Earlier this week, in the first installment of our "Cowboys' Offseason Plan" series, I noted Jason Garrett's preferred talent-acquisition strategy: use free agency to cover all the team's "must haves" so that they are freed from having to target (and reach for) a player at a specific position in the draft. In a perfect world, Garrett noted, the Cowboys would "draft without needs." That's all well and good in theory; in practice, however, the Cowboys have 23 players whose contracts have expired, with as many as twenty of them capable of leaving Dallas for greener ($$$) pastures.
In case you would like a reminder, here they are:
|UFA (16)||Dez Bryant||James Anderson|
|Tyler Clutts||Bruce Carter|
|Doug Free||Justin Durant|
|Dwayne Harris||Nick Hayden|
|Tony Hills||Henry Melton|
|DeMarco Murray||Rolando McClain|
|Jermey Parnell||George Selvie|
|RFA (4)||Cole Beasley||Sterling Moore|
|ERFA (3)||Ron Leary||Cam Lawrence|
Whether or not they sign their own guys to fill them, the Cowboys will have to fill twenty roster holes before they can have the "pure" draft Garrett talks about (we needn't worry about the the three Exclusive Rights FAs; they won't play anywhere else next year). As we engage in the annual thought experiment wherein we imagine we are the Dallas front-office brass looking at this roster, we must first ask a few crucial questions: what holes need to be filled? which backups are ready to compete for a starting role? what players need to be replaced?
These asked, Jason Garrett, Will McClay and the Joneses must press on: how might we best address those roster spots? via free agency? the draft? a combination of the two? Which combination will allow us to maximize our resources? How can we make long-term decisions for the future while acknowledging that we have an aging franchise quarterback? Today, as a way to begin untying this gordian knot, we'll take a quick, global look at the roster. Next week, in separate posts, I'll focus on potential strategies for the offense and defense. Finally, late next week, we'll put the overall plan together.
On to the roster as it presently stands. What I've done here is to break the team up by unit, going only three deep on the depth chart (so guys like Ken Bishop and Chris Whaley don't appear). 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 "????"). The charts below only show three RFAs this offseason (punter Chris Jones is the fourth RFA); I've marked all three with an asterisk (*). In addition, I've marked guys who might be released due to cap concerns with the dreaded triple asterisk (***).
None of this information should be particularly new or revelatory. But its important to take a look at to the overall picture when assessing how to address the team's needs globally. Here's the offensive depth chart:
Most of the offensive priorities are immediately apparent: the Cowboys must find a starting quality running back, fullback, wide receiver, and right tackle. In addition, they need a legitimate backup tackle and receiver depth. Also, several questions emerge: Do they consider Brandon Weeden to be a competent backup quarterback? Will they keep a fullback on the roster and, if they do, will they try to go younger than the 29-year-old Tyler Clutts? Do they think Ryan Williams has the juice to compete for a starting RB role? At what level do they tender Cole Beasley? How secure are they with Weems and Hawkins as their backup tackles? That's a lot to wrestle with...
And here's the defensive depth chart:
||????||Kyle Wilber||Dekoda Watson|
||????||Anthony Hitchens||Cam Lawrence|
|LCB||***Brandon Carr||Mo Claiborne
What leaps out from viewing this is that, at present, the Dallas front seven is a post-apocalyptic wasteland; they'll need to add as many as seven new players just to maintain the status quo. The holes are clear: the Cowboys must find somebody to play strongside end; procure a starting one-tech DT; and get two outside linebackers, either as starters or for depth purposes. In addition, they'll need to replace valuable backup and/ or rotation players at LDE, defensive tackle, and middle linebacker. Plus, they'll need another backup safety.
As with the offense, questions abound: will they jettison Melton and Brandon Carr for contractual reasons? How do they feel about Mo Claiborne; has his draft status earned him another year in a Cowboys uniform? Are guys they reportedly like, such as Dekoda Watson and Anthony Hitchens, ready to compete for starting jobs? Can they afford to upgrade the cornerback position?
If we count key special teams contributors (and I number Dwayne Harris And C.J. Spillman among those), there will be at least fifteen key roster spots that must be filled, and maybe more depending on what they want to do with their RFAs. The key here is determining which of these are the "must-haves" that absolutely, positively must be filled in order to have a "BPA"-style draft. And that's what we'll do in the next two posts. First, we'll address the offensive holes in greater detail, then give the defense the same business.