The Free Agent Big Board has been under construction for the last few weeks. Up to this point, we have looked at the following positions:
Today, we take a close look at the defensive tackles.
It has long been preached that the Cowboys need an upgrade in the middle of the defensive line. But year-after-year, this position doesn't get a lot of attention in the off-season. A couple years ago, the Cowboys took a chance on free agent Henry Melton and he had a real strong first-half of the season before wearing down late. The Cowboys declined to throw additional money his way as they let Melton find work elsewhere. Moving Tyrone Crawford from end to tackle gave the team a strong presence inside, but he's still just one guy. That left the team once again relying on Nick Hayden to absorb the workload in the middle. If the defensive line is to take the next step forward, the Cowboys are going to need a stronger playmaker in the middle.
If Dallas decides to invest in the defensive tackle position in 2016, this is the year to do it. There are a lot of good quality DTs in the draft. The Cowboys have an early second-round pick and with the talent pool of defensive tackles, they could be in position to land one of the good ones. I would be astonished if the Cowboys didn't take a defensive tackle by the third round.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before any of that goes down, the Cowboys get to go shopping on the free agent market and could decide to pick up some valuable supplies prior to entering the draft. Would that be a smart way to go with this position? To get an idea, let's do the usual "what happened last year" analysis. Here are the top 20 free agent defensive tackles from last season, the amount they signed for, and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):
Last year, Ndamukong Suh was the standout free agent defensive lineman. The Miami Dolphins gave him a briefcase full of money to take his talents to South Beach. After Suh was off the table, things got a lot more affordable for teams looking to add a DT. The price and performance values are a little scattered but do show a reasonable correlation that the higher priced players typically performed better. That seems rather normal. The one outlier, Damon Harrison, played extremely well despite a low-priced deal, however he was a restricted free agent so the Jets got a good deal on his services last season. That won't be the case this season though.
Here are the top 20 free agent defensive tackles available this season and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):
The 2016 class of DT free agents has some really enticing names at the top of the list. What has been a common theme from so many of the positions we've looked at so far - the Denver Broncos have multiple players at the top of the position ranks. However, they didn't mess around with Derek Wolfe as they gave him a 4 year/$36.7 million extension in January. While he is no longer on the board, the contract details are helpful in providing a baseline for the cost of similar graded free agents.
But it's not just the Denver boys that show up high on this list. The New York Jets win the title for the best free agent players in this position group. Muhammad Wilkerson (12 sacks last year) is the Jets best defensive lineman and he is a likely candidate to be franchised tagged. Broncos star defensive lineman, Malik Jackson won't have to worry about the tag as teammate Von Miller should step in front of the franchise-tag bullet on that one. That means a sizeable paycheck for Jackson in 2016. Are there any big $$ free agents that might interest the Cowboys?
Nobody wanted Harrison in the 2012 draft, but a lot of teams will want him now. The Jets undrafted defensive gem doesn't sack the quarterback like teammate Wilkerson, but he is a run-stuffing ace. In fact, he graded out as the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the league last season, even edging out All-Pro, Aaron Donald. Harrison is just a two-down defensive tackle, but that's still an important need for Dallas. The defense was much improved last season in pass defense so getting quality play in those early downs is what the Cowboys need.
The problem with Harrison is that he's not going to be a cheap signing. In a report in January, it was suggested that he will be looking for someone to show him the money.
Two years ago, the Jets tried to sign him long-term, with a team source saying that he was offered a three-year contract for $15 million, an offer which he turned down.
Which means that Harrison could be primed to receive one of the largest contracts for any 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL, something that might be in line with a defensive tackles Haloti Ngata or a Geno Atkins. And it could be argued that Harrison's dominance in the 3-4, much more demanding and grueling on a nose tackle then in the 4-3, could mean that a team would be willing to overpay for his services.
Prediction: Harrison would be a great addition to the Cowboys defense, but his asking price right now is just too high. He'll be out of their price range.
I admit, whenever I see a player that the New England Patriots have shown interest in, it makes me intrigued. They do an excellent job evaluating players. So when the Patriots traded Michael Hoomanawanui in exchange for someone who's name fits on the back of his jersey, it's a sign that he could be a good player. Hicks is also a guy who will have a defined role that can limit his snaps, but he'll come at a much cheaper price.
Here is a good look at his play during his career with the New Orleans Saints.
Prediction: Possible. The Patriots tend to keep players they want, but they also are cheapskates. Hicks value could be high enough to price him out of New England. Dallas has been frugal with their money as well, but they might opt to go a little higher than the Patriots. He could be a good value buy.
With such a strong draft class of defensive tackles the Cowboys may only be looking for a bargain-price add from free agency at this position. The Buffalo Bills DT Corbin Bryant falls into that category. He's just a rotational guy, but has demonstrated that he's a solid player. He wouldn't be a sexy move by any means, but strengthening the depth guys is still a necessity. The Cowboys were hoping to get this type of solid play when they signed Terrell McClain a couple years ago, but McClain has had problems staying healthy. That's not an issue with Bryant has he's played in all but one game over his last three seasons.
Prediction: Good chance. While Bryant might not be the DT that gets signed, a player of that caliber would be the most probable fit for Dallas.
The Cowboys signed Melton to a 4-year/$27.5 million deal in 2014 however, it was so back-loaded that barring some spectacular play, it was never going to come to fruition. So they parted ways with him and he signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay. He had a solid season, but the days of demanding a huge price are over. While the right move last off-season was to let him walk, bringing him back might not be a bad idea. He'd provide a nice veteran presence in the middle as young players like David Irving and whatever rookie gets drafted could learn from. His first tenure in Dallas wasn't anything to get excited about, but keep in mind - he did have five sacks that season.
Prediction: Possible. He's familiar with Rod Marinelli's defense and could step in and contribute immediately. This isn't the "big expectation" Melton that may have disappointed fans, but rather a guy who can be successful in a smaller role. With a cheaper asking price now, he could be someone the Cowboys bring in.
What free agent defensive tackles do you think the Cowboys will sign?