In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by looking at the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. In part two, we looked at where the Cowboys are strong. In part three, we looked at where the Cowboys are just okay. In this article, we are going to evaluate where the Cowboys are weakest. Most of this is because of the 18 free agents who could leave if the Cowboys don’t re-sign them.
Where Are The Cowboys Weakest?
In the prior articles, we discussed individual players, but that’s because they are expected to be on the team in 2017, and for most of them, longer. In this article, we’re mostly going to look at position groups that could be decimated by free agency. In subsequent articles, we’ll look at how the Cowboys might try to fill these gaps. (As before, these are not ranked in order of importance.) In a change of pace, we’re going to start on defense.
Brandon Carr, who played 1015 of 1058 snaps, is a free agent. He will be 31 before next season, and rumors are that he’s considering retirement. His AV was 6.
Mo Claiborne, who played 39% of the snaps, is young, and signed a make-good contract last year for $3 million after no one picked him up in free agency. He’s a free agent again. When he was healthy, he played the best of his career, showing the promise Dallas saw when drafting him sixth. But he stayed healthy for only seven games, and was hurt in the Green Bay playoff game when the Cowboys really needed him. His AV was 3.
- Plan: As we concluded in our real quarterback rating differential series, the Cowboys need at least one playmaker at cornerback, preferably one who can get interceptions.
Barry Church, who played in 64% of the snaps, is also a free agent. With a 2016 cap hit of $4.75 million, he was the third-most expensive member of the secondary, behind Carr and Orlando Scandrick. He’ll be 29 next season. His AV was 5. He was second on the team in tackles, despite missing four games.
J.J. Wilcox, who played in 53% of the snaps, will only be 26 next season, and is the best hitter in the secondary, and perhaps on the team, but he’s also a free agent. His AV was 2. His snaps might be covered by a combination of Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier. Frazier, by the way, only received 37 snaps, so it’s impossible to know what his skill level might be if he needed to play more.
- Plan: Barry Church is a solid player, but he’s not a real difference maker. The Cowboys could really use a difference maker at safety, and so far Byron Jones hasn’t been it. J.J. Wilcox’s role on the team has declined over the last three years, and it seems unlikely that Dallas will re-sign him.
Pass rush/Defensive line
Terrell McClain, who played in 45% of the snaps, is a free agent. He’ll be 29 next season. His AV was 7, which is the highest of any free agent on the team, and by far the highest of his career.
Jack Crawford, who played in 53% of the snaps, and could play any position on the line, is a free agent again. Dallas brought him back in 2016 on a one-year contract. His AV was 6, which was also by far the highest of his career.
Ryan Davis played in 15% of the snaps. His AV was 1. He’s a free agent.
- Plan: The issue here goes well beyond the free agents. The pass rush challenge for the Cowboys is not limited to a single position, and it’s probably not limited to the defensive line. Along with better linebacker and secondary play, a better pass rush could make a big difference in the real quarterback rating differential, which counts sacks as negative plays. There is some potential for improvement next season with players already on the roster. DeMarcus Lawrence, for example, might return to his eight sacks of 2015, which would be seven more than this year. Benson Mayowa might be more consistent right out of the gate. David Irving might finally harness his potential. Maliek Collins could up his game, and even Tyrone Crawford might improve on his totals. Then there is the complete unknown Charles Tapper, who missed this season with a back issue. A true speed rusher like Randy Gregory could make a big difference. The Cowboys have only six defensive linemen under contract, and they typically carry nine.
Wide receivers behind Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley
Terrance Williams played in 70% of the snaps, and subbed as the #1 receiver when Dez missed three early games. He caught 44 passes for 594 yards, and four touchdowns. He had an AV of 6.
Brice Butler played in 41% of the snaps, but was not nearly as productive, with 16 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns. His AV was 2.
Lucky Whitehead played in 14% of the snaps on offense, but was the primary return man. He caught three passes for 48 yards, and ran 10 times for 82 yards.
- Plan: Williams and Butler are both free agents, while Lucky Whitehead is signed through 2017, but would cost nothing in dead cap money if he’s released. Lucky has done nothing as a receiver, a little more as a jet sweep player, and not much as a return man. Is his blocking good? Hard to know. Three players are needed for these positions, and all might be new.
Backup running back
Darren McFadden played in only 3 games and 5% of the snaps, but was the clear choice over Alfred Morris when he returned. His AV was 1. He’s a free agent.
Lance Dunbar played 13% of the snaps, more than Alfred Morris, but rushed only nine times and caught 16 passes. His AV was 1. He’s a free agent.
Alfred Morris played in 12% of the snaps, rushed 69 times for 243 yards, a 3.5 yard per carry average, and scored two touchdowns. He caught three passes for 11 yards. His AV was 2.
- Plan: Once Dallas cut sixth-round pick Darius Jackson, they were left with only one backup running back under contract for next season - Alfred Morris. It would cost Dallas $500,000 in dead cap space to cut him, and would save $1.6 million. It should be a consideration.
Assuming Tony Romo is traded to help fill another hole or holes in Dallas’s roster, the Cowboys would then be without a backup quarterback on the team, with Kellen Moore and Mart Sanchez both free agents.
- Plan: Once Romo is traded, the Cowboys will need to sign an inexpensive veteran backup for Dak.
These six position groups - CB, S, DE/DT, WR, RB, and QB - are likely to be where most of the action is this offseason.
Next - Part 5: Freeing up Money