In order to get to where you want to be, you have to first understand where you are. NFL free agency is almost upon us. The NFL Combine is over with, and the draft is getting closer every day. The Dallas Cowboys are in a position we haven't seen in a while. They won their division and made it to the playoffs. While the team will be reshaping the roster, they are not in any kind of rebuilding mode. It is more of a continuing to build and improve situation. While all of us are eagerly looking at who might be available as bargain-priced free agents and what prospects could be there when Dallas goes on the clock (or decides to trade up or down), the team first has to figure out what it has to work with.
Every position or group on the team can stand some improvement, even if it is just for depth. But most of the 2015 roster is going to be composed of players who were with the team in 2014. Figuring out what the team already has on hand to work with has to come first.
One place the team will be looking to improve is along the defensive line. Rod Marinelli prefers players that have some position flex, so it is logical to look at the ends and tackles together, since players may line up at multiple spots during the season. Also, the way the players are designated on the roster is not always clear. The best example is Tyrone Crawford, who is still listed as an end, but who makes his contributions playing as a three-tech tackle.
Here are the players who the team currently has under some form of contract, or who are free agents that can still be re-signed if the money is right for both sides. Also, the question at this time is not whether they are going to make the 53-man roster for the season, but whether the team will retain them for the 90-man roster that those 53 will come from. At this time of year, Dallas is looking for people who will compete for a spot, not ones who will definitely make the cut in August.
The building blocks
This is a small number because these are the only players that are going to be likely starters or major contributors no matter what (outside of injury). They were all graded positively by Pro Football Focus, although Lawrence had a relatively low score due to missing so much of the season with injury. They combined for 14 of the team's 36 sacks and contributed significantly to hits and hurries (again, using PFF's accounting). These three are going to be the foundation for the team going forward.
Likely to be on the 90-man roster: All three.
The free agents
The Cowboys can try to re-sign any of these four, or let them go and hope that they might contribute to some compensatory picks next year. Of the four, Spencer is probably the most intriguing. He was fairly productive and seemed to be getting stronger by the end of the year. His age and injury history may help keep his price reasonable. As a known quantity, the team may want to work out a one- or two-year deal to see what he has in the tank.
Hayden is a bit of an enigma. He has always been at the bottom of the grades overall at PFF, but he was on the field for the third most snaps of all defensive linemen. The team seems to see his contributions very differently than PFF does. It is really hard to try and predict what the team will do with him, given the perceived depth of the position in both free agency and the draft. The best guess, with emphasis on "guess", is that the Cowboys will seek to sign him to a low-risk deal to come in and compete to keep his spot.
Melton started off strong, but faded as the year wore on. There was also a tweet that claimed the team saw him as working harder to get sacks and thereby qualify for performance bonuses than to fulfill his assignments late in the year. Dallas may still try to offer him a cheap deal, but at this time it is probably doubtful. Selvie is also doubtful, with his performance falling off a good bit from his first year with the team.
Likely to made the 90-man roster: Two, Spencer and Hayden.
On the roster at the end of the year
They were all healthy enough to finish the year on the roster and are under contract. The question is whether or not to keep them. McClain is fairly certain to stick, since he was hampered by injury but showed some flashes when he was closer to 100%. Bishop and Boatright both are believed to have upside. Brent may be the odd man out, since he is more of a space eating nose tackle and not the greatest fit for Marinelli's defense. The Cowboys have been very supportive of him as he tries to remake his life after the Jerry Brown tragedy, but it may be time for him to move on.
Likely to make the 90-man roster: Three, McClain, Bishop and Boatright.
The returning injured
Jack Crawford (Injured Reserve)
Ben Gardner (Injured Reserve)
Lavar Edwards (Injured Reserve)
Chris Whaley (Reserve/Non Injury)
Amobi Okoye (Reserve/Non Injury)
Dallas saw a lot of defensive linemen wind up the season in some kind of reserve status. Whaley and Okoye were never seen as contributors for 2014 and were essentially stashed to see what the team had in them for 2015, so logically they will be given their chance this year. Jack "The Other" Crawford was off to a very good start on the season before he went down. Gardner is much like Bishop and Boatright, a player that was thought to have a lot of upside. Of this group, only Edwards is somewhat of an uncertainty. He appeared stronger against the run than the pass, so he is the most likely to be released.
Likely to make the 90-man roster: Four, Crawford, Gardner, Whaley and Okoye.
The futures contract
He spent most of the year on the practice squad, and is another player that the fan base at least feels has potential.
Likely to make the 90-man roster: One.
Based on these projections, that is 13 defensive linemen that the Cowboys already have to work with. Even if Spencer and Hayden don't re-sign because they find better deals elsewhere or Dallas decides to move on from them, that would be 11 players the team already has. It may sign a "rent a body" free agent or two, but the real place to add to this list is in the draft. Most expect two or three college prospects to be added to this group.
That is going to give Dallas around 14 or 15 serious contenders for eight to ten spots on the final roster. There is not likely to be a great demand for "camp bodies" on the defensive line. OTAs and the minicamp are going to be very important this year. The Cowboys need to determine how many of these players are the real deal. If things do not look as good as would be hoped, then the team would be able to go back to the free agent market to replace any of the players that were not panning out. This would also mean that they would be getting any additional defensive linemen at low cost, since by that time of year the guys on the street are not going to be in a position to demand a lot.
This puts the team in pretty good shape, unless there are just a lot of clunkers in the names listed above. And it frees up cap space to be used at other positions where things are rather different.
As always, let us know how you see these evaluations. Do you think there are hits and misses here?