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Cowboys' Offseason Plan, Part V: Where and When To Allocate Limited Resources

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The final installment of our five-part series on the Cowboys' offseason "process." Today, we try to prioritize all the moves the front office must make, allocating their limited, if not scarce, resources.

Could the Browns' Jabaal Sheard be this year's Jeremy Mincey?
Could the Browns' Jabaal Sheard be this year's Jeremy Mincey?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the first four parts of this series, we examined the Cowboys' offseason philosophy (use FA to draft BPA); examined their laundry list of roster holes (its a lotta laundry); developed an offensive plan of attack; and did the same on the defensive side of the ball. One thing each NFL front office does is to establish a set of priorities and, extrapolating from those, decide what should happen when, and in what order. In this, the series' fifth and final installment, I want to do just that, taking a harder look at the delicate balance between needs and resources and, from this, devise a step-by-step roster building schematic.

In assessing how I might respond to the team's many roster holes, I based all of my decisions on the multiple public declarations by Jason Garrett and the various Joneses, that the organization's goal is to use free agency as roster spackle, filling holes rather than bringing glitzy big-name types aboard. The governing idea, then, is that this offseason will look much like 2014's, when the Cowboys brought in three low-rent guys - Brandon Weeden, Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey - and got a couple of high-rent dudes (Henry Melton and Rolando McClain) for one-year "show me" deals at bargain prices.

This offseason, if it follows suit, will see the Cowboys adhering to the same kind of plan, filling holes with solid, mid-level guys and signing show-me deals with more talented players who might have suffered a recent drop-off. Who might some of those guys be, and at what positions? In my offensive and defensive posts, I developed the following list of offseason "must-do"s. Let's start there:

  • re-sign Dez Bryant
  • sign at least one free agent strongside defensive end
  • draft at least one defensive lineman on the draft's first two days
  • sign Doug Free to a short-term deal
  • sign Rolando McClain to a multi-year deal
  • sign DeMarco Murray to a very team-friendly deal
  • draft a starting-caliber cornerback
  • find a low-cost developmental offensive tackle, either in free agency or the draft
  • draft a promising one-cut running back
  • draft a wide receiver early on day three
  • draft a linebacker on day three
  • find a cheap free agent fullback
  • sign a UDFA punter

We must be aware that not all of these are likely to happen due to limited resources. In recent years, those limitations have largely been imposed by the salary cap: Dallas simply couldn't afford to buy all the necessary talent upgrades it needed. Now, with a deeper roster and improved cap situation, the limiting factor lies chiefly in the number of premium draft choices the Cowboys possess: three. In April, they could stand to bring in top-of-the-draft talent at DE, DT, CB, and OT. That's five positions and only three picks; you do the math. That said, I'm not striking any of these off my checklist, since I don't know how the draft is going to fall. At this point, my goal is to accomplish everything on my list, and to cover my backside by having solid veteran solutions in place should good players at positions of need not fall to me during the selection meeting.

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Given all that, here's how I would tackle the offseason:

Step One: Cuts and Cap savings. In the past, when I have engaged in this exercise, this has been one of the most detailed and lengthy steps in the process; the Cowboys have typically had five to eight players whose swelling contracts justified their being released. This year, the cap landscape is different. Here are the top ten guys who would provide cap saving if they were released. Look at this list and ask: which of these guys is underperforming his contract?

Henry Melton: $8,499,500
Jason Witten: $3,276,000
Mackenzie Bernadeau: $1.5 million
Jeremy Mincey: $1.5 million
Barry Church, $1.25 million
Terrell McClain: $900,000
L.P. Ladoceur: $760,000
Tyrone Crawford: $685,000
Kyle Wilber: $660,000
James Hanna: $660,000

The obvious answer is Melton, whose friendly 2014 base salary of $1.25 million escalates to an unfriendly $9,250,250 million in 2015. I don't think anyone believes the Cowboys will exercise the team option at that rate. That said, Melton was really coming on in October and early November before he got dinged and faded down the stretch. So, how much would you pay for that production? The Cowboys seem to have two options to get him on board at a reasonable price: 1) get him to sign a new deal; 2) prorate Melton’s $9.25 million cap hit, by dividing it equally over the three seasons of his deal; that wold reduce his 2015 salary by $6 million, but would result in $10,750,750 salaries in 2016 and '17. To my mind, that's too much; if Melton won't re-do his deal, I'm out.

What's curious about the above list is that it doesn't include the one Cowboys who most would agree is underperforming his contract: Brandon Carr. That's because, in 2015, Carr's cap hit (base salary plus prorated signing and restructuring bonuses) is $12,717,000. If they were to cut him, the cap hit would be $12,151,000, for a paltry cap savings of $566,000. Given that his replacement would surely cost more than $566,000, with no guarantee that he'd be a better player, cutting Carr now appears to be a losing proposition.

That said, there are several viable options in play. If they designate him a "post June 1" cut, the cap hit this year would be $4,717,000, for a cool cap savings of $8 million.  A year from now, the team can accrue a cap saving of $6,383,000 by cutting Carr loose and even more - $9.1 million - if they take the June 1 option. But here's the sticking point for me: the team already has a lot of roster holes; do they need to create yet another, and at one of what I like to call the Positions of Great Import (QB, LT, WR, DE/ OLB, CB)? I certainly don't, so I'll ask Carr to do a Doug Free and sign a new deal, but will bit the bullet and pay him at his current salary if he balks at my offer.

Step Two: Pre-Draft Free Agency. As I noted in this series' earlier installments, the team would prefer to spend its resources keeping their own free agents in the fold. So, I'm making it priority one to sign Dez Bryant, and preferably to a long-term deal. He's the heart and soul of this young, competitive, edgy team, and that's worth as much as the plays he makes.

The next order of business are positions where both starter and backup have expired contracts: LDE and RT. My preference is to sign one of the two departing guys at each position: either Anthony Spencer or George Selvie and either Doug Free or Jermey Parnell. The key here? Since there's not a radical talent disparity between the two guys in either pair, give the contract to the guy who will sign the most team-friendly deal. Parnell will probably get some play on the open market, so he's not a big consideration for me, and I think a healthy Spencer is more dynamic that Selvie. So, Spencer for a year and Free for two years? Yes, please.

Next, I want to re-up a short-term Cowboy long-term, giving Rolando McClain a four- or five-year contract, which will both pay him at an elite level (at which he plays when healthy) yet have plenty of safeguards in it so that the team can escape should he lose interest in the game or continue to miss huge swaths of time due to injuries.You'll notice that I haven't yet mentioned DeMarco Murray. That's because I'm playing hardball with him; if he wants to sign a contract that will protect the team from a Marion Barber like career drop-off, then he's welcome to wear the star in 2015 and beyond. If not, they I hive him a big hug and a warm "thank you" as I see him out of the complex.

Only then do I think about other teams' free agents. My targets are the two positions I referenced above: strongside end and right tackle. At tackle, I don't want to pay for an established veteran to be my gameday swing; I'd prefer a developmental guy who might be able to take over from Free in a season or two. The guys I'm targeting have a Mackenzie Bernadeau-esque prior history: 26- or 27-year-old former starters who may have been phased out by their former team, perhaps due to the arrival of a new coaching staff Houston's Derek Newton and Tennessee's Bryon Stingily fit the bill.

If I'm going after a bigger-ticket guy in free agency this season, its at strongside end. As with OTs, I want to target players in their mid-20s who might not have ben optimized at previous stops. Two who fit that bill but I fear will be too pricey are ex-Raven Pernell McPhee and former Eagle Brandon Graham. So, It'd probably more prudent to kick the tires on guys at the next tier down, such as the Titans' Derrick Morgan, the Bills' Jerry Hughes and the Browns Jabaal Sheard.

Step Three: The Draft. With the above holes filled, the Cowboys can go into the draft without being tethered to specific needs. Here are the positions I'd hope to fill in the draft, roughly in order of priority: DE, DT, CB, RB, OT, WR, LB. Obviously, these will change and shift depending on what Dallas does in free agency. If they break the bank to sign a pricey defensive end to pair with, say Spencer, then that position drops down the list, although probably not off of it altogether.

Luckily, this draft appears that it will line up pretty nicely with Dallas' needs. It looks to be strong along the defensive line, where the Cowboys need an significant infusion of talent both inside and outside, and there are some great options at running back and receiver in all three days of the selection meeting. If everything were to break as I hoped, the Cowboys would spend their three first- and second-day picks on a defensive end, a cornerback and either an OT, DT or RB. Given the 2015 selection meeting's relative strengths, this is not outside the realm of possiblity.

The important consideration here is this: while it would be lovely to hit on a third-day gem at defensive line, offensive tackle, or cornerback, as I noted above, those are premium positions that tend both to require elite talents and, because of this, to go off the board quickly. This is one reason why I opted to keep Brandon Carr around: if a comparable player doesn't happen to fall to them in April, the Cowboys are screwed in September through December.

On the draft's third day, I keep my eyes peeled for a dynamic wideout with a grade two rounds higher than the round in which I am picking (as 2015 is another strong year for receivers; this will happen), and a "traits" linebacker - a guy who possesses something that will allow him to win at the next level.

Step Four: UDFAs. This is where I engage in some post-draft derring-do, working to add not only camp bodies but key players at positions that don't often merit a draft pick. My highest priority would be to add the best remaining undrafted fullback and the top collegiate punter; both are non-premium positions where premium play can make a huge difference.

Step Five. Post-Draft Free Agency. This is where I'd fill the second-level holes that couldn't be addressed in the draft. Its here that I'd look to replace Tyler Clutts. Also, if I couldn't find a UDFA to compete with or to replace Chris Jones, I'd try to add a veteran punter at this juncture.

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I know its not the sexiest plan, and its not designed to win now or to achieve a quick fix. That's because I don't believe in quick fixes; a preponderance of evidence has shown that the best teams are those that build through the draft, so that's going to be my plan, whether or not my brilliant franchise quarterback has a rapidly closing window. I'm building so that the team can win around the guy they bring in after Number Nine retires.