Counting both UFAs and RFAs, the Dallas Cowboys have 20 free agents from the 2015 season to make decisions on. The list lacks a big name the team has to deal with the way they did Dez Bryant a year ago. But with a lot of work to be done on the roster to try and come back from a season that could be termed The Great 2015 Debacle, the staff needs to figure out which names are worth getting back in the fold before they start shopping for talent from outside the organization as well as setting themselves up for the 2016 NFL Draft.
This look at which names might be the top priorities for the team is based more on impressions from a somewhat obsessive scouring of Twitter comments from some of the more reliable writers and bloggers out there than on any claim of personal expertise. However, that has worked pretty well for this writer in past years. Past performance, of course, is no guarantee of future success, so you have been warned.
The feeling seems to be that the two RFAs are going to be tendered by the team. Ronald Leary is a valuable backup for the guards, and could get a second-round tender, which would mean that any team that wants him would have to give Dallas their 2017 second-round spot. That is probably a win-win for the Cowboys. However, the team may also just go with an original-round tender, which would mean no compensation for a team seeking to sign the former UDFA if Dallas does not choose to match the offer. Nick Eatman, who is pretty dialed in as part of the mothership, believes that the team is considering moving Chaz Green to guard if the team loses out on Leary. The other RFA, Jeff Heath, is thought to be in line for an original-round tender as well as another UDFA.
Of the UFAs, there are not really that many that look to be high priority for the team, but here are three names that probably have the most value if re-signed.
Jack Crawford is probably the top one. He was an effective if unspectacular defensive lineman, but given the need to improve the pass rush, he is probably just too valuable to pass up. He is not likely to be a very high-cost option. He is almost certainly available for less than Jeremy Mincey, and five years younger. Expect Mincey to hit the market while Crawford gets a new deal.
James Hanna is an undervalued part of the team. He is a very good blocker in the run game, and is not a bad receiver, although for some reason he seems to be consistently targeted when he is a yard or two short of the sticks. With the injury to Gavin Escobar as well as the general sense of disappointment in how he has paid off for his draft cost, Hanna is likely to get a new deal to provide depth behind Jason Witten.
There is a need to shore up the linebacker corps, so Kyle Wilber is the third player that seems to fulfill a real need. He is not spectacular, but he is still serviceable. Again, he is not going to be expensive.
Notably absent from this list are Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain. Despite the need at both their positions, the impression from those with the best feel for the thinking inside the team is that neither will be re-signed before going on the open market. Given their somewhat inconsistent performance on the field and the well-known off field issues, the thinking is that the team will not be interested unless there is little interest from elsewhere and they could be brought back for lower cost.
That last factor may cause the team to circle back at some point on other free agents like Mincey, Nick Hayden, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Lance Dunbar. However, as Todd Archer illustrated, the Cowboys passed on many free agents in 2015 because other teams were willing to pay much more for their services than Dallas was comfortable with, and for the most part, they came out ahead. Of those, Hayden is probably the most likely to return, given the affection Rod Marinelli has for the man with the somewhat salacious nickname. His chances may depend on how the Cowboys fare at DT in the draft, which looks pretty deep there.
The rest of the free agents likely have to hope someone else wants their services. Dallas is in a good position with few really pressing needs in their own list of free agents. They have done a good job with cap management of late. Expect them to continue to be judicious.