It appears that Jerry Jones was not at Indianapolis for the first few days of the NFL Combine, or at least was maintaining an uncharacteristically low profile. But he met on the lavish Dallas Cowboys bus with a group of reporters, including ones from all the major news outlets in Dallas. For ninety minutes he pontificated in his usual style. And when he talks for that long, there is always a lot of good information to be gleaned.
Jones is notorious for a very unique and somewhat convoluted way of expressing himself. He also tends to go on at length as he did Saturday morning. There is a certain stream of consciousness element to the way he talks, and one of the really fun things about analyzing what he says is trying to piece together what it all really means. Often, there are a few key statements that come out that reveal a good deal. The Dallas Morning News put up a compilation of tweets (in itself an interesting comment on the evolution of how news and sports are covered in the day of social media) from their reporters om the bus, and this one in particular jumped out.
Jerry Jones says it's about competing "now" and that idea influences offseason strategy. Tony Romo's time left played role in that thinking.— Rainer Sabin (@RainerSabinDMN) February 21, 2015
The "time left" referred to is a projected five years, as DallasCowboys.com reporter David Helman explained in a more detailed take on what Jones meant. That, pieced together with his comments about how the team really wants to keep key free agents from last season like Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and Rolando McClain (whose negotiating position may be somewhat weakened with reports that he is facing a fine for violating the league's substance abuse policy), leads to a very intriguing possibility.
Dallas may be going "all in" this offseason.
There is a good bit of logic to this. Last season, the team rode a top flight offense and an overachieving defense to the playoffs and came a few missed opportunities (and one egregious misinterpretation of what a football move is) from advancing to the NFC Championship against a Seattle Seahawks team that the Cowboys had already found a successful plan to defeat in their house. The team is not in the "one piece away" mode, but it does know what it needs to do to get better in 2015.
First, as Jones alluded to with his comments about Romo, Bryant, and Murray, they need to keep the band together on offense as much as possible. The foundation of it all is the young and very talented offensive line. Four of the starters there are under contract, and the team just has to figure out what to do about right tackle. They will probably re-sign either Doug Free or Jermey Parnell to be the presumptive starter, leaving them with a variety of options already on the roster, free agency, and the draft for depth.
A long-term deal for Bryant is the top priority at the moment, with the franchise tag as a backup plan. As Jones said, the tag is not a desirable way to go into the season because it ties up too much cap space this year, but given the way the near-deal fell through in October and that Bryant's agent is reportedly not being very aggressive in trying to work something out, the team has to be prepared for the worst-case scenario of sticking with the tab. One way or another, the team will keep Bryant, and then the only question left at receiver is depth, with Dwayne Harris probably the only current member of the roster on the bubble.
Running back is more complicated. The team wants to keep Murray, but has to use some discretion in how much they can pay him. Jones seemed to indicate that the team is willing to give on this, so it may wind up investing more cap space in the reigning Offensive Player of the Year than most expect. Joseph Randle's legal troubles complicate the situation, since on a strictly talent basis he was the primary backup, and Jones also stated that the team does not plan to work Murray as hard as it did in 2014 if he does come back. Things may change, but right now it looks like the team may be parting ways with Randle (and gaining between $538K and $585K in space depending on whether he would be a post June 1 cut or not). They have Ryan Williams waiting in the wings and a draft that is clearly a target rich environment for teams looking to get a runner.
Tight end is presumed to not be a position where there is a lot of urgency with the team able to roll with what it has, particularly with Jason Witten still playing at a very high level. That leaves the lynchpin of the offense in Tony Romo, who we know is part of the plan for up to five years. Jason Garrett and Jones both have said that they have more faith in Brandon Weeden than most of the fans. Based on who the team is talking to at the Combine, there is no reason to think that the team is going to spend more than a late-round pick in trying to find an eventual replacement for Romo.
Defense is going to be the area where the team needs to get maximum bang for its buck in both free agency and the draft. But even there, the Cowboys may be in better shape than we think in at least two of the three main units.
On the line, where the team obviously needs to improve the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback, the team has players like Ben Gardner, Jack Crawford, Chris Whaley, and Amobi Okoye who were not healthy at the end of the year. Jeremy Mincey, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are very good with the latter two still seen to be on the rise, and Anthony Spencer is still a possibility to return at a reasonable price. The team has not ruled out bringing Henry Melton back for the right price, either, and a lot of fans are eager to see what Kenneth Boatright really has. Add in the apparent depth of the draft in defensive linemen, and Dallas could easily field a much more potent group of pass rushers this year.
Sean Lee will hopefully be back to his old self this season, and stay that way. Anthony Hitchens proved to be a steal for a fourth-round pick. That leaves the team with decisions to make on McClain, Justin Durant and Bruce Carter. Based on the way Jones was talking, the team may try to get all three back. Durant was arguably the best linebacker on the field before he got hurt. Everyone knows the impact McClain has when he was healthy, and Carter looked like what the team wanted him to be late in the season. Dallas may well just need five linebackers, since the nickel defense is now the real base package in the pass-oriented NFL.
That leaves the secondary as the only part of the defense where the answers are not readily apparent. Morris Claiborne is not projected to be ready to go at full speed until sometime after the start of training camp, and that is a big issue. He has not been at all what the team expected when they traded up to get him, possibly because he has never really been healthy. The team may have to make the harsh decision to cut ties with him, and he will become $5.175 million in dead money if they do.
Brandon Carr is another player who has been overpaid while underperforming. The team will almost certainly give him a choice between signing a new, cheaper deal as Doug Free did or being cut. As a post-June 1 cut, he adds dead money but frees up a much-needed $8 million of cap. In any case, the Cowboys will likely be looking hard in free agency and the draft to bolster the cornerback position. Safety is not as unsettled, and there is considerably less available in the draft, so that is going to likely remain the weakest part of the defense. However, a strong front seven should theoretically help cover that weakness, and not team is going to be strong across the board in the cap era.
All this begs the question of how can the Cowboys possibly pay to do everything they want to? There is one answer to that: Leverage the big contracts, including Romo's, to the max.
That is the possibility that Jones' remarks point towards. Mortgage the future even more to have a roster that can potentially win it all over the next three to five years. It has been discussed that the team would prefer to not touch Romo's contract this year if possible and get as much of the staggering $37.5 million in dead money he now represents off the books as it can. But if the team wants to go all in now, they can restructure Romo, along with Tyron Smith and perhaps some others, and free up the current space to do just about whatever they choose.
Is that wise? It certainly would set the team up for some lean years around 2020 or so - but the cap is growing even faster than anticipated, with multiple reports that it is going to have a base of $143 million or even a little more this year. It is a gamble, but it all hinges around that up to five year window that Romo represents. With no successor for him in sight, pushing all those chips into the middle of the table may be the only real shot Dallas has at getting to the Super Bowl in the last half of this decade.
Deciphering the Jerryspeak, that looks like exactly what the Cowboys are considering. And if they can get favorable long term deals worked out with Bryant and Murray, it may not take quite all those chips after all.
The Cowboys have built the team without having to tear it down first in the initial four years of Garrett's tenure as head coach. Now that he has a five year deal, and a quarterback who also may have about five years of effective play, this may be the time to use what he has built (and is still building) to maximum effect.
Jerry has the chips in front of him. Now we have to wait and see how many he bets.