When you combine those two, you see where all the free agents fit this year in terms of snap counts, broken down by position group. Let’s start with the offense.
- Ron Leary. Big Ron did a great job, and logged 804 snaps.
Dallas has internal options to replace Leary in La’el Collins, and Jonathan Cooper could likely be brought back fairly cheaply if the Cowboys liked what they saw in limited practices.
The real question along the line is whether Doug Free will be kept for the last year on his deal, or pushed out for a younger option. Chaz Green played well, but couldn’t stay healthy, and if you try to move Collins outside, you create a hole inside. My guess is that Dallas will stay with Free while continuing to look for options, and may draft another lineman.
The other issue is how much Zack Martin’s likely new contract will cost.
- Tony Romo. Not a free agent, but for cap and value reasons, he’s almost certainly going to be traded, which is a topic best left to other articles.
- Mark Sanchez. If the Philadelphia game was his tryout for being brought back as Dak Prescott’s backup, he failed miserably, and is likely to be gone, even though he had some value in helping Dak acclimate to the NFL.
- Kellen Moore. A cheap alternative, but not one who the team could have any confidence in if he had to step forward if Dak was hurt. Expect Dallas to look elsewhere.
It’s likely none of these players will be back, and that Dallas will sign the best cheap backup option available who can win a few games if called upon. Those don’t necessarily all go together, so Dallas may have to compromise and hope/expect Dak will stay healthy.
- Lance Dunbar - 139 snaps. He had almost no impact this season, and is almost certain to be gone.
- Darren McFadden - 48 snaps. When he returned, he supplanted Alfred Morris.
This is where Darius Jackson had value, as he could have become the primary backup to Zeke, with everyone else let go. As it is now, it would make more sense to re-sign McFadden. Morris could be kept as insurance against a Zeke injury.
- Terrance Williams - 746 snaps, most among wide receivers.
- Brice Butler - 429 snaps.
The loss of Williams and Butler would open a gaping hole in the Dallas attack. Dallas won the three games Dez missed because of these two. Williams will likely be too expensive to retain, and Butler was too inconsistent. Dallas may have to draft a wide receiver, or look for a bargain on the free agent market, or both. Something like the Laurent Robinson deal they made a few years ago.
- Gavin Escobar - 169 snaps.
No loss there. The return of James Hanna and Geoff Swaim, and the potential emergence of Rico Gathers should improve the Cowboys’ tight end position next year even if they do nothing else.
The Defensive Line
- Jack Crawford - 561 snaps
- Terrell McClain - 471 snaps
- Ryan Davis - 155 snaps
- Randy Gregory - suspended - 66 snaps
Dallas should be okay at defensive end with Charles Tapper coming back, DeMarcus Lawrence not suspended, David Irving capable of playing outside, Tyrone Crawford, and Benson Mayowa. No need for any free agents here, though Dallas might draft someone, expecting them to replace Lawrence when his contract comes up in 2018.
At defensive tackle, Dallas is thinner, with only Collins and Thornton signed. Irving and T. Crawford could move back inside. That’s seven guys overall.
My expectation would be that J Crawford, McClain, and Davis will be let go. Expect Dallas to make D Line a high priority in the draft, with at least one, and possibly two additions.
- Justin Durant - 282 snaps.
- Andrew Gachkar - 74 snaps.
With Jaylon Smith expected to start in the middle, Dallas may have an abundance of depth at linebacker, with Hitchens and Wilson fighting for snaps behind Lee and Smith. Nzeocha may take Gachkar’s role on special teams.
- Brandon Carr - 1015 snaps
- Mo Claiborne - 408 snaps
- Barry Church - 676 snaps
- JJ Wilcox - 557 snaps
We’ve saved the biggest issue for last. That’s a lot of snaps to fill.
The most logical player(s) to re-sign are Brandon Carr and Barry Church. Mo Claiborne is just too brittle to hold up over a season, and there’s no one ready to step in for Church at safety if Wilcox is also gone. (Though Jeff Heath seems to be our only safety who can intercept a pass!) The Cowboys might then hope that Heath could move up to take Wilcox’s snaps, while Kavon Frazier could take Heath’s snaps.
Dallas is going to have to add here in the draft, and likely at a high enough quality where that player or players can step in as a rookie. Wouldn’t it be nice to find another Anthony Brown in the 6th round?
Overview and Conclusion
The biggest areas Dallas will need to address are:
- Secondary. Four players - 2656 snaps. If Dallas re-signs Carr, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick can cover Mo Claiborne’s snaps, as they did for most of the year. Dallas would then be looking to add depth they could develop. At safety, if Church is re-signed, Dallas can likely fill in for Wilcox, and add depth they could develop. It would be nice to upgrade here, but that could mean spending a high draft pick that might be better spent on the pass rush.
- Wide Receiver. Two players - 1275 snaps. Here’s another area where Dallas should be expected to spend a draft pick. Williams was productive as a third rounder. They will also likely be looking for guys like Butler and Robinson as cheap options to develop.
- Defensive Line. Three players - 1253 snaps. Dallas has options for filling these holes, but should be expected to try to upgrade this group through the draft.
- Offensive Line. One player - 804 snaps. Dallas has in-house options to replace Ron Leary. The trickier question is what to do with Doug Free and the right tackle spot.
- Backup quarterback. Not a big issue if Dak stays healthy, but someone will have to fill the backup job, and it’s not going to be Tony Romo.
Everything else should be fairly easy to manage. The Cowboys are set to get boosts from returning injured players at linebacker, on the offensive line, at tight end, and on the defensive line. Overall, the team looks to be in very good shape.