What is the biggest need for the Dallas Cowboys in free agency and the draft? The answer that seems to be most common is that the team needs pass rushers. Depending on what happens with DeMarco Murray, some will also point to the need to find a replacement for his production if he seeks his fortune elsewhere. But filling the needs at those two positions may not be as big a challenge as one other. The Cowboys also have a major problem brewing at cornerback, and unlike the situation on the defensive line and at running back, it is going to be a real challenge to figure out what to do there.
The running back issue is one where there are a variety of options. The team has not given up on re-signing Murray, the draft is replete with prospects who should thrive and who look to be distributed throughout the draft, and there are persistent if somewhat suspect reports about Adrian Peterson wanting to come play in Dallas. With the quality of the offensive line that the Cowboys will field, whoever gets the starting job at running back should be quite effective.
Similarly, the situation along the defensive line has a variety of possible answers. There are a lot of potential players already on the roster or about to become free agents, plus the draft is also deep in quality defensive linemen.
Most importantly, there is only one real cap issue involved for the Cowboys in addressing running back and defensive line, and that is the Murray situation. This has been hashed out repeatedly, and if Murray moves on, the Cowboys will almost certainly not need to tie up as much cap money for his replacement, however that works out.
But cornerback is a much more complicated situation. At running back, Dallas got much more than it expected in 2014, and now needs to find a way to maintain the production. The defensive line did not get enough pressure on quarterbacks, but for the most part the players were seen as playing as hard as they could, and some of them like Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jeremy Mincey provide a foundation to build on.
The issue at cornerback is that the two players who were supposed to be the answer at this point are instead the problem. Both joined the team in 2012. Brandon Carr was signed to a huge $50 million free agent contract and Dallas traded up to grab Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick of the draft. The team was confident that the two would combine to shut things down in the secondary for years to come.
Instead, Claiborne has been plagued by a series of injuries that have limited both his time on the field and his development. Carr has not been nearly what the team expected when they invested so much. Yet they represent two of the six biggest projected cap hits for the team in 2015. Meanwhile, the best cornerback on the team is almost certainly Orlando Scandrick, who is just behind Claiborne on the cap list, but is earning his keep.
Todd Archer took a look at the cap situation for Dallas from a perspective of where as far as positions the team had invested the most cap. It also points out that three of the top seven cap hits overall, and of the four top defensive cap hits, are cornerbacks.
The issue for Dallas seems to be having put too much of their precious cap resource into cornerbacks. Carr's contract includes $8 million guaranteed, and Claiborne represents $5.175 million in dead money if he were to be cut. With the recent reports that Claiborne may not be ready to practice until sometime after training camp starts, the Cowboys face a dilemma. Even if Claiborne does finally get fully healthy, itself not a given, there is no assurance he will finally begin to play at the level the Cowboys want him to. Meanwhile, Dallas is looking to work out a new, cheaper deal with Carr, but he may not be wiling to cooperate. The Cowboys could cut him and gain his $8 million salary in cap space, but then the question becomes who plays corner? They would have to not only replace Carr, but would have to also try to find someone who can step up to take Claiborne's spot if needed. The Cowboys will almost certainly be looking for cornerbacks in the draft and free agency this year, but it cannot afford to spend a lot of money the way they did when they hired Carr.
Ironically, it is the attempt to solve the problem at corner by throwing money and draft picks at it that caused this in the first place. When both the anticipated solutions turned out to just lead to more questions, the Cowboys were trapped by their contacts. The recent approach to free agents may be at least partially a result of the lesson learned with Carr. Henry Melton was brought in to play a similar role as Carr, providing badly needed help at the weakest place on defense, but his contract was constructed to provide the easy out for Dallas.
Now the Cowboys are going to have to try to solve the cornerback question again. Do they keep one or both of the incumbents? Can they afford to just rely on them? If they bring in new corners, they won't be able to keep everyone, so they don't want to invest too much in new players since they probably can't keep everyone.
This is not only a problem that is going to be hard to solve now. it is a warning about taking care when you try to fix roster issues. There has to be a fallback plan, or you may be caught in the kind of situation that Dallas has with Carr and Claiborne. There is no easy way out, and the cap is likely to be negatively affected no matter what they do. Throwing resources at things is not going to ensure a workable solution.