Last week, I looked at the last couple offseasons to see if there were any things we could identify as potential clues to how the Cowboys might operate in free agency. One thing that was observed was that the team tends to fill their biggest holes by re-signing their own players. Once the first couple positions are dealt with, free agency starts to come into play more. A simplistic model looked like this:
With that in mind, it led me to believe that the Cowboys will retain a good portion of their own free agents in the secondary.
Prediction: Two of them return, maybe three.
This means that the 2017 free agency exploration will begin at the wide receiver position. With both Terrance Williams and Brice Butler entering free agency, the Cowboys have two holes to fill. Williams, despite scrutiny from a lot of fans, is a player the coaches really like. He works hard at his craft, is a great run blocker (the best of all the Cowboys receivers), and will show up with some big plays from time to time. It would be great if Dallas was able to keep him. Then there’s Butler who has been solid in his role, however his production is very minimal. Despite getting three starts this season for an injured Dez Bryant, Butler only had 16 catches for 219 yards. And he’s a terrible run blocker. His production would not be very hard to replace.
It’s tough to gauge how the front office will go about filling these holes. They certainly have plenty of choices. They could choose to re-sign one or even both of these players. Or maybe they find a player they like in the draft? Maybe they choose to promote a practice squad player like Andy Jones? And then of course, there’s always free agency. There’s a good chance they will use multiple methods of talent acquisition to get what they need, but for now, we will focus strictly on free agency.
What decisions the Cowboys make has a lot to do with how the market plays out. Knowing what we know about how the Cowboys operate, let’s set some boundaries and see if we can zero in on the likely prospects that fill the receiver spots in 2017.
The biggest question most people have is how much will certain players cost. It gets a little tricky because every new year offers up some head scratching contracts because some teams really like certain players. Here are the top 20 free agent contracts for the last four years (data courtesy of Spotrac.com)
As you can see from perusing through the contracts, there are some similarities from year to year. You’ll have a couple of big name receivers that will demand a sizable contract, then things taper a bit as a few players will get somewhere in the $5M range, but you don’t have to go too far down the list before you can land players for $3M or less. Now, every year the market is different because of the supply and demand, but it can at least serve as guide for what teams could be looking at this off-season.
Here are the four-year averages at each position rank for the top 20 as well as how Walter Football has every free agent WR ranked.
Of course there are going to be some things we don’t agree with when it comes to those rankings. Josh Gordon stands out as it would be hard to see a team throwing a lot of money his way. It’s also a little odd to see Terrance Williams so far down the rankings. If the Cowboys could get him for $1 M per year, they’d jump all over that. How much these individual receivers are valued is a great unknown. Another team may value Williams a lot and offer him a deal the Cowboys aren’t willing to match. But just as some of these players will cost more than expected, others will be cheaper. And that’s when the Cowboys get involved.
To get an idea of just how appealing these free agents are, these players will be given a score based on the following criteria – cost, age, deep threat, and run blocking ability. These are things we know the Cowboys value as they look to fill these roles on the team.
But before we get started, let’s just rule some players out. It makes no sense to waste any words talking about Alshon Jeffrey joining the Cowboys. That is just not going to happen. Similarly, if a player is a slot specialist, then the chances of inking him are slim too as the team is very happy with what they have in Cole Beasley. For this reason, the following wide receivers are excluded from the analysis:
Alshon Jeffrey is a perennial number one receiver and the Cowboys already have one of those. His price will be way too high.
Terrell Pryor is coming off a breakout season who will be rewarded with a huge contract. Plus, he cannot run block very well.
Adam Thielen is a very intriguing up and coming receiver. There are a lot of things to like about this kid, however he plays in the slot. He’s not what the Cowboys will be looking for. He’s going to get a decent contract from someone, but it won’t be Dallas.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a name that comes up a lot from fans, but a closer look shows he doesn’t possess any of the traits the team would be looking for. He’s a terrible run blocker and his 8.7 yards per catch does nothing to aid as a downfield threat.
Taylor Gabriel is a nice gadget guy for the Falcons and his big playmaking ability will appeal to someone, but he doesn’t block well.
Anquan Boldin and Ted Ginn are serviceable veterans who can fill nice roles for a team, but it’s just not the way the Cowboys do their shopping. The Cowboys always like to hang on to the hope of some upside with their free agent signings, but with these older veterans, teams are paying full price for the best they have to offer.
Josh Gordon – red flag character guy. No thanks.
So, with these players cast aside, that narrows the field down a bit. Some others will not make the cut either as we adhere to the following requirements:
Age – no players 32 or older.
Run Blocking – must have a run blocking grade of 73 or greater. This is a team that is very dependent on the running game. If a WR isn’t able to be a key part of that, then his value to the team is reduced.
Yards per Catch - this role will require the receiver to be a deep threat. They must have a 2016 average of 13 yards or more per reception.
That brings us with the following nine candidates…
This is a good starting point for trying to figure out where the front office might be looking once free agency rolls around. Now, it’s on us to try to guess which player the Cowboys will sign. We will take a closer look at some of these players later this week.
Are there any players on this list that you could see Dallas signing. Or do you think they’ll go a different direction?