While many NFL teams have already reached agreement with some of their own free agents, the Dallas Cowboys have not gotten any names on the dotted line. But according to comments from team VP Stephen Jones, who oversees the personnel department, the first two free agents they are going after are linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Morris Claiborne.
This is the first real indication of the overall strategy the Cowboys will take in free agency. Although it remains to be seen if the team will actually make much progress with either player, it certainly looks like they want to try and get deals with them on their terms, before the prices start to escalate with the start of free agency on March 9. It is a poorly kept secret that teams engage heavily in sub rosa discussions with agents during the NFL Combine, when team executives and agents all flock to Indianapolis. This is a time when both sides can begin feeling out how much demand there may be for various players. The Cowboys are looking to find out just how expensive it would be to go ahead and lock up one or both, and if they are prepared to pay that price now. The team obviously hopes that the demand is soft enough to not have to commit too much.
Dallas uses free agency to address needs to focus on finding the best players in the draft. McClain and Claiborne both represent clear needs for the team. While they have had some issues, notably McClain's four-game suspension in 2015 and the injury-plagued career for Claiborne to date, both were important pieces for the defense last season. It is notable that Jones did not indicate any interest in re-signing Greg Hardy, a stance that was echoed by head coach Jason Garrett during his press conference at the Combine.
Jason Garrett asked about Hardy's status with the Cowboys: "Greg Hardy is a free agent." (That's it.)— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) February 24, 2016
This may indicate that pass rush is going to be a priority for the Cowboys when the real start of free agency rolls around. Getting a couple of starters back at linebacker and corner will give them more room to go after pass rush help, perhaps even one of the bigger names like Olivier Vernon, or maybe even DeMarcus Ware or Mario Williams (if they are available) that will obviously be costly.
What it does not mean is that the team would be any less interested in Myles Jack or Jalen Ramsey with the fourth-overall pick. The very essence of plugging the holes generated by needs is to draft based primarily on talent and future contributions. If a rookie comes in and wins a starting spot, all the better. McClain and Claiborne both would represent a form of insurance. After all, the team cannot get both Jack and Ramsey, and may see both gone, or make a different decision based on their board.. The two veterans would just assure them of having someone to take care of those positions, both of which the team has to have filled.
To some of us (OK, me), having McClain and Claiborne as the first priorities is a bit surprising. Both have some warts, and the team could have waited until they were on the market to see if they might find a lack of interest from other teams. Less outside interest could have meant getting one or both at a bargain price. However, with the climbing salary cap, that probably was seen as too risky. With the recent judgment against the NFL over hiding money from the NFLPA, the cap is now likely to exceed $156 million. That much money for all teams means that there would almost certainly be some interest in the two. Now the team is trying to play the "bird in the hand" card and get the players signed before that interest can lure them into testing the market. Both seem to like playing in Dallas, but home town discounts don't come very often. Just because the Cowboys want to keep them, it doesn't mean that they will be able to work out an agreeable contract with either.
Still, it is the first clear evidence of what the team intends to do in free agency. It is only the opening move, both with the two players involved and the entire free agency strategy.
So what do you think? Are you happy to see the team going after RoMac and Mo, or would you rather they had chosen a different direction?