Now that the NFL has wrapped up its annual Underwear Olympics, all 32 teams' scouting types have rushed back home to digest all the information (and misinformation) they gleaned in Indianapolis. Yes, it's a bad idea to allow Combine results to outweigh - or even seriously alter - the tape review that is the basis for establishing player grades. Nevertheless, a lot can be learned from watching guys run around in skin-tight and neon-bright Under Armour togs. For Cowboys fans, some players at positions of interest emerged, secured their draft status, or presented questions that must be answered.
Most importantly, members of the Cowboys' organizational triumvirate met seriously with the media for the first time in a long while. On Saturday, aboard the Cowboys team megabus, Jerry Jones held court with Dallas area reporters, and supplemented opinions we had heard from Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones earlier in the week. What happens when we parse some of their quotes and mix them up with a heapin' spoonful of Combine test results? A useful addendum to our "Offseason Plan" series, of course!
Dez Bryant ain't going anywhere. At every juncture, the Cowboys have publicly declared that they want Number 88 to be a Cowboy for life. Aboard the bus, Jerry noted that he'd like an "agreement for a long time to come" with Dez. He also confirmed that the team was very close to getting such a deal done in the early part of the season, just as Bryant changed agents and the deal was scrapped. Since Dez changed agents, Jerry admitted, they've talked to the player, but "haven't had timely or substantive negotiations" with his agent, Tom Condon. Still, as he pointed out, this silence shouldn't be taken as a sign that talks have stalled or that the two parties are at loggerheads. Rather, it's par for the course; as Stephen Jones told the media, "when two sides are ready, it doesn't take any time."
So, even though, as Stephen Jones told reporters, the team is likely to franchise Bryant in the next week or so, the tag serves largely as a placeholder, to secure Dez's services until a long-term deal can be worked out with his new representation. As Jerry said, there's a much better way to manage their cap, both this year and in future, and that's to settle on a long-term contract.
The Cowboys want to re-sign DeMarco Murray, but at the right price. In his Saturday sit-down, Jerry Jones suggested that the team has a "range" for Murray, a flexible set of parameters - Jones called them "brackets." Exactly what will flex and what will make it flex are unknown, but one can safely assume that there is a reasonable spending ceiling; as Jones told reporters, "we have limitations on what you can allocate" if they are to get the rest of their deals done.
As a result, Dallas will have to engage in a high-risk, high-reward proposition: allow Murray to test free agency to determine his value and then, provided the market for him doesn't outstrip Jones's flexible parameters, make him a fair market offer. The upside of this strategy is that they don't have to "set the market" for Murray; the downside is that they risk losing him to a team willing to pay above-market value so they can show their fans that they care: "See, we went out and got you an NFL rushing champion. Buy season tickets!" With that in mind...
The Cowboys would prefer a running-back-by-committee approach, and are prepared for Murray not to be a part of the committee. Jerry, noting that Murray's carries diminished in the last half as opposed to the first half of the season told reporters that, in 2015, "we may have two backs." He intimated that a prime objective is to lighten the lead back's load to keep him fresh for late in the season and into the playoffs.
And it's possible that neither of them will be Murray. Jerry admitted that the team did a study in which they looked at the last time the team had three All-Pro offensive linemen - Marion Barber and Felix Jones were the primary backs - and they concluded that, as a team, they had roughly the same yardage as the 2014 Murray-led Cowboys did. The implication is that it's the O-line, not Murray, that most strongly impacts the running game; as Jones the Elder noted, "you're getting about the same number of yards with either back..."
The Cowboys first priority is to upgrade the defensive talent. Jerry pointed out that they have a lot of money allocated to the offense - which is fine, since they have shown that they can win by apportioning their resources that way. That said, he made it clear that they have to "be cognizant" of the need to secure more talent on that side of the ball. And, when pressed, Jerry confessed that the position they most need is pass rush. Garrett seconded this motion, noting that "you put too much of a stress and a burden on the guys in the back end if you're not around" the opposing quarterback, adding that "any time you can add talent as a pass rusher, it can positively impact your team."
As they did last year, they want to pursue edge players, but don't want to be "held hostage" by the need. Jones the Elder admitted that this is what happened last year, when the Cowboys had to give up considerable draft capital to obtain DeMarcus Lawrence, but insisted that they wouldn't be in the same position this year, adding that it was entirely possible that Dallas could (and probably wants to) emerge from the first couple of rounds with defensive players.
Re-signing former Cowboys is priority one. The key on both sides of the ball is that the Cowboys maintain before they upgrade; as Jerry said, this is because "they come in more familiar." Dallas must retain some percentage of their own free agents before they can go about the work of engineering talent upgrades. Stephen Jones told reporters that keeping core assets in silver and blue is the first and most important order of business in the coming weeks. Echoing this, Jerry conceded that the Dez and DeMarco deals were keys, but that they "are all in context" with re-ups for players like Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris.
All of this will be much easier when the 2015 salary cap is announced. Although the Cowboys haven't exactly been operating in the dark, they have perhaps been doing so in dim light, since they don't know exactly where the 2015 cap will be set. So, they can speculate all they like about what percentage of their cap pie a given player or position is going to take up, but that's exactly what it is: speculation. How can one judge the size of a slice if one doesn't know how big the pie is? As soon as the league announces the cap figure - estimates are that it will be around $143 million - they can begin to make concrete offers. Once that happens, I'd expect a slew of deals to happen in fairly rapid succession.
Stephen did say that the uncertainty surrounding the cap most directly impacts their ability to sign the big-ticket guys; the players likely to sign smaller deals can be signed regardless of the final cap figure; indeed, he suggested that they have been making headway in signing several of them - but just wouldn't say which ones.
This is a strong draft for pass rushers, but Dallas is in a bit of pickle in that regard. One of the storylines to emerge from Indianapolis was the shocking talent of this crop of pass rushers. Two men in particular - Clemson's Vic Beasley and Kentucky's Bud Dupree - blew up the Combine, confirming the flashes scouts have seen on tape. By doing so, both elevated their draft status to the point where the Cowboys have no chance at them without a significant (and foolish) trade up.
Perhaps more importantly, many of the most dynamic edge players in this draft class look to be ideal fits for different schemes; there are a lot of 3-4 OLBs among the luminaries in this group. Sure, many of these guys have been on pundits' prospect lists as 4-3 ends, but the Combine showed us that most are just too small to hold up in the run game against big NFL offensive tackles. Check it: Missouri’s Shane Ray weighed in at 245. Clemson’s Vic Beasley was 246, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory was only 235 and Virginia’s Eli Harold was 247. Do you want any of them setting the edge against a power tackle?
Dallas already has spent a lot of draft capital on an undersized, open-side rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence. What they need to find most desperately in this draft's first round is a 4-3 strongside end - a guy who can set the edge and give a little pass rush. In short, they need a young Anthony Spencer, a player capable of being a dynamic force against both run and pass. The problem, of course, is that there aren't very many of those outside of Dupree, who appears to be this draft's version of Ziggy Ansah, a talented dude who skyrockets up boards to land in the top eight or ten picks.
As a result, my current frontrunner for the 27th pick is UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
The Cowboys might well chase defense throughout the draft. Going into the 2015 draft, my fear was that the Cowboys would spend the entire affair chasing pass rush; indeed, they earmarked multiple defensive players in last year's first round but the picks didn't break the way they wanted, and they had to spend considerable capital to secure the last viable edge rusher. Looking at the positions and players who emerged during the Combine, my fear is that we could see a repeat of last year's affair, down to the fact that they once again take on O-lineman in round one.
Indeed, Jones admitted as much on the bus, acknowledging that drafting a first round offensive lineman once more was a distinct possibility...
Thanks to free agency, the linebacker positions are in flux. Responding to questions about Sean Lee and where he might play in 2015, Jason Garrett posited that it depended on who was on the roster, then told reporters he could play the Mike or Will, which suggests that the team has been considering possible lineup combinations involving Lee, McClain, and perhaps Justin Durant.
Unless they strike out in free agency, the Cowboys are highly unlikely to draft a linebacker on the draft's first two days. During the week in Indy, it was pointed out that the base defense for teams that play from ahead is the nickle, which means that the eleventh defensive starter is the third corner, not the third linebacker. Given that the Cowboys have become this kind of team, their need to secure a linebacker in the first two days seems to be rather low, unless they secure a really dynamic player at great value - a guy they like as much as they did Ryan Shazier last year. On the other hand...
Cornerback may well be atop the Cowboys' draft to-do list. Not only is the above true, but the Cowboys have myriad questions at corner: Mo Claiborne's recovery timetable is still uncertain (Jerry: "Mo's circumstances are problematic for us"); Brandon Carr's contract is onerous and team-unfriendly (the team met with his agent in Indy); Sterling Moore is a restricted free agent. In fact, Orlando Scandrick is the only sure thing among the team's top four CBs. If we fast-forward to 2015, it's easy to envision a scenario in which he is the only one of these guys still on the roster.
In recent years, the Cowboys have shown themselves to be forward-thinking in this regard; they have drafted replacements for players they expect to release or not re-sign in advance of their leaving, so that the rookie has a developmental year before taking over full-time (the notable example here is Terrance Williams, who learned the ropes playing alongside Miles Austin in 2013 before taking over for him in 2014). If we take this as a model, then it stands to reason that Dallas will draft at least one CB this year, and maybe two.
The list of players with whom the Cowboys scheduled interviews suggests that they will draft a runner in April. Because there are so many talented backs and receivers in this class that they will perpetually be at the top of Dallas' board when they're on the clock in April, there will be multiple opportunities to get value at these positions. As Jones suggested when he intimated that the team would prefer a two (or more) back system, the Cowboys need backup running backs on whom they can rely, whether or not Murray is here in 2015.
That said, Jerry said that a proven running back is better than one that is drafted high, since he is a known commodity, something that can't be said of any rookie, no matter where he is drafted.
The Cowboys wlll try to balance short-term and long-term thinking, with short term perhaps winning out. When asked about decision making vis a vis the age of his franchise quarterback, Jerry told reporters that he and Romo are both short-termers in their thinking, and confessed that he is factoring that into his decisions. The question is: to what degree. When pressed by Todd Archer about whether that would mean getting back into cap jeopardy, Jerry backpedaled a bit, suggesting he'd prefer not to go that route.
The Combine shows how huge football has gotten. Per Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the number of media at the Combine has gone up an astronomical 5300% since 2000. That's a shocking growth rate.