For a few days, the Dallas Cowboys have been all about the coaching staff, or more specifically, the offensive coordinator position. With Scott Linehan’s departure, we are left waiting (as of this being written) to find out if Kellen Moore is in fact the new OC, as well as a formal announcement of the hiring of Jon Kitna to be the new QB coach. We are also very interested in knowing just who is going to be calling plays.
That’s all going to sort itself out soon. Meanwhile, the Pro Bowl and Senior Bowl are this week. Those are places for teams to study the market out there for new talent (the Cowboys’ staff will be coaching the Pro Bowl). And for the next several months, adding players to the roster is going to be the big story, starting with free agency, and reaching a climax with the NFL Draft.
It is this pursuit of new pieces for the roster that makes the offseason so riveting for fans. It also means the staff, particularly Will McClay, have a lot of work ahead of them. But before they can start figuring out which free agents to make offers to and building their draft board, they have to decide where those new bodies would fit in.
Earlier, I did an article on who the Cowboys currently have under contract, and who their free agents are. This is more or less a sequel to that to more clearly identify the needs of the team, and ways to go about filling them.
Let’s start with an offseason depth chart.
|QB||Dak Prescott||Cooper Rush||Mike White|
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott||Darius Jackson|
|TE||Blake Jarwin||Dalton Shultz||Rico Gathers|
|WR||Amari Cooper||Terrance Williams||Allen Hurns|
|WR||Michael Gallup||Noah Brown||Devin Smith|
|LG||Connor Williams||Xavier Su'a-Filo||Parker Ehringer|
|C||Travis Frederick||Joe Looney|
|RG||Zack Martin||Adam Redmond||Dustin Stanton|
|RDE||Randy Gregory||Dorance Armstrong|
|3T||Maliek Collins||Tyrone Crawford|
|MLB||Jaylon Smith||Joe Thomas|
|WLB||Leighton Vander Esch||Sean Lee|
|CB||Byron Jones||Jourdan Lewis|
|CB||Chidobe Awuzie||C.J. Goodwin|
|CB||Anthony Brown||Marquestin Huff|
|S||Jeff Heath||Kavon Frazier|
|S||Xavier Woods||Jameill Showers|
This is, of course, my interpretation of things, and subject to change. But based on this, here are the places the Cowboys need help, an attempt at prioritizing them, and the ways they can go about addressing them.
First thing, though, is that overall, there are few pressing needs. Of the 24 starting positions, plus the three specialists, there are only three holes and one additional that is rather shaky - and there are some fixes at hand for those. (I list 24 starters to have both the SAM linebacker and the nickel cornerback included, and a fullback, since the Cowboys kinda insist they are gonna have one, or at least have to date.)
Need level: Low. It’s great to have a starting quarterback who can lead the team to winning seasons and the playoffs while still on his rookie contract. And the staff seems content with the backups, at least until training camp. All that they really are looking for is a camp body, since the team needs four arms to spread the workload around. It is nice to have someone good enough to offer at least a minimal chance of challenging the next guy on the chart, but there aren’t enough good quarterbacks in the league to fill all the starting jobs, much less come in as your fourth option on the roster.
How to fill: UDFA is the most likely route here. There is no reason to bring in an experienced passer, especially since the staff now has four former QBs to oversee and mentor the position (Doug Nussmeier is the fourth.)
Need level: High. You have arguably the best running back in the league, and one journeyman, and no incumbent at fullback. That looks like a minimum of two and more likely three players they need to add.
How to fill: Maybe every way. First, Rod Smith and Jamize Olawale are both free agents, and could be extended offers. Smith might find greener pastures elsewhere, but you have to think Olawale is going to be available at the team’s price. Second, RBs are rather undervalued, and there is some evidence that it is the most plug-and-play job in the NFL, with teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers replacing a Pro Bowl back with a newcomer and not missing a beat. So Dallas might go bargain shopping for a depth RB or new FB. And the evidence is not just convincing, it is overwhelming that you can find quality runners in almost all rounds of the draft. Look for the Cowboys to bring in four or five candidates from a variety of sources and then whittle them down.
Need level: Moderate to high. Part of this depends on Geoff Swaim, who is a free agent after spending most of last season on IR. Demand is not likely to drive his price up, and since he was the starter, he would provide a good three man rotation, given the way Jarwin and Schultz were coming on late in the season. The health question is a concern at the moment, but should be cleared up before the draft. The Rico Gathers experiment should be ended, however.
How to fill: The draft is far and away the best bet here. There is some good talent in rounds two and on (which is of course pertinent for Dallas).
Need level: Moderate to high. Of course, they already addressed this need with their first pick of the 2019 draft, which they turned into WR1 Amari Cooper. Gallup looks like the real deal at WR2. But depth and the slot position are dicey. Brown is almost certain to be part of the mix, and Wilson brings hope if he is fully recovered from his injury. The team could try to re-sign Cole Beasley and/or Tavon Austin. Beasley was seen as definitely leaving if Linehan had stayed, but that is no longer an issue. The question for him is price. He may get a lot more from some other team than the Cowboys are willing to commit in cap space. Austin may be back largely as a return man, since he gave that part of the game a real spark once he came back from injury - but that injury problem is why he should not be relied on too much. Hurns is currently on the roster, but there may be a settlement in the offing after his horrible injury.
How to fill: Again, the draft should be the best option, especially after free agency didn’t pan out so well last year. Numbers alone may lead to a free agent or two getting added from outside the team, but it is definitely a secondary route.
Need level: Moderate to high. This is probably one of the biggest needs for quality depth.
How to fill: Cameron Fleming is now a free agent, so the team has to decide if (a) they want to keep him (probably yes), and (b) how much they will pay to do so. Free agency may be the best route here, since the draft has some talent at the top, but by the time the Cowboys go on the clock, things could be pretty well picked over.
Interior offensive line
Need level: Low. With Williams coming on late, Frederick expected back, and Martin having a good year despite the issues elsewhere on the line, the starting jobs are in great shape. Looney is an excellent backup across the line. S’ua-Filo held down the starting job when needed, but was the weak link most of the time he was in. The team probably has a decision to make on whether to cut him or not, but may defer that until camp. And we really don’t know what they have in the other depth C/G players, but at least they have numbers.
How to fill: The draft looks decent if not great, and this is also a place the team might go for a second or third wave free agent signing, depending on what they think they already have.
Need level: Moderate. The depth chart shows a vacancy, but Demarcus Lawrence is going to be re-signed, or tagged again as a last resort. So that is effectively done for a starter. But you can never have too many pass rushers. Expect the team to add at least one more.
How to fill. Good news, the draft is seen as deep in edge rushers. That is the way to go.
Need level: Moderate. Thank you, Will McClay, for finding Antwaun Woods. For the first time in a long time, the need for a 1-tech is filled. Still need some depth.
How to fill: They should look to their own free agents first, as Caraun Reid and Daniel Ross are both in this category, with Ross an ERFA, giving them control in his case. And the draft is perhaps deepest here, so look for a mid-round draft pick investment.
Need level: Low. Smith and Vander Esch are arguably the best duo in the league, especially given their youth. And Lee has already indicated his willingness to be a backup if he elects to return rather than retire, which seems to be the way he is leaning. Add Thomas to the mix, and they are in good shape here, even with Damien Wilson expected to leave in free agency.
How to fill: The team probably will just look for a low-end free agent or late round pick to round out this group.
Need level: Low. Three solid to very good starters, plus a very capable backup in Lewis. More depth is always good, but it is hardly a pressing concern.
How to fill: Watch for someone that they have higher on their board than most to get snatched by McClay in the mid to late rounds of the draft.
Need level: Moderate. They are really looking for a fourth player here, since Showers is not likely to be an answer.
How to fill: Many are ready for them to go after Earl Thomas, but count me as one who doesn’t think that is a good answer given his age and injury history. The more likely path is the same as for corner - remember how they found Woods?
Need level: It depends on L.P. Ladouceur. If he wants to come back, the team will gladly pay him. If he retires, then this has to be addressed.
How to fill. This is one position you generally go free agent/UDFA for.
Ordering the priorities
So how does it all stack up? Let’s put the needs into three tiers.
Top tier: In rough order, running back, offensive tackle, wide receiver, and tight end are the big needs to fill. Those need to be addressed first.
Middle tier: Safety, linebacker, edge rusher, and defensive tackle are next, although in no particular order.
Bottom tier: Interior offensive line, cornerback, quarterback, and fullback are all areas the team seems to be in good shape and can just look for some depth at low cost, like UDFAs and real bargain-basement free agents.
Long snapper is a bit of a special case as noted above.
So that is how I see it. For once, they have plenty of cap space for any moves they need to make in free agency. With the Cowboys having six picks and probably picking up one compensatory pick, Dallas should be able to address important needs in the draft as well. The good news is that, pending some unforeseen circumstances, they are not looking for any starters for next year. All those are filled, or should be before the draft rolls around.