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Cowboys Free Agent Big Board 2016: Evaluating The Talent, Edge Rusher Edition

Construction of the free agent big board is in phase two as we take a look at the talent at each position. Today, we look at the defensive end options.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The construction of the Free Agent Big Board is in progress. First, the needs at each position were assessed.

To recap, they are:

Then, it was time to evaluate players. So far, we've looked at:

Free agent quarterbacks

Free agent cornerbacks

Now, it is time to check out the edge rushers. This position will include defensive ends as well as outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense. As what is the norm of this evaluation process, we'll start by taking a look at what happened last year. Here are the top 20 free agent pass rushers last year, the amount they signed for, and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):

The first thing that jumps out about this position is how well the offseason grade and the price of contracts correlated so well with their 2015 performance. It looks like a "you get what you pay for" type of relationship. And what has started to become a trend in this analysis, the New England Patriots were able to sign a good quality free agent for a much cheaper price than everyone else (they did a similar thing with cornerback, Tarell Brown last season as well).

With defensive end being one of the more pressing needs for the Cowboys, could this be a position the front office throws some money at? They took that approach last season when the team signed Greg Hardy. The Hardy deal bucked a trend of free agent signings that mostly consisted of cheaper, bridge-type player deals. If the defensive end position is one of the less risky investments, it is conceivable that this is where the money goes.

So what type of talent are we looking at for 2016?

Von Miller and Olivier Vernon

Miller will be the biggest free agent name this offseason. He's got all the attributes you want in a mega-deal signing. He's young, talented, and is coming off a great season. He missed seven games in 2013, but during his other four seasons he's registered double-digit sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl each year. Miller is the real deal.

Vernon is another young stud that is going to have a great NFL future. He's stout in both the passing game and running game.

Both these players are franchise type players and will be very expensive. While the Cowboys may invest some good money at this position, they might not get into a bidding war for these big money guys.

Prediction: Too pricey. Cowboys will look for something cheaper.

Bruce Irvin

The former first-round pick is a solid player. He is a little undersized for your conventional 4-3 defensive end, but Irvin is an effective pass rusher. His sack totals aren't going to "wow" anyone, but he's good for about six a season. Could there be more to Irvin than what he's shown so far. He could be one of those high-floor guys that has the potential to be so much more.

Prediction: Pass. Good player, but not the best fit for Dallas.

Robert Ayers

Both the New York Giants free agents are really good players. If the Cowboys want an effective "right now" guy, Ayers could be a good selection. He is strong in both the pass and run. His age could bring his price down and the Cowboys could offer him a front-loaded deal that would be easy to get out of in a couple years. This would allow them to see what they have in Randy Gregory. Taking away an impact player from the Giants doesn't hurt my feelings either.

Prediction: Possible, but not likely. The age doesn't bode well from how the Cowboys usually go after free agents, but if the staff feels they have a legit shot a contending these next couple years - Ayers could be a strong investment.

Greg Hardy

Just like many others out there, Walter Football undervalues Hardy because of non-football related factors. The fact remains, Hardy is young and a very good player. Some Cowboys fans were not enamored by his performance last season, but he did better than a lot of people realize. The real question becomes what Jason Garrett and Rod Marinelli thinks of him when it comes to preparing for games and being a good teammate. These are important attributes to Garrett and could be the difference maker on whether or not he stays. Another factor will be his price. His red flags could drive that price down and the Cowboys best value deal may be to resign Hardy.

Prediction: Jason Garrett's body language tells me he won't return. It would be painful to see him end up for a rival NFC East team. He's not someone I want Tony Romo to have to deal with twice a year.

Jason Pierre-Paul

Pierre-Paul was off to a good start to his career as he had an All-Pro, 16.5 sack season in 2011. He looked good in 2014 to where the Giants franchised him last offseason. Then, things went bad for him as he suffered a serious injury to his hand in a Fourth-of-July incident. The inability to use his hands effectively have made him a liability in the running game, however he's still a firecracker of a pass rusher. The problem is, the Cowboys already have Gregory as a good situational pass rusher and it wouldn't make sense to invest a lot of money for a role player.

Prediction: Pierre-Paul is damaged goods. Buyer beware, not likely in Dallas.

Derrick Shelby

If the Miami Dolphins spend a lot of money to retain Vernon, it should mark the end of Shelby's tenure in Miami. The Dolphins pass rusher stepped in last season when Cameron Wake got hurt and did a great job. He was involved in an altercation in 2014 that got him suspended, but has taken good steps since and this has shown in his game. There are some risks/rewards for the team that signs him, but if he plays to his ability, he's going to be a good value for someone.

Prediction: Intriguing option. He's young and can play well in the running game.

Adrian Clayborn

Last season, he signed a one-year, $4.5 million "show me" deal with Atlanta. He was able to pressure the quarterback, but didn't offer much in run support. Clayborn didn't help his cause in setting himself up for a big, long-term deal but he's still a solid performer. He's going to be a solid fixture on the edge for someone.

Prediction: I liked him last year and I like him again this year. He's still young and the Cowboys could work out another "prove-it" deal that could benefit both sides if he performs. You could do a lot worse for $5 million/year.

Aldon Smith

Wait, what? Why in the world would Dallas go from one controversial pass rusher to another? Well, they probably won't, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that Smith strung together some good games in 2015. He has been suspended and can't return until November so there's that as well.

Prediction: No chance.

DeMarcus Ware

Ware is currently under contract for the 2016 season, but considering the Denver Broncos would save $10 million if they cut him, there's a strong possibility he'll be looking for work. The Broncos have other players they need to get inked and with Ware at 33 years of age, he's likely to be a cap casualty. And it wasn't that long ago that the Cowboys were in a similar situation with him.  When Ware is released, Dallas could be a great place for him to land.

Prediction: Randy better start shopping for a new number because Ware going back to Dallas would be a fitting end to his career.

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