The Dallas Cowboys have some significant holes to fill in free agency. As fans, we have favorite names we would love to see them go after. However, as teams continue to announce cuts, the list of players that will be on the market is just now beginning to shape up. Additionally, the team has a better idea than ever of what kind of talent is available in the NFL Draft with the conclusion of the Combine, which can be factored into deciding which positions are more crucial.
With free agency starting on Wednesday, it is a good time to look at the needs the Cowboys face, what level of priority they should place on each, and what is the best path to take in addressing them.
This is probably the number one priority for the Cowboys. Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, and Jack Crawford are all free agents, and Randy Gregory is suspended for the first four games of the season (and one mistake away from basically being lost for the year). They need to shore this up before the draft - and may not find much help there, as this is shaping up to be a fairly anemic class for 4-3 defensive ends.
First, the Cowboys need to sign Crawford back. He is not a stellar edge rusher, but can play multiple positions and seems to be developing. He should not be prohibitively expensive, especially if the team can work something out before teams without a rational approach to free agency start throwing bags of money around. Hardy is, by all reports, not coming back, and is going to be looking for more money than the Cowboys should pay, anyway. Mincey is not a priority to bring back, but if he does not get an acceptable offer from another team, he might be a player the team could bring back if there is still a pressing need.
Even if they get Crawford back, the Cowboys still need to sign at least one free agent DE. Mario Williams and Charles Johnson are probably the two best players available, and this is the one position that Dallas should consider paying retail. However, they are not likely to get into an all-out bidding war for anyone, so they will probably be looking more at the second tier. They may well try to sign two outside free agents here, especially if they have to go even lower in the talent ladder to stay within their fiscal limits. This position is a problem again this year, and the options for solving it are worse than they were in 2015.
Surprisingly, this may be the second highest priority for the Cowboys. They have the incredibly consistent Jason Witten, of course, but even with him, you have to be aware of his age. They have Gavin Escobar, who has never proven his value on the field and is coming off IR. And they have Geoff Swaim, who was a non-factor last season. Fortunately, they have a solution on hand if they can re-sign James Hanna, who is a free agent this year. He has been very consistent, particularly as a blocker in the running game. Like Crawford, they would prefer to lock him up before he gets on the market, but he is one player they might consider paying a little more than they would like. Fortunately, he may well be overlooked by the market, with a long list of free agent TEs this year, and reports coming out of Chicago that they are trying to find a trading partner to move Martellus Bennett off their roster (shocking, I know).
The team is reportedly interested in re-signing Rolando McClain, and if they can get him back on board, then they are probably good at this position. Sean Lee showed last year that, if he can remain healthy, he is one of the best outside 4-3 linebackers in the business. If they can't reach a deal with McClain, they would probably like to get another ILB, but this would definitely be a case of bargain shopping.
It seems rather doubtful that the Cowboys will be content with rolling into the draft with only Tony Romo and Kellen Moore on the roster. Unfortunately, the crop of available free agent quarterbacks is not exactly awe-inspiring. The best available free agents are ones that will likely be locked up by their old teams. And even if the Cowboys pull the trigger on a quarterback in the first round of the draft (thereby creating mass chaos on a near-Biblical level among some), all reports are that even Jared Goff and Carson Wentz need at least a season to season.
There is one name that has come up in several places as a possibility for the Cowboys (including here), and that is Colt McCoy. This was given a little boost in some minds by a recent sighting in Austin.
All this may hinge on whether or not Washington, reportedly parting ways with Robert Griffin III, feels the need to retain McCoy. But he looks like a legitimate option for Dallas who would not break the bank. If he is not the one, expect the Cowboys to still bring in a similar type of backup QB.
This is a situation that is somewhat interconneted between cornerback and safety. First, the Cowboys have stated that CB Morris Claiborne is the second of their own free agents they would like to re-sign (after not exercising their fifth-year option on him last year). If they can get him on board, then they have a decision to make on Brandon Carr (waive, try to renegotiate the final year of his overpriced contract, or just ride it out). And they also have to decide if they will keep Barry Church, who could garner them over $4 million in cap space if cut.
They may decide to go for one or both positions in free agency, but it is probably more likely that they will sign one, again looking for a good price after things slow down. Which way they go will be driven by the decisions on the three players mentioned above.
Everyone (it seems) is all excited about signing Lamar Miller about three minutes after free agency officially opens. The latest reports indicate that he and the Miami Dolphins are at an impasse on him staying there. The Dolphins have drawn a line at $5 million a year, and he wants more.
This would seem to put the Cowboys right in the mix. Reportedly, they were willing to go as high as $6 million a year for DeMarco Murray before the Eagles came in with a lot more money than sense and lured him away. Miller would undoubtedly thrive behind the Dallas offensive line. However, he is probably the number one running back target this year, and it is entirely possible that his price is going to wind up like Murray's was: Way too rich.
Besides, the idea of paying a lot for a free agent running back seems to run counter to the realities of the position. There seems to be a large crop of good backs coming out of college every year, and their careers tend to fall off precipitously in their late twenties. The Cowboys have Darren McFadden, who was more successful behind that line than most expected. They may be able to re-sign Lance Dunbar as their change-of-pace back. Fans may be in love with the idea of Miller coming to Dallas, but that has nothing to do with how the front office feels about it. The odds really are that they will look for another McFadden type signing. Prepare for wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The Cowboys also seem to sign a fullback or two every offseason, but those are never very expensive, and seldom heralded.
The starters are set, but with Mackenzy Bernadeau a UFA and Ron Leary a RFA, the backup situation will likely get some attention. Leary can be retained if the team tenders him an offer and chooses to match any offer he gets, but Bernadeau is very likely to pursue a starting job elsewhere. The team has Chaz Green, but he saw no action in 2015 and there is some question about moving him from tackle to guard/center. Expect the Cowboys to be shopping for a young player to address whichever position they feel is the greatest need.
The defensive line was the only part of the defense that was broken out, because the tackle situation for the Cowboys is very different. First, in contrast to the situation for ends, the draft looks very deep in interior defensive line talent. The Cowboys are also in pretty good shape here. Tyrone Crawford is solid, Terrell McClain is expected back from IR (for a toe injury), and David Irving was a pleasant surprise last season. Only Nick Hayden is a likely departure as a UFA, and given the almost uncomfortable level of affection Rod Marinelli has for him, it would not be surprising to see him back if the market for him is soft outside Dallas, or even before. It is a low priority.
The Cowboys look for wide receiver talent in the draft and as UDFAs. They may sign someone if they see a real bargain, but it is probably the last priority for them.
That's one man's take, anyway. How do you see it? Still want to go for the gusto in free agency? Or are you resigned to the pattern of bargain shopping of recent years?