Free agency is not yet a full week old, and Cowboys fans have already run the gamut of emotion. We've laughed at other teams and been dismayed at our own. Here are some random thoughts on what the Cowboys have done in free agency.
1. The Running Back Situation:
There's been a lot of bad feelings about the Darren McFadden signing. Most of this negativity comes from the mistaken belief that McFadden has been signed as a replacement to DeMarco Murray. But that's not the case. The Cowboys have said they view McFadden as a backup running back who can provide some explosive plays out of the backfield. In other words, he's been signed to compete with Lance Dunbar.
From what I understand, McFadden is an excellent pass protector, an area that Dunbar was very lacking in (although he was game for it). According to Spotrac, McFadden's cap hit is $1.15M...if he makes the roster. That's a little less than Dunbar is scheduled to make.
So we've signed McFadden to compete with Dunbar as our third down back. That's Dunbar's optimum role, but because of his struggles in pass protection, it wasn't one he could really fulfill. I expect them to battle it out in training camp with Dunbar having the slight edge due to his youth. But since his tender is non-guaranteed, if his pass protection isn't up to par, he's gone. And if he does win the job, we cut McFadden with minimal pain.
In other words, we're really looking at two separate tiers of running back. Ryan Williams, Joseph Randle, and "Running back to be drafted" are all fighting for the primary and back up spot, with the loser probably off the roster. Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden are fighting for the third down spot, again with the loser off the roster.
2. How the Cole Beasley Signing Impacted DeMarco Murray:
One of the most important improvements from 2013 to 2014 was Dallas's ability to convert third downs. In 2013 Dallas only converted 35% of third downs, but that number jumped to 47.1% in 2014. That ability to convert kept drives alive, and the offense on the field, which was a boon both offensively and defensively.
It's also one of the reasons why losing DeMarco Murray hurt so badly. DeMarco Murray converted 61.5% of his third down carries, gaining 16 first downs on 26 tries. On 3rd and less than three yards, that number goes up to 76.2%. Yes, Dallas will probably be able to replace his aggregate value using a combination of running backs. But what about his situational value? On 3rd and three will Joseph Randle or Ryan Williams be able to pick up a first down with the entire defense keying to stop the run?
Some of the slack will have to come through the air. Last year Jason Witten led the Cowboys (and all TE's) with 22 third down conversion receptions. But eventually Witten will decline, and somebody else is going to have to step up on third down.
Say hello to Cole Beasley and his new four-year contract. On passes traveling less than 10 yards Beasley put up the following stats:
34 receptions on 45 targets (75.5% catch rate), 374 yards (11.0 ypc) and 193 yards after the catch (5.68/catch).
Dallas knew that they might not be able to keep Murray. So they had to have a plan to replace him; not necessarily his total production, but his situational value. Murray was valuable at keeping drives alive, and there are two players on the Cowboys roster with the skill set to do just that, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. With Witten aging and Murray possibly leaving, it was imperative that Dallas resign Beasley to a long-term deal, which they did. And once Beasley was signed, Dallas had someone to help in picking up third downs, making it easier to stick to their price tag.
3. The Corner Conundrum:
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Dallas declined to make a tender to Sterling Moore. Well, last night Dallas claimed a potential replacement. At first glance it might sound crazy to think that Corey White could replace Sterling Moore. Although neither set the world on fire, Moore grades out much higher, scoring a 3.7 per PFF, compared to White's -17.8.
A closer look though, shows remarkably similar players:
A couple of things to think about: Moore was the nickel cornerback in Dallas, while Corey White was the number 2 corner for the Saints, so it's hard to draw direct comparisons when looking at the numbers. Another interesting thought: according to Broadus, Corey White has issues tackling (even though he gave up less YAC than Moore) and is primarily a man corner. Could this mean that Dallas is going to play more man this upcoming season? Here is the final thought on our newest corner, compliments of BirdDog:
Glad to see Corey white with the Cowboys, Rob Ryan dropped the ball with this kid. Very versatile DB just needs help with footwork— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) March 15, 2015
4. Dallas is Full of Fullbacks:
This might be the most unusual thing that has happened so far in free agency; Dallas has signed two fullbacks. Consider me nonplussed. The only real thing I can make of this is it plays to Garrett's love of competition. No player (even the fullback!) is guaranteed a spot, they are going to have to beat somebody out for it.
5: The Process:
Which is all part of Jason Garrett's process. This has been a really interesting off-season, because we have been able to see Dallas stick to its process in real time. Many people (but not you faithful BTB readers!) were amazed that Dallas was able to stick to its guns with DeMarco Murray, and that Dallas hasn't been a big spender in free agency. They shouldn't be, because it's all part of the plan.
To whit; Dallas believes that you plug holes in free agency and you find building blocks through the draft. You don't want to give out big contracts in free agency, not just because you're probably overspending, but because free agency is almost as big of a gamble as the draft. I've talked in the past how important fit is; it's not enough to have talent, a player needs to fit (schematically, personally, and culturally) with the team to be successful. When you sign a free agent from another team, you may be able to predict the talent you're bringing in, but you have no idea of the fit.
So big contracts are for home-grown players that have shown to be productive and to fit into the Cowboys organization. You build internally, using the draft to find your building blocks and for cheap depth, and using free agency to plug holes as needed. It's not exciting, and it may take a while to bear fruit, but this is the new Cowboy way, and I believe it's what winning franchises do.