[Ed. Note:] Moving VAfan's FanPost to the front. It offers a good overview of most of the moves/issues the Cowboys should consider over the offseason. Nice opening for discussion. [End Note]
So far, the only thing that's happened this offseason for the Cowboys is turnover on the coaching staff under the top three of Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Rod Marinelli. We've all be speculating about player movements, potential free agent signings and releases, and who the Cowboys might draft. I thought I would take a crack at prioritizing what I think the most important moves are that the Cowboys should take before they actually take them.
1. Re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence to a multi-year extension.
Lawrence will be 26 at the start of the season and is entering the prime of his career. He was one of the best edge rushers in the NFL last year, and he's a 4-3 guy, not a 3-4 outside linebacker, so he fits Dallas's defensive scheme perfectly. The Cowboys cannot let an asset like that go. Sure, there is some risk because of his prior suspension, and his back issues, but there would be risk with any edge rusher. Lawrence is a Cowboy, and the Cowboys just have to keep him.
2. Keep David Irving.
It's aggravating reading all the offseason chatter about Dallas thinking about moving on from David Irving. This would be a serious mistake. If I were Dallas, I'd try to lock up Irving on a longer term deal before his value explodes (like Lawrence's has) when he puts together a full season of dominance. In the 8 games he played in 2017, he was actually slightly better than Lawrence in both sacks and splash plays as scored by Bob Sturm. The man had 7 sacks rushing from an interior lineman position! And batted down 6 passes. The knock against him coming into 2017 was inconsistency. For 8 games, he was dominant. Whether the Cowboys extend him or just tender him and match any offer, they have to keep him next year if they want to have a shot at getting to the next level.
3. Re-sign Zack Martin
This might have ranked higher except Martin is under Dallas control this year on his 5th year option, while Lawrence could be a free agent and Irving is also not under full control. Whatever it costs, Dallas has to keep arguably their best offensive lineman.
4. Solve the left guard issue
The offensive line is the key to the Cowboys offense. When it broke down last year at left tackle, the pass rush got to Dak Prescott and the offense stumbled for several games. At the moment, the two issues on the line are who will start at left guard, and who will backup Tyron Smith and La'el Collins at tackle? Of these, the starting job has to be the higher priority. Should it be Jonathan Cooper? Should the Cowboys sign a different veteran guard? (I think the Chaz Green experiment is over.) Or should the Cowboys spend their first or second round picks on a college guard they can plug and play like Wynn or Hernandez? My guess? The Cowboys will sign someone before the draft to cover themselves in case the draft doesn't fall their way. Might be Cooper if he'll return for a reasonable deal.
5. Re-sign Anthony Hitchens or replace with a quality free agent or draft pick
Last year, the defense was not the same when Sean Lee missed time. Jaylon Smith fought as hard as he could, but he was a serious liability early in the year, and still not much of a force at the end. With Lee often having health issues during a season and Smith likely improved but not someone the Cowboys can fully bank on, they absolutely must have another quality linebacker. And it would be helpful if they had position flex to cover for an injured Lee on the weak side, or ahead of Smith in the middle. A lot of people think Hitchens will want too much money for the Cowboys to pay, given their other requirements (see Lawrence, Martin, and maybe Irving, plus Dak's contract is coming). That may be true. If he goes, expect Dallas to sign a free agent to protect themselves in case the draft doesn't fall their way. Then, they could still draft someone, but perhaps in a lower round like the 4th where they picked up Hitchens. The better move would be to keep Hitchens, who will be 26. On a multi-year deal, he could outlast Sean Lee.
6. Upgrade the safety position
With Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis making successful debuts at cornerback, the Cowboys have quickly turned over that position. They also have third year player Anthony Brown, who had a setback year but might regain his form and get better under new coach Kris Richard. Xavier Woods, drafted as a safety but undersized, played quite a bit of slot corner last year. And Orlando Scandrick is still under a contract that saves little if he's cut. Then there's speculation that Byron Jones could be moved back to cornerback. All of this suggests that the biggest secondary need for the Cowboys is at safety. That's why many are hoping someone like Derwin James lasts to pick #19 so the Cowboys can take him. Or they hope that Seattle might part with Earl Thomas in a trade, with Thomas having expressed his desire to come back to Texas and his former coach Kris Richard having preceded him. However Dallas chooses to address this, the team needs to if it wants its defense to step up to the next level.
7. Add a quality 1-Technique defensive tackle
Last year, after Stephen Paea got hurt, and then retired, and Brian Price was injured and lost for the season, the Cowboys moved Maliek Collins over to some extent, and played a lot of Richard Ash, Lewis Neal, Datone Jones and some Daniel Ross. (See my end of season snap counts article.) If David Irving returns, he's likely to remain at 3-technique, and between him and Collins, they should be able to hold down that position. It's the other tackle slot that could use an upgrade. This is why defensive tackle remains the top choice for mock drafters in the first round for Dallas. (The problem there is that many project another 3-technique like Maurice Hurst, expecting the bigger Vita Vea to be gone.) I don't know whether Dallas will value this role highly enough to spend a first round pick on it. I doubt it, given the fact they played with Nick Hayden for multiple years. I think it's much more likely they keep looking for bargain veterans in this position, like Brian Price and Datone Jones and Richard Ash. The only reason this position is up this high is because Dallas could use a better starter here, while items below relate more to backup improvements.
8. Hire new assistant coaches
This has already been done. The biggest bonus here was adding Kris Richard from Seattle, who, if given the assets, might transform the back end of Dallas's defense. I think Paul Alexander was another potential upgrade. He's a veteran coach who has done really well teaching his linemen how to pass protect. Yet he also has plenty of experience with all the run blocking methods used by Dallas. The wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal is said to teach good route-running, and Dallas receivers could learn a few things. These all seem like upgrades. The jury is out on the rest of the guys. Of course, many of the fans wanted to jettison Scott Linehan, and plenty are critical of Jason Garrett for the staid and conservative approach Dallas tended to employ. You can't have everything. I think everyone in the building realizes if Dallas doesn't return to the playoffs in 2018, there will be further changes.
9. Add a quality swing tackle
Among the backup positions, swing tackle and linebacker proved to be the most important ones last year. When Tyron Smith was out, Dallas had no answer. Dak Prescott got killed in the Atlanta game and the offense never fully recovered. This will most likely be solved in free agency, because you can't spend a high pick here, and you can't rely on a low-round pick to be able to step in as a rookie.
10. Get Rico Gathers on the field and cut Jason Witten's snap count
I love me some Rico Gathers. At 6'8" and 275, he's taller and heavier than Gronkowski or Kelce or Graham. We've all seen the plays where linebackers and defensive backs try to tackle him and fall off like they weren't even there. He had a nice jump ball TD in preseason where he overpowered a safety, then another TD where he ran by a linebacker for an easy score down the seam. Pre-season is not the regular season, but Gathers has the potential to be much more explosive than Jason Witten, whose yards per catch have continued to decline. Jason Witten is a hall of famer, and not yet a liability, but he also shouldn't be playing anything close to all the plays any more. Gathers is a mismatch against whomever a team tries to guard him with. He's too big for defensive backs, and even linebackers often can't tackle him. With Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten all returning, the biggest boost to the Cowboys passing game is more likely to be Rico Gathers if the Cowboys use him than another wide receiver. If the Cowboys have decided that Gathers isn't going to make it - since only they saw him last year - then plan B should be to draft Witten's replacement this year and start playing him over Witten at least 30-40% of the time.
11. Help get Randy Gregory on the field.
This may not be within the Cowboys control, as Gregory has to first be reinstated by the NFL. But if there is anything the Cowboys can do to help get Gregory back this year, they need to do it. He is absolutely the type of speed rusher off the edge the Cowboys need. I know the doubters are out there. Many think he'll never play. They may be right. It's not really Gregory's fault; the problem is with an archaic NFL policy that punishes players like Gregory for marijuana use that is legal in many states, has no performance-enhancing qualities, and causes far less societal disruption than alcohol. As I've said, Gregory doesn't have a substance abuse problem, the NFL has a policy problem. He should never have missed a single game for smoking weed. When he was on the field, at the end of the 2016 season, he was a terror. In the last game, here was Gregory's line in 43 snaps:
- Randy Gregory, eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit. No defensive linemen has had close to that many tackles in a game this year. Pretty impressive for his second game after a very long layoff.
Gregory has the speed to be an outside linebacker like DeMarcus Ware, but can hold up as a defensive end in Marinelli's 4-3, at least in a rotational system. If you put Gregory and Crawford at right defensive end, Irving and Collins at 3-technique, and Lawrence and Taco Charlton at left defensive end, the Cowboys would have a relentless defensive line that would terrorize opposing QBs. Put even an average 1-technique in there and it would be one of the best lines in the NFL.
12. Keep Dez Bryant.
Given his contract, there's no real value in cutting Dez Bryant. And his contract size negates most of the value as a potential trade chip. The Cowboys might approach Bryant and trade off a cut in salary for guaranteeing 2018 and 2019, and potentially add back some incentives to sweeten the deal. But either way, I don't see Dallas parting ways with Dez this coming year. There's no one to replace him. Instead, I would expect Dallas to finally change up the way they use Dez, by trying more routes that he excels at, and moving him around more to free him up. The Cowboys need to increase his efficiency by upping his catch percentage a lot, and utilizing his abilities as a runner after the catch. Unless the Cowboys go the 2-year guaranteed route in return for cutting his salary, 2018 could be Dez's last season, as the contract calculus changes a lot in 2019. But I don't see a change this year.
13. Replace Brice Butler
While we're on wide receivers, it's quite clear that Brice Butler, the Cowboys most efficient receiver in 2018 in terms of yards per snap, has seen his last play in Dallas. He's seeking greener pastures. In replacing Butler, the Cowboys could look for a bargain player like Butler was to come in and be a fifth option behind Dez, Williams, Witten, and Beasley. They might even be a sixth option if the Cowboys finally start pushing Witten out for a tight end like Gathers or a draft pick. Or they might look to add someone who could strengthen the team enough so Dez could be let go in 2019 less painfully. This could be done with a free agent pick up or a relatively high draft pick. The Cowboys might do both, forcing Noah Brown off the roster. (He had no impact on offense this season.)
14. Keep Joe Looney
We've already addressed starting left guard and backup swing tackle. But the Cowboys also need a reliable backup interior lineman who can play center or guard. Joe Looney is that guy. He'll be only 27 in August, knows the Cowboys well, and has done a decent job when called upon. Plus, he's been pretty cheap. Expect Dallas to try to resign him for 2-3 more years.
15. Add a third running back
Some are of the opinion the Cowboys should bring back Alfred Morris another season. I don't think this makes sense. With Rod Smith having established himself fairly well last year in a backup role, the Cowboys could use a change of pace back, but one with more durability than Lance Dunbar ever provided. I would expect them to draft someone to fill this role, perhaps with one of their compensatory picks.
16. Give Cooper Rush competition at backup quarterback
Dak Prescott is a young, big, and likely durable quarterback, who hasn't been forced by injury to miss a snap his first two seasons. But he did hurt his hand last year, so there is at least some risk of him missing time. Cooper Rush excited the fan base last year because his play looked pretty good, but also because he made it possible for Dallas to cut playing ties with Kellen Moore. Rush might remain the #2 in Dallas this year, but the Cowboys would be well served to give him some competition. I'm not suggesting a veteran because Dallas should put its cap money into other positions. Perhaps a late round draft pick? Or UFA?
17. Use Ryan Switzer more on offense
Switzer was an invisible man on offense as a rookie, seeing only 7 passes come his way. (He caught 6 for 41 yards.) With Cole Beasley ineffective in 2017, and on the last year of his deal, it's highly likely Dallas sees Switzer as his replacement in 2019. But if they want to do that, they will need to see more from Switzer next year, either as Beasley's sub, or in an occasional package where both are on the field.
18. Save cap money on a few players
Guys I don't expect to return are James Hanna ($3.5M salary, $750K dead cap), Alfred Morris (free agent, $1.75M salary), Kyle Wilber (free agent, $1.6M salary), Byron Bell (free agent, $2M cap). That's more than $8M the Cowboys could better use elsewhere.
What doesn't make sense is for Dallas to cut any of the guys who carry huge dead money hits in 2018, but not so much if they are cut in 2019. This includes Dez Bryant, Tyrone Crawford, Orlando Scandrick, and Cole Beasley.
19. Keep Keith Smith
Like David Irving, Smith is a restricted free agent. He's done quite well as a fullback and special teams player. Expect Dallas to keep him around, perhaps with a modest multi-year contract. He'll only be 26 this season.
20. Re-sign LP LaDouceur
The Cowboys perfect long snapper is a free agent. He cost $1.1M and he'll be 37. Expect Dallas to keep him a bit longer.
There you have it - my top-20 moves of the offseason. I didn't talk specifically about draft picks, but you can see where they can easily slot - safety, linebacker, 1-tech, guard, swing tackle, wide receiver, tight end, running back, backup QB. That's 9 positions and the Cowboys have 10 picks including the comp picks. My tendency would be to go BPA, because you have enough areas to cover and you want impact players.
If Dallas can get most of these right, they should have a much-improved defense, and an offense that should look much closer to 2016's version than 2017's. I would expect them to compete with Philly for the NFC East title, and be a solid playoff contender. If everything goes well, they could be a Super Bowl contender as well.