Potential off-season plans have been a major topic of debate since...well...Thanksgiving? While the Cowboys don't have many major players ready to hit free agency, there are some controversial ones, mainly Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain and Morris Claiborne.
The needs on this team happen to align with what they are losing. The addition of Greg Hardy was key, as before he was added defensive end was one of the biggest needs on the team. It may end up a case of not knowing what you got until it's gone if Greg Hardy leaves and isn't replaced. There is a certain something that comes with having a proven veteran presence on your defensive line.
Rolando McClain began his season suspended, once again prohibiting him from having a normal off-season and early season routine. I was really curious to see what McClain could do with an entire off-season to work, a preseason to round into form and a regular season where he can find his groove. We saw what McClain could do as he got into his groove and really looked dominant in the third quarter of the season.
Morris Claiborne is the other big name free agent. This was almost certainly his best season as a Dallas Cowboy. A former top-10 pick with high promise, Claiborne was never fully healthy or anything near what we expected. We saw a glimpse of what Claiborne could be in the way he guarded Odell Beckham Jr. in week 1, and Julio Jones in week 3. The Cowboys are thin at cornerback and have a decision to make with whether they want to commit to Byron Jones as a cornerback or safety.
Players The Cowboys Must Re-Sign
With that being said, I think all but the latter should be a Cowboy in 2016. Greg Hardy should be able to be retained with a contract that is short-term and not too expensive. That is more than fair for what he brings on the field and off the field. On the field, he handles all the dirty work and causes havoc. He is someone that must be game-planned against and commands attention. He was a big reason for Demarcus Lawrence's maturation over the season. If you want to see Lawrence and Gregory mature into foundation pieces on the ends of the Cowboys defensive line, you have to make it easier for them with someone like Hardy. He serves as a mentor and teacher for them and doesn't force them to play too many snaps.
I completely understand being unable to accept or support Hardy for his off-the-field issues. If you are getting the guy who handled himself in the manner he did over the second half of the season, it makes things more tolerable. A long-term commitment would be harder to justify. Something short-term should be worth the risk.
Rolando McClain comes with some off-the-field concerns as well. His suspensions for drugs are concerning and he comes with questions regarding his commitment to the team and sport. When Rolando McClain is on, there are few better at the position. He combines the rare ability to strike fear in anyone running at him and the ability to cover downfield. I worry about the depth at mike linebacker. Anthony Hitchens shows promise, but he doesn't cover nearly as well as McClain. Sean Lee has a home at weak side linebacker and Damien Wilson seems to fit there more than mike.
While the lack of depth at cornerback is concerning, the injury concerns with Morris Claiborne seem too much to handle. A change of scenery for both player and team may be mutually beneficial. I think Claiborne will be given a good chunk of change elsewhere from someone thinking they can complete the reclamation project. If Claiborne were to accept a one year deal or something cheap, I would be interested, but I would spend my money elsewhere.
Now, where do you go outside the organization?
Free Agents The Cowboys Need For 2016
First stop on the train... Mr. Lamar Miller.
Yes, Darren McFadden looked great as the lead back for Dallas. However, he's going to be 29 and is extremely injury prone coming off of a huge workload. Not to mention, he isn't a true fit for their running style.
Lamar Miller is 24 years old, sparingly used by Miami and a perfect fit for what Dallas is trying to do. Miller has been great when used and could be the best running back the Cowboys have employed behind their phenomenal offensive line. For as great as DeMarco Murray was and how well McFadden performed, it is crazy to think that they still haven't had a true fit running the ball. I can't wait to see what it will look like when they find a fit.
Next stop would be Trumaine Johnson.
Johnson is a workout warrior who has all the measurables you look for in a cornerback. He was thrust into a major role with St. Louis this year and performed admirably. Johnson finished tied for second in the NFL with seven interceptions this season, tied with Kurt Coleman of the Panthers and trailing only Marcus Peters of Kansas City and Reggie Nelson of Cincinnati.
Forced turnovers were a place where the Cowboys were extremely lacking. The Cowboys finished with eight interceptions in 2015. Only the Baltimore Ravens had less with six. Trumaine Johnson ALONE had one less interception than the entire Dallas Cowboys team.
Johnson shouldn't be too expensive and still needs developing. With the right coaching he can develop into a top notch cornerback.
Lastly, believe it or not, I think you can afford to gamble on Robert Griffin III.
Did this year teach you anything? You can never have enough quarterbacks. If I never have to see Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore or Brandon Weeden again I would be very happy!
Let's face the facts, we have to prepare for not having Tony Romo for all 16 games in a season. We have to prepare for the future beyond Tony Romo. Signing a guy like Robert Griffin III doesn't mean you're moving away from Romo and it doesn't mean you don't draft a QB. Griffin would be quarterback insurance. If they love Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, Carson Wentz or any QB in this class, you still draft them. If the board doesn't fall in your favor and you miss on a QB, you have Griffin... just in case.
I am also a huge proponent of committing to sitting your drafted QB. If I draft a guy like Lynch or Wentz and I see them as a project, I would want Griffin to start games next season if Romo gets hurt, rather than thrust your young QB into action so early. Commit to sitting them by having a contingency plan. You can never have too many QBs and with a guy with as much talent as Griffin it should be worth it and shouldn't be too expensive.
Planning For 2016 Success This Off-Season
The off-season is that simple. You bring back Hardy and McClain and sign Lamar Miller, Trumaine Johnson and Robert Griffin III. You can do this pretty easily within the cap space. Cutting Barry Church brings the Cowboys cap space to almost $10 million - without adjusting for inflation in the NFL's cap - and moving money around like the Cowboys always do. Cutting Brandon Carr would bring their cap space to just over $16 million. Without moving money around, the Cowboys would be close to making all of these moves happen. They should have a fairly easy time affording all of this and putting together a roster that can do serious damage next season.
None of the signings and re-signings would deter the team from draft decisions. These moves would provide contingency plans so that you enter the draft without any major needs. You can draft best player available throughout the draft. Drafting with needs is what gets teams in trouble, especially when the Cowboys will be picking high in every round, with a couple compensatory picks in there as well.
This draft and free agency will be huge in building the future of the Dallas Cowboys. The team is at a crossroads right now, with the team being talented enough to win in the Tony Romo era, and young enough to create a dynasty going forward.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: LB Kyle Wilber
While not one of the glamour players for the Dallas Cowboys, linebacker Kyle Wilber has been a steady and reliable asset for six seasons. He is set to be a free agent this offseason, and his return to Dallas is hard to project.
A fourth-round pick in 2012, Wilber has only started 16 games but been active for nearly all of them. Even when not having a major part on defense, Kyle has been standout special teams player almost every season.
Dallas saw Wilber's value in 2016 and gave him a two-year extension after his rookie contract expired. Now, though, Kyle turns 29 in April and it may be time to give his roster spot to a younger option with more upside.
It's impressive that Kyle Wilber's lasted this long with the Cowboys. He was drafted to play outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 scheme at that time under Rob Ryan. When Monte Kiffin arrived in 2013 and the switch was made to the 4-3, Wilber was able to transition and stick around for five more seasons.
Wilber's depth value and special teams play earned him $3.25 million over the last two years. Would the Cowboys offer him a similar deal to stick around for another couple of seasons, or is it time to move on?
One factor helping Kyle is that even though Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia left for the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys promoted from within. Keith O'Quinn has been here since before Wilber's time and knows what he brings to the table. He could push to keep one of his veteran leaders around.
Another consideration is that Dallas isn't flush with linebacker talent at the moment. Anthony Hitchens is a free agent, and if he doesn't return then that only leaves Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Damien Wilson as the known entities.
The Cowboys haven't allowed age to stop them from doing business with Justin Durant the last few seasons. He was 31 when the team signed him last year for veteran depth and insurance.
Could Dallas offer Kyle Wilber a similar deal, one or two years max at a minimal salary, to stick around? It's very possible, and especially if they let him see what free agency has to offer for about a month.
Even if 2017 was the end of his Cowboys run, Wilber has been a success as a fourth-round pick. He's been there when needed and been a leader on special teams. Earning a second contract with your original teams is always an accomplishment.
We'll have to wait and see if he gets a third.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: OT Byron Bell
Offensive tackle became a problem position for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018. One guy who helped the situation was veteran backup Byron Bell. He is now a free agent, but Dallas could may be interested in bringing him back next year.
Bell was signed last March to provide depth and insurance on the offensive line. He had experience at both guard and center, starting almost every game since entering the NFL in 2011. Byron had missed all of 2016 with an ankle injury while a member of the Tennessee Titans.
After spending the first part of the year at the bottom of the depth chart, Bell was called into duty after a disastrous performance by Chaz Green in the team's Week 10 game against the Atlanta Falcons. With starting left tackle Tyron Smith injured, Green got the start and was obliterated by Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn to the tune of six sacks.
Byron got the start the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was clearly better than Green. He would remain the team's swing tackle the rest of the season and got another start in the meaningless Week 17 finale.
Now Byron Bell is a 29-year-old free agent. With Chaz Green seemingly a failed experiment, Dallas has to figure out what to do about their depth behind Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. Could they be in the market to re-sign Bell?
Given his vast starting experience and position flexibility, Byron may have some other suitors in free agency. Offensive linemen age slower than other positions, so 29 isn't the same mark of death that a running back or corner might deal with.
A likely scenario here is that Dallas, assuming they'd like to have Bell back at all, would let him test free agency and then hopefully re-sign him later in the offseason to a minimal contract. Like last year, he would make sense for insurance at the position and especially if the team is going to part ways with Green.
What's more, Byron has increased value after a year in the Cowboys system. Also, in 2017 he was coming off an entirely missed season with the ankle injury. He's a more attractive asset in 2018.
That increased value could be seen by other teams, too. While Bell has had his ups and downs, he's accomplished enough that his name will be noticed among other free agents. A team with major needs on the offensive line might even consider him to compete for a starting job.
We don't know what the Cowboys' interest level is in bringing Byron Bell back, but they may have competition for his services. Given the role he filled to finish 2017, he could wind up an underrated free agent departure this offseason.
4 Depth Players to Keep in Mind on Dallas Cowboys Roster
Maneuvering through the NFL offseason is a funny task for committed football fans, especially those of Cowboys Nation. Prior to the start of each new season bringing hope for all 32 clubs to reach the Super Bowl, every NFL roster enters a tumultuous state. Talent will be added through free agency and the Draft, while promising players will also be shuffled around through practice squads and training camp releases.
All of that to say, despite criticism for appearing stagnant so far this offseason on the heels of a 9-7 campaign, nobody knows what the Dallas Cowboys will actually look like in 2018. This is why I've decided to feature four under the radar players on the current Cowboys' roster below, all of which provide depth at positions of need.
TE Blake Jarwin
An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State, Blake Jarwin found his way onto the Cowboys' practice squad for 2017.
Jarwin showed enough promise early in his Cowboys career to earn fans on the coaching staff and throughout the organization, as he was promoted to the active roster in week eight. The Philadelphia Eagles were reportedly in position to snatch Jarwin from the Cowboys - who protected their versatile tight end.
The TE position remains unsettled for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond, with Jason Witten's production clearly declining. The Cowboys will also be on their third TE coach in three seasons this year, transitioning to Doug Nussmeier.
Nussmeier brings no previous experience as a TE coach specifically, meaning the team's overall philosophy on the position will still be determined heavily by Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. Favoring tight ends that can block in the running game over those with higher upside as receiving threats, Jarwin is a name to keep in mind as a tenacious blocker that plays with sound technique.
WR Lance Lenoir
This past summer, I had the chance to interview Dallas Cowboys WR Lance Lenoir following his signing with the team out of Western Illinois. In that interview, Lenoir shows off the confidence he took into training camp as a receiver that would have a hard time making the team.
By the end of this long season, the Cowboys went from being perceived as deep and talented at WR to in need of new play makers on the outside.
Perhaps pressing a bit through the preseason, Lenoir did provide practice depth as a reliable pass catcher and punt returner, struggling on special teams in live action and ultimately spending the season on the practice squad.
The 2018 NFL Draft features a deep class of talented receivers, and the Cowboys would be wise to draft one with real potential that can push up the depth chart in a hurry. As far as current options on the roster to fill this position, WR Lance Lenoir can't be overlooked as an athletic target with NFL size and strength - entering his second season in Dallas.
DT Datone Jones
A mid-season acquisition from the Green Bay Packers, Datone Jones flashed as a defensive tackle in the limited opportunities he received. A five-year league veteran, Jones showed the ability to play with power and leverage at the 1T position - a spot the Cowboys are thin at right now.
Jones' versatility also suited him well, playing with impressive burst and disruptive ability as a pass-rushing 3T.
The addition of one more starting caliber DT could truly put this Dallas defensive front over the edge. With how much Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli believes in his DL rotation though, players like Datone Jones can prove immensely valuable.
DT Lewis Neal
Similarly to Jones, Lewis Neal is a fan-favorite defensive tackle for the Cowboys. Neal has absolutely earned the attention he's gotten, a UDFA out of LSU that plays the 1T position better than expected given his size.
The Cowboys have gotten by in recent years with smaller, more mobile players at this interior DT spot, with Neal being their latest post-draft steal to make an impact.
Lewis Neal appeared in seven games for the Cowboys this season, finding ways to help those around him by anchoring the line of scrimmage and disengaging with active hands and a quick base. This is a player that should be a valuable part of the team's depth on the defensive line.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The year-to-year nature of the NFL can be a wonderful thing (unfortunately, ask any Eagles fan right now). Part of this reality is understanding that none of the players listed above may actually stick with the Dallas Cowboys for 2018.
Next week's NFL Scouting Combine will kick "draft season" into full gear however, as the Cowboys will be working to better understand their teams needs and how they can be addressed.
Jarwin, Lenoir, Jones, and Neal all contributed or showed the promise to do so at positions the Cowboys must improve at this season - warranting a closer look through this dull portion of the offseason.
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