When Bill Parcells was the Cowboys head coach, he often told the media that his job, in terms of personnel, was to have a plan for all available contingencies. He spent a great deal of his time and energy developing a plan for any possible personnel scenario that might unfold, whether it be due to injury, declining production, or contract problems. Parcells was a notorious worry-wort. I can see why; with 53 guys on a roster, there are a seemingly infinite number of permutations, many of them bad, likely to dance in a coach's head.
The Cowboys personnel guys are now in meetings, coming up with their own set of contingencies. First they must evaluate the roster, determining who needs to be replaced, who deserves a promotion to a starting or key backup role, and how best to fill the roster holes created by expired contracts, retirements, contract casualties, or other cuts. Then, in addition, they must consider which positions are under-performing and need to be upgraded. Once this has been figured out, the real work begins: what avenues can be explored to get the maximum roster improvement for the minimum expenditure of resources?
When determining this, it's important to consider what might be available in the draft. Each draft has strengths at particular positions - and, for those positions, across specific rounds - and weaknesses at others. These positional spikes impact draft strategies. In recent years, the Cowboys seem to have taken this to heart. In 2010, they looked hard at OL and WR - both strong positions in that draft. In 2011, we again saw them tap three positions of strength: OT, CB, LB. 2012, it was offensive guard, the richest position in the entire shootin' match, and in 2013 they looked at a lot of linebackers and safeties, both strong positions. In 2014, we saw them invite a passel of OG types (some of whom played OT in college) and, if they had their druthers, they would have drafted two of them.
When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that at these strong positions good players will drop. That's how Dallas ended up with Devin Street - who they had tagged as a third-round talent - and almost ended up with Trai Thomas later than they had him graded. When pursued over the long term, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. In recent years, Dallas seems to have realized this, and strategized accordingly.
This April, the positions of strength appear to be running back, wide receiver (once again) and defensive end, a combination that works in the Cowboys favor as they are likely to be looking for at least one of each, and perhaps more than one DE. Also good news is that good players can be found at running back and strong-side end into the third and perhaps even fourth rounds, so Dallas doesn't absolutely have to select these positions in rounds one and two. Should a higher-rated player at another position fall to them at pick 27, they can nab him and still address needs on days two and three.
In Part I of this series, we looked at the Cowboys' stated intention to use free agency in order to fill roster holes so that they don't have any "must-haves" coming into the draft. At the same time, the strength of the 2015 draft class should impact Dallas' free agency plans, as it would be imprudent to pursue big-ticket free agents at positions where the draft class is bountiful, particularly when the team has so many roster holes to fill. And, if you had a chance to read Part II of this series, you know that the Cowboys have a lot of holes to fill.
With all that said, what might the plan look like? Today, I'll start with the offense; next, I'll do the same with the defense. Then we'll look at the overall plan of action. Let's begin by revisiting our handy-dandy positional needs chart, which appeared in our most recent installment. 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 "????"). They only have two offensive RFAs (Cole Beasley and Lance Dunbar); I've marked both with an asterisk (*).
|SE||????||*Cole Beasley||Devin Street|
|LG||Ronald Leary||Mackenzy Bernadeau|
What might we do with this information? Let's try to address this step by step, starting with what we definitely know:
1. The Cowboys would prefer to re-sign their own players. Unlike previous offseasons during Jason Garrett's tenure, wherein the team has happily let players go so they could go young or find better locker room guys, almost everyone of these holes represents a guy they would like to keep. Certainly this is true of DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, and Cole Beasley. And it's probably the case with Doug Free and/ or Jermey Parnell as well as with Lance Dunbar. I'd be surprised to see them expend great effort to re-sign Tyler Clutts (who is 30) or Dwayne Harris, who will probably command more than their salary structure can justify.
2. Bringing back DeMarco Murray is iffy. While it's certain we will see Dez Bryant in a Cowboys uniform in 2015 (and beyond), the same scenario seems less likely when applied to Number 29. I believe the Cowboys have a clear set of parameters above which they will not go (in terms of both years and guaranteed money) so, with that in mind, the key question is: what kind of premium will the market bear? If other teams are reluctant to pony up huge money for a back with an injury history and a lot of 2014 carries, then there's a chance. But it only takes one team...
3. They have to get at least one right tackle before the draft. Whether it's Doug Free, Jermey Parnell, or another veteran, the Cowboys one gaping hole on offense is at RT. After spending so much on the O-line in terms of developmental time and draft capital, Dallas cannot afford to go into 2014 with a weak spot on what will once again need to be their most dominant unit. As noted above, I suspect their preference is to get one of their own guys. Which will they prefer? Parnell's more desirable age, raw strength, and career upside or Free's better feet, technique and veteran presence?
4. The Cowboys suddenly look to be in need of offensive line depth. One of the most pleasing aspects of 2014 was the level of play Dallas got from its back-up offensive linemen. Free missed games 7-9, as well as 15-16 and both post-season contests; Ron Leary joined him on the bench against the Cardinals. In both instances players, namely Parnell and Mackenzy Bernadeau, came off the bench and acquitted themselves well. Bernie returns, but upgrades over Darrion Weems and Donald Hawkins would help me to sleep at night.
Given what we know, what kind of plan might emerge? Extrapolating from the above evidence, I'd expect to see something like this:
Re-sign Dez Bryant: This is offseason priority number one. Not only is he a top-five (heck, he's probably a top two) wideout, but he's become this team's version of Michael Irvin, the heart and soul (and lungs) of a tough, confident, physical squad. I'd be shocked if he's not a Cowboy for the foreseeable future; the question right now is: What kind of contract can and should the Cowboys get him to sign? Given that the cap is going up, and the Cowboys' cap situation has improved of late, I'd think a long-term deal that delays giving him big base salaries in years two and three of the deal would be a sensible option.
Play hardball with DeMarco Murray. As awesome as he was in 2014, especially when it comes to the "dirty yards," pass blocking and physical attitude that Jason Garrett found so valuable, history has show that it's fiscally imprudent to sign free agent running backs, especially when they are coming off high-volume seasons. Since I value all the characteristics I just listed, I make Murray an offer - but it has to be one that won't hurt the team should he suddenly and swiftly decline, as Marion Barber did in 2010. So, I avoid making an emotional decision and decide the team friendly numbers I'm willing to shell out, and go no higher.
Draft a wide receiver early on the third day. Much as they did with Devin Street in 2014, I think the Cowboys can find good value at the position in the fourth or fifth rounds in April, keeping the WR pipeline replenished in response to the likely departure of Dwayne Harris. Given that Street will push for more snaps in 2015, the Cowboys don't need a guy to step right in on offense; on the other hand, it would be a bonus if he were a plus special teams player.
Sign Doug Free to a two-year deal. Although some observers consider him the O-line's weak link - and he may be - Free is an important veteran presence in position group meetings, and does a lot of things well. Moreover, I'm convinced that the Cowboys offense played its best ball of the season in the three weeks before he was injured. That said, he's a bit long in the tooth, so what applied to Murray applies here: no deals that the team will live to regret. A nice two-year contract that will allow him to be a bridge to a younger player, at which point Travis Frederick will be ready to take over position meetings? Yes please.
Find a low-cost free agent offensive tackle. Frankly, this offseason's tallest order may be replacing Jermey Parnell. Starting-caliber OTs are such rare commodities that getting one in free agency is going to be costly. What the Cowboys need to do is to find the OT version of Mackenzy Bernadeau; when Dallas signed him, they nabbed a versatile, young (26), and relatively cheap player - a guy who, as noted above, is capable of stepping in and starting without the team suffering a Cory Proctor-level drop-off. A guy who fits that bill is former Titan Byron Stingily, a big, athletic man who spent his time in Tennessee learning the position. He can backup both OT positions.
Draft the Cowboys RT of the future. As previously mentioned, the Cowboys have spent a lot of draft capital on their offensive line of late. Although they'd probably prefer to address other positions, they can certainly justify going to the well once more. And, although neither Free nor Parnell were premium picks, that level of performance would most likely require a first or second round pick. If they can somehow get this player on the third day? That would be a tremendous success...
Find a cheap free agent fullback. As noted above, Tyler Clutts is 30; it's time to move on. This is not a position they have had tremendous luck with in the draft (including UDFAs), with the likes of JC Copeland and Shaun Chapas. Where they have had some small modicum of luck is with free agents (I'm thinking of Clutts as well as Tony Fiammetta, not so much of Lawrence Vickers). Since FA fullbacks aren't top-drawer earners, I think they can get a good value-for-demonstrated-performance ratio here. This is a position that can wait until late in the offseason, especially if they don't re-sign Murray. Who knows what alignments the new starter might prefer?
Draft a one-cut running back. Even if the Cowboys do decide to re-up Murray, they should already be on the lookout for his replacement. This is a very strong and deep year for running backs; the Cowboys should take advantage of that depth by getting a collegiate back who demonstrates vision and the ability to plant and go. The round here is less important than the fact that they get value. Given the current valuation of the position, that shouldn't be terribly difficult.
Find a UDFA Punter: Chris Jones is a restricted free agent. The Cowboys may tender him, but it should be at a low level. Yes, he's Dan Bailey's preferred holder, and that's worth something. But if the Cowboys are going to disrupt the snap-and-hold operation in the interests of better (and cheaper) punting, now's the time to do it.
Looking this over, we have three or four necessary offensive free agent acquisitions, with the most likely being Bryant (a certainty) and Free (which I'd put above Murray in terms of likelihood). Later in the process, I could see them obtaining a fullback, possibly as late as the run-up to training camp. Also, I could see two or three potential draft picks: RB and OT could come anywhere in the draft; WR should come late if at all. In addition, there's a likely UDFA need at punter.
We'll revisit these once we've reviewed the defensive plan, so check back in to see some musings upon that side of the ball, followed up by a comprehensive overall look at an offseason plan in which we'll look at and prioritize all of the team's needs.
Until then: Go Cowboys!