowboys coaching staff really likes Durant, and for good reason; before he got injured, Durant was arguably their best linebacker last season (he led the team in tackles and "splash plays" at the time of his injury). But there are several issues here: if the Cowboys decide that Lee and McClain can play side-by-side, where does Durant play? And, will his presence impede the progress of rookie sensation Anthony Hitchens? Lastly, it's never a good idea to pay age, and Durant is 29. So, if I sign him at all, it's to a team-friendly deal that won't hurt the cap if and when he's released.
Draft a linebacker on day three: In the last couple of drafts, the Cowboys have brought in third-day linebackers in Davonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens, both of whom had solid to very good rookie seasons. The Cowboys seem to have hit on something, and I'd encourage them to go to the well once more, in search of a young linebacker with traits that allow him to win at something (for Holloman, it was his speed; Hitchens wins with his ability to diagnose).
Keep Brandon Carr in the fold: I outlined three options for Carr above, and posited that the worst of these was to cut him. Here's the poop: if the Cowboys were to cut him in 2015, they would save only roughly $550,000. If they made him a June 1 cut, then it would free up $8 million in space in 2015, but Carr would count $7.4 million against the cap in 2016. More importantly, to my mind, is the fact that it would create a significant roster hole at a premium position. Say all you ant about Carr, but he's a solid NFL corner. It would cost a lot to replace him, either in terms free agency dollars of draft capital. So, try to convince him to sign a more team-friendly deal, or bite the bullet and overpay him for another season.
Draft a starting-caliber corner: With Carr under-performing his contract, and Mo Claiborne unlikely to receive a second contract from the Cowboys, the team needs to find players capable of replacing them in 2016 and beyond. And, as we know with quality corners, they have to be taken high. I think this should happen in 2015, for two reasons: we don't know how soon Claiborne will be at full speed (and whether, even at full speed, he'll be any good), and what happened in 2014 against teams with quality third receivers: Sterling Moore was exposed. I love Moore's toughness and his compete level, but more as a fourth corner (and as a guy who can move in should one of the CBs gets dinged). However, when the opposing team has a decent third WR, and can game plan against him, it can get a bit nasty. I'd love to have a future starter get his feet wet rotating in and then eventually "starting" at CB3.
Looking this over, we have two or three necessary defensive free agent acquisitions, including re-upping Rolando McClain, and three or four potential draft picks: DE and/ or DT, and CB early and LB on day three. That's a bit of a top-heavy order, which is why it's so important to fill holes in free agency; what are the chances that the Cowboys could find value and fit at, say DE, CB, DT in the first three rounds? As Jerry Seinfeld says, not bloody likely.
In the final installment, we'll look at the overall plan and speculate more specifically on what targets might be in Dallas' sights.