The news hit late last week and it's bad. Randy Gregory, one of the three first round talents Dallas acquired last year, has failed at least three NFL drug tests in the last year in addition to the failed test prior to the Combine. That bodes poorly for his ability to stay on the field and be the contributor Dallas fans hoped he would become. I like the player a great deal, and I am bitterly disappointed that he has fallen so far so fast. But with the seemingly imminent departure of Greg Hardy, Dallas is left with an actual hole in their line up.
I don't mean a spot that can be improved, as many others do when they say "hole". When I say a team has a hole, it's serious. It means I do not believe they can field what anyone would consider starting caliber players at a particular position. Dallas now has a hole, at least for four games, at right defensive end. Depending on Gregory's response to his increasingly tenuous situation, that time frame could extend. One caveat: I believe Demarcus Lawrence would be a legitimate starter at RDE, but that would leave the left unplugged... unless you move Tyrone Crawford, and that leaves you without a 3-tech, and so on.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys cannot panic here. The famously successful 2014 offensive line did not arrive overnight. It took three first round picks over four years. When age, money, and injury removed what was essentially the entire 2013 starting lineup, that journey started for the Dallas defensive line. They have used lesser picks ( a third and two seconds) and gotten lesser results from Crawford, Lawrence, and Gregory than they did from Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. But Crawford has been badly position-swapped and all three defensive players have been significantly impacted by injury. And all of them show tremendous future potential.
Still I hear the constant mantra, "we need performance". And Jason Garrett would be the first to agree. The problem with this is twofold, however, and provides a good reason for Dallas to stay away from the big players in the free agent market.
The first part of the problem is that you have to prognosticate. You cannot pay for a specific production amount in free agency. Even with the immense leverage and unique situation that Dallas had with Greg Hardy, they could not simply pay for sacks (even as the contract did exactly that). You have to pay for potential. You cannot pay for performance, because if you do you are paying for the past, and that is bad policy in a young man's game. The second piece, and the worse news, is that potential costs. A lot.
Vinny Curry, a player I like and who I had hoped Dallas would target in free agency, just got paid $9 million a year to play a position he has never played in the NFL. Again, I like the player. I think he will be very good. But he just got $9 million a year - let me repeat this - for a position he has never played in the NFL. THAT is the price for potential. Olivier Vernon is, by all accounts, a terrific young pass rusher at the end of his rookie contract. I would expect him to break the bank. Chris Long is a top notch NFL defensive end, still (barely) in his prime who will likely be looking to improve the $12 million a year contract he is completing. Greg Hardy was so troubled last year that Dallas was able to get him at a bargain $11.3 million. Players well past their prime like Jared Allen and Julius Peppers are still making over $8 million a year.
I had a bit of a pipe dream that the Broncos would deem DeMarcus Ware too expensive at $10 million a year and that he could come back to Dallas on a relatively cheap deal, but given what Allen and Peppers make, that $10 million is probably about right for Ware. But who knows how much longer any of those aging veterans will last
Dallas may or may not want to re-sign Hardy. But whether they do or not shouldn't really be affected by Gregory's situation. The free agent player who Dallas might change their tune on because of Gregory's situation is Jeremy Mincey. He's a proven and known commodity. He won't cost much. He won't prevent the development of younger players, and he's a known locker room leader.
And those last are the kind of things Dallas needs in free agency. If the Broncos do cut Ware, I think he could be a target for the same reasons. But the Dallas defensive line needs to grow and stretch its own legs. Tyrone Crawford is a beast. We were disappointed in his numbers, but he nonetheless improved over last year despite playing with one arm and was a disruptive pass rusher even still (his run defense suffered far more from the injury). Demarcus Lawrence continued to grow and perform, as did Jack Crawford, whose position flexibility could allow Lawrence to spend time at right end, should Dallas re-sign him. Ryan Russell remains as a developmental player, and David Irving has the length and speed to make an impact at defensive end as well. Even players this team has cut, like Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop have shown the ability to produce in this defense. Dallas needs to let those younger players develop and bring other new competition, only using free agency to plug the real holes and find solid stop gaps at reasonable prices.
Which is, fortunately, the team philosophy at the moment.