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.