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 DE Randy Gregory Reinstated, Will Join Team for Training Camp
The Dallas Cowboys patience with Defensive End Randy Gregory has paid off. Suspended for the better part of 2016 and all of 2017, Gregory has officially been reinstated to join the team for their 2018 training camp. The projected starter at RDE, Gregory will report to Oxnard with the rest of the team on July 25th.
From here, it will be all hard work for Gregory to reconnect with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli and get his promising career back on track. The last time Gregory suited up for the Cowboys, he managed to sack Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz in a week 17 win. The Cowboys will be expecting much more of this from a player they've supported through multiple violations of the league's heavily criticized substance abuse policy.
Cowboys pass-rusher Randy Gregory's petition for reinstatement was not opposed, according to lawyer Daniel Moskowitz. He's back. "I've never been more proud of any individual in my life. I'm very excited for Randy and his daughter and the rest of the his family.
Among this support staff for Gregory were a number of teammates that wrote formal letters to the NFL as part of his bid for reinstatement. These last few days of preparation before the Cowboys are together again as a team will surely be uplifted by Gregory's presence.
They say no news is typically good news at this point in the offseason, something the Cowboys have come to realize far too often. Today's news shouldn't be confused with a pleasant surprise however, rather something the Cowboys were committed to in getting another premier pass rusher on the field.
Here is the NFL's official press release on their reinstatement of Randy Gregory:
Cowboys, Elliott Should Keep Close Tabs on Le’Veon Bell’s Situation
The deadline for reaching an agreement with franchise tagged players came to an end last Monday, in what turned out to be a pretty uneventful day all around the league. No agreement was reached by any of the teams with their respective players, including the Dallas Cowboys and their promising "War Daddy," DeMarcus Lawrence.
But the Cowboys' front office have something to learn in this process that doesn't involve a player of their own. Something that both the front office and Ezekiel Elliott should be keeping a close eye on.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also failed to secure their franchise tagged player: Running Back Le'Veon Bell. Really, no one expected a deal to be reached among the two parties. The 26-year old football super star is asking for too much money, which has led to the Steelers tagging him twice in consecutive years.
Bell, conscious of his abilities on the field, is asking for a lot of money from his football team. In 2018, he's set to earn over $14.5M under the tag. That's more than twice the money that Devonta Freeman averages per year - 8.25 million - who's next on the list of highest paid running backs in the league and the highest paid on a long-term contract.
Just to clarify: Steelers' offer to Le'Veon Bell last year averaged $13.3 million per year. Steelers' offer to him this year averaged $15 million per year. But Bell does not believe he should be paid as a RB; he believes he should be paid as an elite offensive weapon.
Le'Veon, whose agent has said 2018 will likely be his last season playing as a Steeler, was reportedly offered $15M per year but that wasn't enough for him. Bell wants to get paid as an elite offensive weapon, which he is. But it turns out he's also... a running back.
It's a complicated situation and one that, if it turns out well for him in free agency next year, could revolutionize the entire running back market in the NFL. If it doesn't, he might end up regretting passing on the Steelers' offer for he won't easily find that kind of money with a team that seems to be a Super Bowl contender on a yearly basis.
The Dallas Cowboys' priorities will rely on other players during the next couple of years, but that shouldn't keep them from keeping close tabs on these events since they could be dealing with a similar scenario when Ezekiel Elliott's turn for a new deal comes around.
Fairly assuming that the fifth year option on Zeke's contract will be picked up after the 2018 season, locking him up through 2020, it's a problem that will be down the road for the Cowboys. But it will have to be dealt with at some point.
When his time is up, Elliott should undoubtedly be looking to become the highest-paid in the game, but the amount of money he gets will depend on the outcome of this whole Le'Veon-Steelers thing. David Johnson and Todd Gurley will also play an important role in determining the future of the running back market.
While Elliott hasn't been used as a receiving threat during his first two seasons in the league, he's still an elite offensive weapon for the Cowboys. The team's offense is based around Zeke and the running game, so it will make sense if his demands are somewhat similar from those by Bell.
Elliott might even be franchise tagged once or twice by the Cowboys if things get complicated in the future. Unlike DeMarco Murray in 2014, surely they won't be willing to let him walk in free agency once his contract comes to an end.
For now, it won't be just the Cowboys who will be keeping close tabs on this situation, but also Ezekiel Elliott and his agent. Hopefully, both parties will manage to handle things better than what we're seeing right now in Pittsburgh.
What’s Left for Cowboys to Offer in Deal for Earl Thomas?
Earl Thomas' latest subtle reference to the Dallas Cowboys on Instagram was not so subtle. In fact, Monday's post was more inspired by Thomas' actions at AT&T Stadium back in December. The Seahawks week 16 win had just eliminated the Cowboys from playoff contention, as Thomas tracked down Dallas Head Coach Jason Garrett in the tunnel afterwards.
Thomas' Christmas Eve wish to the losing coach, who finished 9-7 last season? "Come get me," which is well out of both Garrett's and Thomas' reach. Within reach has been Thomas' social media accounts, which he's used to stir up his displeasure with the Seahawks entering the final year of his contract.
Already seeing four time Pro Bowl Safety Kam Chancellor announce the end of his career this offseason, the Seahawks are going through a transition they have every right to include Thomas in.
The Cowboys, and several other teams around the league that undoubtedly have interest in Thomas, could also help the Seahawks speed up their rebuild by offering a package of young talent or draft picks.
The Cowboys last known offer for Thomas came during the NFL Draft. As first-round talent Connor Williams out of Texas waited patiently at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys made his dream of playing for America's Team come true instead of sending that 50th overall pick to Seattle.
With their new starting left guard in the fold, the Cowboys came back on the clock at 81st overall in the third round. Still in need of a wide receiver, the Cowboys stole Colorado State's Michael Gallup -- with a pick that the Seahawks reportedly turned down as compensation for Thomas.
Now, the Cowboys are preparing for their 2018 training camp with both rookies Williams and Gallup expected to start and contribute right away. The Seahawks will be expecting the same from their veteran in Thomas, as his post above makes it clear he's looking for an extension from the team prior to showing up for camp.
Whether or not Earl actually passes on the money he's due to play this season prior to hitting the open market is a different story. It should be one of little concern to a Cowboys team with expiring contracts on Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and other key players next offseason.
So what does the optimal (and rare) late-July trade for a star player look like for the Cowboys landing Thomas, and dealing with his contract situation afterwards? Here are a few scenarios that the team could see play out in training camp.
Confidence in Kris Richard Enough for Cowboys to Trade Young Secondary Piece?
Thomas' appeal as a member of the Cowboys goes far beyond his own interest in the team, his roots in Texas, or Dallas' old habit of bringing in premier talent at any cost.
The cost here for Thomas is whatever the Seahawks hold over the Cowboys head, relying on him being a starter in their secondary for the ninth consecutive season. The 13th overall pick at the 2010 draft could come the Cowboys way if they're willing to also help the Seahawks patented "Legion of Boom" secondary remain a strength of that team.
The Cowboys already have a key member of this Super Bowl winning Seahawks defense, their Secondary Coach Kris Richard. Richard takes over as the Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator, setting expectations sky-high for young starters like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods.
Letting Richard coach up this unit for a full year before the Cowboys part with anyone is a smart approach. Given the impact Thomas would have from the safety position in Dallas though, a spot the Cowboys currently lack a true difference maker at, moving on from some depth at cornerback could get a deal done with the Seahawks.
Players like Lewis, Marquez White, and Duke Thomas were all used sparingly as backup players in the Cowboys OTAs and mini camp. Knowing what Lewis can give them still as an outside or slot cornerback, the Cowboys may see their strength at CB as enough to upgrade significantly at safety.
Offering the Seahawks an athletic defender like Byron Jones, the converted safety that's projected to start on the boundary at CB for Richard's secondary, could be the most mutual trade these two teams make.
The Seahawks need a lot more than just a cornerback for Thomas, and the Cowboys need a more fortified reason to move on from any secondary players before a deal like this gets done.
Thomas agreeing to an extension with the Cowboys or the team not being able to get a Lewis or Anthony Brown on the field in Oxnard would be one thing to look for if actual trade talks are going to rekindle between these clubs.
Future Draft Compensation, Riskier for the Seahawks or Cowboys?
Let's preface this look at the Cowboys draft capital by remembering how high the team themselves -- and not just draft scouts, analysts, and college coaches -- are on Connor Williams.
Holding the Cowboys rookie offensive lineman to the standards of Earl Thomas, with 25 career interceptions and 11 forced fumbles, is preposterous.
The certainty Williams may offer the Cowboys at LG could ultimately be the key to getting Thomas in the silver and blue however.
Also committing to swing tackle Cam Fleming and backup Guard Marcus Martin in free agency, the Cowboys offensive line is looking as deep and talented as ever.
The team would obviously like it to stay this way, especially after seeing Dak Prescott sacked 32 times last year. I wouldn't anticipate the Cowboys trading away anyone of value on their offensive line for Earl Thomas, despite how much a need this is for the Seahawks.
The Seahawks did spend a fifth round pick on Ohio State OT Jamarco Jones. It was the only investment the team made into their offensive line, doing so with their fourth and final pick of that round.
Just how much a future second-round pick would mean to the Seahawks is impossible to define. For the Cowboys, it currently means Connor Williams, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jaylon Smith. Their three most recent selections in this round should put a rest to the narrative that they consistently blow this pick by taking massive risks.
Thus, sending away any pick that Will McClay and the Cowboys can get their hands on is risky for the Cowboys. Being one they were willing to take back in April, the pressure remains on the Seahawks to trust their draft process and get compensation at the end of Thomas' career.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Earl Thomas being traded to the Cowboys remains a story for Dallas because they are constantly the team expected to make a move like this. Few players have been as public about the team they want to join than Thomas bartering the Cowboys, and even fewer can believe that Jerry Jones has not gotten a deal done for him because of this yet.
With plenty still to offer and the 2018 season rapidly approaching, the Cowboys have time to wait this out -- so much so that Thomas could happily play for the Seahawks this season and become a free agent in 2019.
Enough waiting is going on throughout Cowboys Nation though. The Cowboys don't arrive in Oxnard until next Wednesday, with Thomas no closer to arriving then, later in training camp, or never.
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