Free agency has settled down for the Dallas Cowboys, although it is almost certainly not done. Unlike the draft, which has a fixed start and end, free agency is ongoing throughout the league year. Teams can sign new players from those available anytime from the start of free agency until the season ends for each franchise. But the first two weeks or so are when the bulk of major signings happen. From now on, it is more going to be a matter of tweaking things, signing someone due to an injury or other concern, or perhaps seizing an unexpected opportunity.
Now the main focus is going to be on the draft. The Cowboys have a clearly expressed philosophy of filling needs in free agency so as to be able to focus on the best players that are still available rather than having to focus on certain positions. (Best player in this context refers to how the Cowboys have the players rated on their own draft board, not just the most talented player overall.) Once the draft is complete there will be the flurry of undrafted free agent signings, and then Dallas will likely be revisiting the general pool of free agents to compensate for whatever weaknesses are left after the draft.
The general perception is that the Greg Hardy signing was the last major acquisition for Dallas prior to the draft. And despite the talent over needs approach mentioned above, it seems everyone is trying to figure out what positions are the highest priorities for Dallas. Most of that analysis seems to focus on the starters and a few backups. However, another way to view this is to examine the entire roster Dallas currently has. When looked at that way, there are some unexpected things that jump out.
At this time of year, there are some difficulties in this approach. According to the Over the Cap site, Dallas now has 66 players under contract with about $1.5 million in space unused, but no figures are available on either the Nick Hayden or Ray Agnew deals. It is possible that the team will have to make some kind of cap adjustment before they can finalize those, so things are always subject to change. The team roster available at DallasCowboys.com still lists free agents that have not signed with the team or elsewhere, most notably Anthony Spencer and Rolando McClain. It also has a couple of outright errors (which have been brought to the attention of their staff writer David Helman, but will likely not be corrected for several days, since he has to get with the admin types who handle that). However, as best as I can tell, here is a summation of the roster and what it might mean for the plans going forward.
Some things are set, like the special teams. Some competition and camp bodies are already signed. Tight end is also going to be a low priority (possibly nonexistent) for the draft, since the team seems to believe that Gavin Escobar is a good backup for the evergreen Jason Witten, and James Hanna has carved out a role as an in-line blocker that still has to be covered if he goes out for a pass. Fullback has two players set up to compete for the job, and given the limited number of plays that Dallas runs with one on the field, this is probably all they need.
Quarterback is interesting. The recent pro day at Baylor saw Wade Wilson and others from the Cowboys taking a good look at Bryce Petty and scheduling a visit for him to Valley Ranch. While he does not seem at all worth a high pick at this point, this may show that the team might want to look for a quarterback late in the draft to come in and compete with Dustin Vaughan as the developmental guy. Given recent history, they will probably roll with Brandon Weeden as the veteran backup.
Running back is almost certainly going to be one position where Dallas spends a draft pick, both because the draft is famously deep there, and because the team only has four running backs in the fold, including a pure change of pace back in Lance Dunbar and the less-than-trusted Joseph Randle. Wide receiver is also a position that has some depth in the draft, and with only six wideouts signed, including only four known quantities in Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and the little used Devin Street, Dallas is going to need several more names there just to handle the workload in training camp. UDFAs are frequently signed in quantity here, and the brief success of Miles Austin with the team shows that Dallas can sometimes hit on one this way.
The offensive line is where the numbers get very interesting. The loss of Jermey Parnell in free agency after the team committed to Doug Free as the incumbent starter has led to speculation that a swing tackle could be a target fairly early in the draft, but the team already has eight tackles signed (at least according to how they are listed), including players like Darrion Weems and John Wetzel that they have gotten some good looks at in practices. This might not be the priority in the staff's eyes that it is in ours. What might be a real need for Dallas is the interior of the line. The only center they have is Travis Frederick, Ronald Leary and Zack Martin are the guards, and Mackenzy Bernadeau was the backup for all three interior line positions. That is it. The team made it through the season with them, but with the emphasis on competition in camp, they are going to want to have more than that by July. And the emphasis on the line argues in favor of looking for a guard that might fall a bit relative to how the Cowboys have him graded. It will be interesting to see if any guards or guard/centers wind up on the invite list to come visit.
The Hardy signing was huge for the defensive line, but the logic is that pass rushers do not produce much as rookies, so it still rings true that the Cowboys will be watching for a good value in the early rounds at defensive end to start grooming a replacement for Hardy if he does turn out to be just a one-year fix. But the Cowboys have seven ends already signed. Likewise, they also have seven tackles, when you count Tyrone Crawford as a 3-tech, which is where he is now used. With those numbers, including the re-signing of Nick Hayden, it looks more and more like a defensive lineman will have to meet the "best player" criteria for the Cowboys to use a high pick on him. The relative depth here would make that a real possibility, but it should not be something the team would be tempted to reach on.
Linebacker is another position where the numbers are fairly robust, despite the increasing signs that Rolando McClain and the team are going to part ways. They have 11 under contract, and it looks like the team is confident that the recent acquisition of Andrew Gachkar and Jasper Brinkley have them in pretty good shape there.
The secondary is one place the team looks short. There are seven cornerbacks, if you count C.J. Spillman, who is really a special teams ace/safety, and it is not at all certain that the team will keep Brandon Carr, given the $8 million in immediate cap space releasing him could bring. And there are only five safeties. If you are looking for positions where the Cowboys might want to go really heavy in the draft, then defensive back may be a good bet.
Although this is just a quantitative look, it suggests that the top four needs for the team at this point may actually be safety, cornerback, running back, and interior offensive line. Defensive end, defensive tackle, offensive tackle, linebacker, wide receiver, and developmental quarterback would be the next set of priorities. That is rather different than most evaluations. As mentioned, the players the team invites for visits are going to be a clue to what the team is thinking about. Keep these numbers in mind as you watch for more indications about what the Cowboys are thinking going into the draft.