Originally Posted by Wulfman
The Wulf Den: Personnel Perplexities
Standing on the eve of free agency, and with cuts and restructures going on all around the league, it’s time for us to identify just where the Cowboys will look to improve, both in free agency and the draft. The reality of the Cowboys’ cap situation is such that they will likely not be huge players in free agency, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do anything. And if they are able to work out a contract extension for Tony Romo as well as a long-term deal for recently-franchised Anthony Spencer, it will clear up enough cap space that they could potentially be busier in free agency than many have anticipated.
[View Full Quote]Since we are approaching March Madness, I thought I’d take a look at the roster, see who’s in, who’s on the bubble, and who is likely on the outside looking in for a spot on the roster next season. After all, the only way to really know what you need is to first get an accurate survey of what you’ve got.
*Who’s In: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton
* On the Bubble: N/A
The Cowboys have no need of another QB aside from having a couple of young arms when they head to training camp. They already have one on the roster in Nick Stephens, and they will likely get another following the draft. There is a possibility that the Cowboys could draft a developmental QB, but with Romo likely to get a 4-5 year extension, it’s hardly a necessity. Keep an eye on players at the position that slide into the middle rounds, especially Tyler Bray from Tennessee. Cowboys’ Wide Receivers Coach Derek Dooley was his head coach with the Volunteers, and will know how this young man ticks. If Dooley has signed off on Bray, don’t be surprised to see the Cowboys use a mid-round pick on him.
* Who’s In: DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar
* On the Bubble: Phillip Tanner, Lawrence Vickers
With the departure of Felix Jones in free agency, the Cowboys will need someone to step in as the primary back-up to Murray. Whether in free agency or the draft, that person needs to be able to carry the load for several games, if necessary, as Murray has yet to show the ability to remain healthy for an entire season. Dunbar is more of a change of pace back, and it’s doubtful he could take the pounding as the primary ball-carrier. Many had hoped that Tanner would step up to fill this role, but he showed little to no improvement last year, and I doubt he’ll be around after training camp.
The Cowboys could address the position with a low-level free agent like Peyton Hillis, who played for RB Coach Gary Brown in Cleveland and had his most productive years there. More likely, however, is to target a RB in the middle rounds of the draft the way they did when acquiring Marion Barber and Murray, himself. Stepfan Taylor from Stanford, Jonathan Franklin from UCLA, or Mike Gillislee from Florida are three guys that could be available in the third or fourth round. Another interesting name to watch is Stefphon Jefferson from Nevada. How anyone could be considered under the radar when they are second in the nation in rushing with 1883 yards and 24 rushing TDs is beyond me, but it appears to be the case with Jefferson. He can catch the ball out of the backfield as well, and has the size (5-11,210) to be an every down back. Some team is going to get a late round steal with this guy.
I don’t really expect the Cowboys to release FB Lawrence Vickers as some do, despite a so-so season last year. It may become a cap necessity, but I doubt it considering the other moves the Cowboys have already made. Vickers, too, played for RB Coach Brown in Cleveland, and had some significant success in paving the way for Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison, and Hillis. I believe the thinking is that improved play on the offensive line will help the running game far more than a change at the FB position.
* Who’s In: Jason Witten, James Hanna
* On the Bubble: Colin Cochart, Andre Smith
The Cowboys need a third tight end, and I’m not sure he’s currently on the roster. This is Cochart’s second time around with the Cowboys, but what they really need is someone who is a solid in-line blocker, and he simply doesn’t have the size for that job. Smith has better size, but is unproven as well. A middle or late round draft pick could be used on a tight end as I see little chance the Cowboys waste precious salary cap space on a free agent to be the #3 on the depth chart. A guy that I like as a possibility in the 5th round is Alabama’s Michael Williams. He’s got excellent size (6-6, 267) and dispelled some concerns about his speed by running a 4.52 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s also an outstanding blocker, and seals the defensive end as well or better than anyone else in the draft. I heard one scout say that Williams would “block your face off.” That sounds about like what I want in that position, and you know he’s been well coached coming out of Nick Saban’s program at Alabama.
* Who’s In: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris
* On the Bubble: Danny Coale, Cole Beasley, Anthony Armstrong, multiple others
There was a lot of speculation that Austin could be released as a salary cap move, or that the Cowboys would just let him play out his contract and leave. With the restructuring they did, however, it appears he will, indeed, be in Dallas for at least one more year, and possibly longer than that. Dez came into his own last season, and should only get better with experience. Harris came on late in the season, both as a returner and as a receiver, and was, for all intents and purposes, the #3 receiver by season’s end. Kevin Ogletree is a free agent and won’t be back. Beasley started making plays in training camp and never really stopped taking advantage of the opportunities he was given. A solid offseason for him, and his role could increase this year. Danny Coale essentially had a redshirt year as a rookie, battling multiple injuries that eventually landed him on IR. I almost put him in the “Who’s In” category simply because I can’t see the Cowboys not keeping him on the roster with a chance to see what he can do, when healthy. But it wouldn’t be the first time a draft pick didn’t make the roster, so I put him “On the Bubble” instead. I fully expect him to earn a spot and contribute in a significant way this season. Anthony Armstrong was a late season addition, and is a veteran with serious downfield speed. Unfortunately, he’s not been able to stick with several previous teams, so whether or not he manages to do so in Dallas remains to be seen. There are a number of other young guys on the roster, and I think the Cowboys will give them the opportunity to fight it out for a final roster spot rather than go out and bring in another free agent or use a draft pick on another receiver. That’s not to say they won’t take one at all, especially if one slides to them. But I can’t see them going into the draft targeting a receiver, and will be more likely to fill out the position for training camp with undrafted rookies.
* Who’s In: Tyron Smith, Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Ryan Cook, Mackenzy Bernadeau
* On the Bubble: Doug Free, Kevin Kowalski, David Arkin, Ron Leary, multiple others
Everyone expected Doug Free to be canned and designated as a June 1st cut for salary cap relief. And while I said I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened, I also indicated in my last article that it wouldn’t surprise me if they restructured his contract—significantly lowering the non-guaranteed portion of the deal and pushing the bulk of it into the future—and then let him compete for the starting RT job with Jermey Parnell. Considering they have not done anything yet, the question still remains. It’s not as if cutting him now and designating him as a June 1st cut would in any way lessen the salary cap immediately, since the savings wouldn’t take effect until June 2nd, so they don’t have to be in any hurry. What they ultimately do with Free will likely come down to two things: whether or not he’s willing to take a pay cut and what becomes available in free agency or the draft. If they get a chance to take a good young OT in the draft that they think can come in and start on the right side—or at least challenge Parnell for the job—I think it becomes much more likely that Free is released.
On the inside, I put four players on the “Who’s In” section simply because they have either restructured their contracts or have agreed to do so, should the Cowboys need the space. That at least suggests to me that the Cowboys currently have the intention of retaining those players. I will say, however, that I don’t think any of them are guaranteed a starting job or even a spot on the roster, as there could be improvement at all three interior positions. Kevin Kowalski essentially lost a year to injury in 2012, and he’ll have to stay healthy if he wants to have any chance of claiming a back-up role or challenging Costa for the starting position. Ron Leary was coming on as a member of the practice squad from the reports, and a solid offseason could mean that he pushes for a starting position. David Arkin has little to no shot at making the roster, and I’ll be surprised if he makes it past the first round of cuts. The rest of the guys on the roster are camp bodies, for the most part, so it would take some serious effort on their parts to make the roster.
A lot of fans are crying for the Cowboys to improve the offensive line in free agency and the draft, and I think the latter is more likely. So while I’d love to see RT Andre Smith or G Andy Levitre in Dallas, I think their price tags might be a bit too high. And let’s face it, the Cowboys went the middle-tier free agent route last offseason when they brought in Livings and Bernadeau, and that didn’t exactly prove to be the greatest of decisions. In the draft, I’d gladly take any of the “big 5” offensive linemen (OT Luke Joeckel from Texas A & M, OT Eric Fisher from Central Michigan, OT Lane Johnson from Oklahoma, G Chance Warmack of Alabama, and G Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina) at #18 in the first round. But of those five players, I think only one, at best, will be available when the Cowboys go on the clock, and that will likely be one of the guards. Warmack is rated higher on my board, but I actually prefer Cooper for the Cowboys because of the movement they’re wanting to use on the offensive line. Having said that, I don’t think the Cowboys will use a pick on an interior O-lineman in the first round. The guard class is deep this year, and I think the Cowboys will get one later in the draft and use their first round pick to get a player with more “sizzle.” Again, I’m not saying it’s what I would do, and a lot will ultimately depend on how the first 17 picks fall.
* Who’s In: Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lissemore
* On the Bubble: Marcus Spears, Rob Calloway, Ben Bass, Brian Schaefering, multiple others
The biggest question has apparently been answered with Spencer receiving the franchise tag for the second consecutive year. Now the Cowboys could still trade him for a draft pick if they can’t work out a long-term deal, but I don’t expect that to be the case unless someone blows their socks off with a trade proposal. I think it much more likely that they sign him to a “reasonable” contract in the 5-year, $45 mil range. After that decision is made, however, the Cowboys still have work to do at DE. They could bring in a lower tier FA to serve as a pass-rushing back-up to Ware, but I think it more likely that they look to the draft and the younger guys already on their roster to find that depth. So for those out there daydreaming about Dwight Freeney or Cliff Avril coming to Dallas, I think you can rule it out.
Like the outside, the primary question on the inside of the defensive line is depth. As it stands, you have a three-man rotation, and you really want a fourth. Calloway is the purest NT on the roster, but Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffen has never had to have that giant guy for his defensive line to work. Instead, he wants explosive upfield penetration, applying pressure into the backfield as quickly as possible. The top DTs will likely be off the board before the Cowboys pick, so the likelihood of Sharrif Floyd from Florida or Star Lotulelei from Utah being available is slim (assuming Lotulelei’s heart condition checks out). If a player like Sheldon Richardson from LSU were to be available at #18, though, I think they’d definitely have to consider taking him. If those three are all gone, however, I really hope they don’t reach at the position. Sylvester Williams from North Carolina and Kawann Short from Purdue are both good players, but I don’t think either of them is worth the #18 pick. If either of them are still on the board in the second round, you take them and don’t look back. A couple of other guys to keep an eye on are Jordan Hill from Penn State and Montori Hughes from Tennessee-Martin. Both look like they may have that initial explosiveness Kiffen wants, and could be available when the Cowboys go on the clock in the fourth round. Another guy I really like is DE Cornelius Washington from Georgia. He was impressive at the Senior Bowl, then turned in a 4.55 40-yard dash at the combine. I think he would be a good candidate to back-up Ware on the weak side, and his draft grade currently is around the 5th round. He worked out as a LB at the combine as well, though, and his performance may have his stock climbing with 3-4 teams who view him as an OLB as well.
* Who’s In: Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Alex Albright, Kyle Wilber
* On the Bubble: Dan Connor, Caleb McSurdy, Orie Lemon, Brashton Satele
Many people, myself included, think Albright and Wilber will battle it out for the starting strongside linebacker (SAM) position. Whichever one wins that battle, the other will serve as the primary back-up, so you will have decent depth. That can’t necessarily be said at the middle linebacker (MIKE) or weakside linebacker (WILL) positions. Connor has been told to either take a cut in pay or be released, so we’ll see whether or not he’s willing to do so. Having a veteran as a back-up in the middle would be nice despite Connor’s struggles last year, and the MIKE position in a 4-3 defense may fit his skills better than his role in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense. The problem then becomes depth behind Carter at the WILL position. McSurdy is an ILB, so it’s unlikely he can play outside. Can Lemon do so? I honestly don’t know if he has the movement skills necessary for the position, so even though Carter won’t come off the field very often, it is a position of concern. I had hoped they might bring free agent Ernie Sims back, as I think he could provide that depth for a reasonable contract. But the latest indications are that the Cowboys aren’t looking to bring him back at least until they review other options. So if there’s an OLB in the draft that slides a bit, or one that they really like, the position could be a target in the middle or late rounds. I personally like both Sio Moore of Connecticut and Jamie Collins from Southern Mississippi, but both are climbing draft boards around the league and may be gone by the time the Cowboys go on the clock in the third round.
* Who’s In: Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, Matt Johnson, Danny McCray
* On the Bubble: Sterling Moore, Vince Agnew, Micah Pellerin, Brandon Underwood
At cornerback, the Cowboys are essentially set at their top three positions. They will keep at least four on the roster, and I liked what little I saw out of Sterling Moore last year when he had some opportunities. He may also have some position flexibility which helps his chances of making the roster. As for the rest of the cornerback crowd, no one really stands out. It’s a spot that they could look for depth in the draft if a player comes available, but I doubt it will be targeted early after they addressed it both in free agency and in the first round last year. I like what I saw of B. W. Webb from William & Mary and Robert Alford from Southeastern Louisiana in the Senior Bowl, but they’re both climbing a lot of draft boards, and they might not be available when the Cowboys go on the clock in the third.
The situation at safety, though, is of much greater concern after the release of Gerald Sensabaugh. Not only does it mean a change at the starting position, but they currently only have three safeties on the roster. Of those three, Church is coming off of a serious Achilles injury, Johnson spent the entirety of his rookie season wrestling with assorted injuries, and McCray showed he is, at best, a situational safety whose greatest assets are in playing on special teams. This position, to my mind, is as important to address as any other on the team. In a perfect world, Church and Johnson would be your starters, and both would be 100% ready to go. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are WAY too many questions to feel at all comfortable with where the Cowboys stand. I think they need to address this position both in free agency AND the draft. I don’t see them trying to attract a high-priced free agent like Dashon Goldson, but a lower level guy could certainly find his way to Dallas. Personally, I’d love to see them pursue Ronde Barber, who successfully made the switch to FS last year and knows the defense better than anyone not already on the coaching staff. He could come in for a year or two and help teach the system to the younger guys while providing high quality leadership. As for the draft, this is a deep class, so the Cowboys should be able to get a quality player. I’d be hard-pressed to pass up on Kenny Vacarro from Texas if he were available at #18, but I’m not sure he’ll still be on the board with several teams just ahead of them (Pittsburgh and St. Louis, among others) in need of a safety. To my mind, there’s no other safety worthy of a first round pick. In the second round, though, I’d gladly take Florida’s Matt Elam or Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien if they were available when the Cowboys go on the clock. I also like Phillip Thomas from Fresno State and Tony Jefferson from Oklahoma as possible candidates in the third round. Another name to keep an eye on is USC’s T. J. McDonald. He played in Kiffen’s defense last season, so the Cowboys will know for certain whether or not he’d be a good fit. If Monte signs off on him, he could be an option in the fourth round.
* Who’s In: Chris Jones, Dan Bailey, L. P. Ladouceur
* On the Bubble: N/A
The biggest need was to re-sign L. P. Ladouceur, and they took care of that already. Jones will be fully recovered in plenty of time to reclaim his job as the punter, and Bailey could be in Dallas for a long time.
The Rest of the Story
Looking at the breakdown, it’s fairly clear where the question marks are. The Cowboys have to make some moves on the offensive line and at safety in order to even field a competitive team. They need depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, as well as a quality back-up at both running back and tight end. That’s a lot to take care of, and with only six picks currently in the draft, there’s no way they can fill every need that way. So expect some low-level activity on the free agent front, if for no other reason than to “fill holes” on the roster before heading into the draft. The Cowboys have shown in the past that they prefer to operate that way, freeing them up as much as possible to go with a “best player available” mentality with each pick, and I see no reason they won’t do the same again this year. The biggest question remaining is just when (and if) they’ll be able to work out long-term deals with Romo and Spencer to free up the money to do so. Assuming they do, expect an offensive lineman and a safety to be added to the roster, as well as possibly a veteran outside linebacker, prior to the draft.
Very informative, Wulfman, great post!