The draft may still be three months out, but free agency is only six weeks away. Many of us love constructing our own draft boards, but why not try to put together a board for free agency? With the help of my colleagues, I am in the process of assembling a Free Agent Big Board.
In order to construct the board, I am going to be ranking players based on the collective scores from three categories:
- Position Need
The first part of this series will take a look at the Cowboys needs based on the talent gaps they have on the roster. Speculating how the Cowboys front office views the team can be tricky. Last season many fans expected the team to make a strong investment in the running back position, but they surprised a lot of people with some bargain price acquisitions. Running back is just not one of the most high demand positions, especially when you look at how inexpensive it is to get solid production from the next available replacement. In order to determine just how important each position is, you have to follow the money. I have broken up the positions into four tiers.
TIER ONE - The Magnificent Seven
Our pal, KD Drummond coined the phrase, "the money five" as he referred to the QB, WR, LT, CB, and DE positions, but I will see his money five and raise him two more spots to create the "magnificent seven." Looking at the money distribution of the top 70 players in the league, more and more linebackers and defensive tackles are starting to be included with these other positions. Having a stud linebacker is crucial and we are seeing more high priced guys like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner running around the league. Similarly, a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line is also important as players like Ndamukong Suh and Haloti Ngata are cashing in and jacking up the defensive tackle market value. Eight DTs had an average salary of at least $9 million last season, with the Cowboys' Tyrone Crawford bring up the rear. And if you look at the top paid players for Dallas in 2015, you'd find all seven of these positions in the top eight spots, with the ultra-special Jason Witten also in the mix.
TIER TWO - The high snap-count starters
Essentially, every other starting position that is on the field for most of the game falls into the second tier. The backup quarterback is the only exception. There is such a large range between the value of a backup quarterback because it is so dependent on the status of the team's starting QB. Considering all the other #2 options of the "magnificent seven" fall into this tier, the #2 quarterback should be no different. If he's out on the field playing, he's extremely important.
TIER THREE - The low snap-count starters
These players have their playing time cut back a bit depending on the type of package the team is employing on any given play. Second tight ends, slot receivers, pass rushing specialists, and third-down/change-of-pace running backs all fall into this group.
TIER FOUR - Next man up
This group includes the best bench player at each of the backup positions that have not already been placed into a higher group. They are just an injury away from seeing significant action.
So what did the Cowboys roster look like heading into free agency last season?
GREEN = strong YELLOW = solid RED = liability
Taking a look at the Cowboys most notable free agent signings last offseason, showed that the money followed these needs.
Coming off the divisional playoff let-down in Lambeau, the front office knew they needed some big help at defensive end. Stephen Jones said he would be diligent in upgrading the position and he wasn't lying. So it shouldn't have been too surprising when the Cowboys acquired one of the top free agent pass rushers on the market by signing Greg Hardy. Not only was the defensive end position the weakest of the "magnificent seven" group, it also was weak in the other tiers as well.
The next most expensive free agent added was Doug Free. Re-signing Free became a big deal because the Cowboys had no other tackle on the roster. Swing tackle Jeremy Parnell was also a free agent, so it was important to make sure that they retained one of these guys.
Since the third wide receiver sees a lot of snaps, the need to retain Cole Beasley was high. Plus, his skillset as a slot receiver is not one that can be easily replaced.
The Cowboys played the majority of their snaps out of the nickel package, but the need for linebacker depth was an important one. The Cowboys would have three of their own players hitting free agency - Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, and Rolando McClain. And with this position being notorious for getting banged up, the Cowboys needed to find some good options to fill in. Jasper Brinkley was signed and Rolando McClain was given another one-year deal to so he could be paired alongside Sean Lee at the linebacker position.
Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar were two discount free agents that the team could work in with Joseph Randle. The team felt they would be fine with the level of talent they had on the roster and they were right.
And despite many people always bringing up defensive tackle as one of the teams bigger needs, the Cowboys had Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford under contract. So they decided to just re-sign Nick Hayden for a cheap price.
All their signings made sense and seemed directly correlated to the level of need at each position. So, following the same type of reasoning, what would that look like this offseason?
With the improvement of DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys have strong players in every position from the "magnificent seven" group. There isn't a single position where the team has an urgent need to go out and find one of the better players in the league. This could serve as an indication that the Cowboys won't make a big money signing this offseason.
The biggest need then becomes the backup quarterback position. After living through the 2015 season, this is something that all Cowboys fans are well aware of. Finding a dependable insurance policy for Tony Romo should be at the top of the priority list this offseason.
The linebacker position looks very similar to how it did last season. And the Cowboys face the same dilemma they did a year ago with Rolando McClain. Last offseason, Dallas attacked this position with three free agents and two draft picks so expect them to throw plenty of resources that way.
Despite having success with the Darren McFadden experiment, the team came up empty on all their other running back candidates. Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams, and a preseason trade for Christine Michael were all big flops this season as each of them were no longer on the roster by week 10. The Cowboys are going to need to find some new candidates at the running back position in 2016. They have a couple of their own free agents in Robert Turbin and Lance Dunbar who could be brought back to strengthen this position group at reasonably cheap price, but expect Dallas to explore a couple of different options this offseason. Having an early pick in the third round seems likes a prime opportunity to snag one of the fresh legged college runners in the draft.
The cornerback position is another area for concern for Dallas because there are some question marks heading into next year. First, how is Orlando Scandrick going to perform coming off of knee surgery? Then, there is the Brandon Carr conundrum. While he's under contract, it doesn't seem likely that the Cowboys would give him his 2016 base salary for the type of performance he gives the team. So essentially, he's like a free agent. Will the Cowboys work a more cap friendly restructure or will they just cut ties with Carr? While Brandon Carr isn't anything spectacular, not having him around would make the cornerback position a huge area of need as then both their CB2 and CB3 would be in the red (Terrence Mitchell and Deji Otaye).
The guard and center position look like a legitimate need on paper, but this one will fix itself when Dallas makes a decision on what to do with Ron Leary. He is a restricted free agent and the Cowboys could choose to place a tender on him.
Scores based on need
To come up with a grading system for the position needs, I am simply assigning a value for each tier (tier one = 4 points, tier two = 3 points, tier three = 2 points, tier four = 1 point) and multiplying it by the level of talent of each player (green = 1 point, yellow = 2 points, and red = 3 points) and then averaging it by how many players at each position. For example, if the Cowboys had a bad player (in red) in the "magnificent seven" group, he would have a score of 4 x 3 = 12 and therefore be a real dire need. Conversely, a strong player on the bench would give a 1 x 1 = 1 point and be a very low need. Following this process yields the following results for the past two seasons:
Next, I asked my colleagues to assign a value for each position that represented the highest need.
Taking into account all the information, the final scores for the need assessment are as follows:
What do you feel are the Cowboys most pressing needs?
The next step will be to start sifting through some free agents.