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PFF Top 75 Free Agents: Who Are Best Cowboys FA's, And Which Fan Faves From Other Teams Make The List?

There will be money to spend this year, but that doesn't mean you can get by without a budget.

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Is Lamar Miller a legitimate free agent target for the Cowboys, or will his price be too high?
Is Lamar Miller a legitimate free agent target for the Cowboys, or will his price be too high?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The "official tampering" period of NFL free agency begins on March 7, although there is going to be a lot of groundwork laid during next week's NFL Combine as team officials have totally casual and completely innocent conversations with various agents during which nothing that could possibly be considering tampering would ever occur. And it is looking like there is going to be a good bit of money for just about all NFL teams to use.

As with all NFL teams, the Dallas Cowboys have to worry about both their own free agents that they wish to re-sign and any players they hope to bring in from other teams. Free agency becomes an open market where things usually come down to the highest bidder. However, winning the services of top ranked free agents does not always guarantee success, and there is an argument to be made that avoiding big contracts and focusing on "bargain shopping" may be the way to go.

Still, there are always players that become prime targets in free agency, at least for fans. As we have a few weeks to go before we find out what teams will be signing which free agents, it is useful to have some kind of ranking of the current crop, the equivalent of a draft "big board".

Pro Football Focus is more than happy to oblige. They have put out a list of their top 75 NFL free agents. Although it comes with the usual caveat that this is not necessarily reflective of the thinking in any NFL front office, it is just as valid as any of the seemingly thousands of draft boards and mock drafts you are going to read between now and April 28th.

There are three Cowboys that make the list.

47. Rolando McClain, LB

2015 was somewhat of a disappointment for McClain, as he regressed in run defense in the few weeks following his return from suspension. He did play better down the stretch, and looked closer to his 2014 form, though.

56. Greg Hardy, DE

Hardy played well in Dallas, just not to the level we saw prior to his suspension. He could still be that great defender, but his off-field baggage may cause issues when trying to get a big contract.

73. Jeremy Mincey, DE

Mincey's playing time was cut down in 2015, and he had one of his least productive seasons with the arrival of Hardy. Prior to this past season, Mincey had earned above-average grades in five-straight seasons.

There has already been a good deal of speculation that the Cowboys could let all three of these players walk. However, this also points out that the situation in the defensive front seven is, well, not good. It puts Dallas in a bit of a quandary. Do they make sufficient offers to one or more of these players, despite the issues of last season, to retain them? Should they try to get something done prior to free agency before the players can find out what their market value is? (That falls into the "fat chance" category - see remarks concerning the Combine earlier. Agents ain't dumb, and work on a percentage of the contracts they get for their clients.) Most likely, Dallas will set a ceiling price they would pay for each of the players, and then let them test the waters. Given the expected increase in the cap and the fact that these are some of the more desirable free agents in the league (according to PFF, at least), the odds are that they will all be toiling in a different NFL city this fall.

Meanwhile, what about players that the Cowboys could use? You can go up and down this list looking for names to consider, but just for the sake of illustration, here are three that have cropped up frequently as possible targets for the Cowboys. (Remember, this is just the cream of the crop. If you want a full list of free agents this season, there is a good one at Over the Cap.)

5. Olivier Vernon, DE

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

Vernon broke out in a contract year with a 92.5 overall grade that ranked behind only Khalil Mack and Von Miller among edge defenders. He had a league-high 57 total pressures over the final eight weeks of the season.

Vernon has been mentioned by several people as an immediate fix for the edge rusher woes for the Cowboys. One key exhibit for those who favor him is his work against Tyron Smith, who had all he could handle and maybe a bit more in Vernon. However, he is also ranked as the second-best edge rusher available, behind Von Miller (who is not going to get away from the Denver Broncos in any case). The Dolphins are a bit worse off than the Cowboys regarding their cap space and free agents. First, they have more significant players entering free agency than Dallas. And second, they have over $5 million in dead money. However, what Miami can do about re-signing its own is not really important. What is a real problem is that there are 30 other teams in the mix, and a lot of them probably see their own concerns in generating a pass rush as just as bad as the Cowboys'. Add in that many teams have been markedly less disciplined than Dallas in free agent spending in recent years, and you have to figure that Vernon's price is just going to be too high.

34. Lamar Miller, RB

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

For the second-straight year, Miller was effective in the ground game despite running behind one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league. At 24-years-old and having averaged fewer than 200 rush attempts over the last three seasons, Miller should have several good years ahead of him.

Another Dolphin, Miller is probably the most desired free agent for many Dallas fans. However, like Vernon, he is number two at his position in PFF's eyes, and he is also very young. Both make him attractive for many teams. On the other hand, running back has been declining in perceived value recently. And Miller has dropped some not-so-subtle hints that he would like to play in Dallas. Still, it is doubtful that the Cowboys would be the only suitor for his services. Forget discounts in free agency. The question is going to be whether the price is right for both sides here. He might be the one player Dallas is willing to spend big on. Even if they do make that decision, there is no assurance that someone else will not go bigger. It also does not help Dallas' case that the Dolphins have expressed a desire to keep Miller in the fold.

40. Trumaine Johnson, CB

2015 team: St. Louis Rams

Johnson had his best season as a starter in 2015, allowing a 55.0 passer rating when targeted - €”second-lowest at the position.

Johnson is another player at a position where the Cowboys could use some real help. And while he is just six spots behind Miller on the overall list, he is only rated as the fifth best corner available. That alone may make him a more reasonable target for the Cowboys to go after, since the four higher ranked CBs may absorb the worst of the bidding. And with the uncertain situation with Morris Claiborne and the high cost of Brandon Carr if Dallas elects to keep him, corner may be the position they feel the most need to sign a highly-ranked free agent.

It is all part of a puzzle with many parts, and they are moving ones at that. The Cowboys have been limiting themselves to only one or two major acquisitions in free agency of late. Last year, they had Dez Bryant and Greg Hardy. This year, with the doubts surrounding the top three of their own free agents, they may be willing to go very hard after one target. Could it be one of the three mentioned here, or perhaps another on PFF's list? Or will they stay completely out of the market the first couple of days, when the most egregious overpaying happens? We will know in a few weeks.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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