On March 4th I put out an article with the Cowboys' top-five needs as I saw them at the time. We have had several transactions since then which have shifted priorities now as we had into the second week of NFL free agency. Here's a quick reminder of those needs as I saw them nine days ago:
Let's do a quick look at moves that gave impacted these positions and see how the rankings may have shifted.
UNSIGNED: Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey
Dallas has sat back while names like Olivier Vernon, Mario Williams, and Jason Pierre-Paul flew off the shelf quickly. There was rumored interest between the Cowboys and Chris Long but no visit was ever scheduled.
With no additions and two of their key players from last year remaining unsigned, plus Randy Gregory facing a four-game suspension to start the year, defensive end remains the team's biggest need. Long and Hardy are the two biggest names available but the Cowboys have yet to show any tangible interest in either. Much like we saw with the Cedric Thornton signing, Dallas could have their eyes on someone unexpected. I anticipate them signing someone with starting-level talent this week.
So far the Cowboys have focused on talent retention over adding fresh faces. Not only have they brought back Claiborne and Thomas at cornerback and Heath at safety but, to the surprise of many, Brandon Carr remains under his existing contract.
Dallas had a visit with free agent Nolan Carroll, previously with the Eagles, on March 10th but then ended up re-signing Claiborne a day later. The visit with Carroll may have been a negotiating tactic to push Claiborne to accept their offer. Perhaps Carroll is who they'd like to sign if they end up releasing Carr. Either way, it doesn't seem Dallas is interested in any of the top names in the cornerback market.
If Dallas keep Carr or adds another corner upon releasing him then it would all but confirm that Byron Jones will be a safety next year. Dallas would still have flexibility at safety as they can cut Barry Church for solid cap relief or release Heath as his restricted free agent tender is non-guaranteed. There would also be a minimal penalty for cutting J.J. Wilcox, leaving their options fully open.
Eric Weddle is still out there and many fans are clamoring for Dallas to give the veteran Pro Bowler. The Cowboys have been linked to Weddle but you never know how much stock to put in that, since Dallas gets thrown into almost every discussion to attract an audience. Still, Weddle remains an intriguing option and the only major name out there who I think Dallas could possibly be looking to add.
LOST: Matt Cassel (Titans)
Veteran Matt Moore visited with the Cowboys last Thursday but remains a free agent. Despite still having Kellen Moore signed it appears Dallas wants to bring in another veteran to compete with him, as well as whoever they may add in next month's draft.
Much discussed before free agency began as a potential target for the Cowboys, Robert Griffin III is still unsigned. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who many thought would get a starting job somewhere, may be looking for any kind of work if someone doesn't call him soon. It appears likely that Dallas will add one of these veterans in the next few weeks.
The Cowboys appear to have moved on from Hayden after three years with the addition of Thornton. After playing a 3-4 defensive end in Philadelphia Thornton will play inside in Dallas, having the size to play the one-technique but also some pass-rushing skills that could keep him on the field in nickel and other schemes.
Jack Crawford is a versatile lineman who can play both end and tackle, a role we've seen filled by both Mincey and Hardy over the last two years. I think Dallas could easily end up re-signing him after he's been able to test the market a bit, likely getting him for a minimal deal. The need may not be as much as before the Thornton signing but versatile reserves are never a bad thing at any position.
With the Thornton addition and the continued employment of Terrell McClain and David Irving, not to mention Tyrone Crawford, it would appear that the Cowboys are fairly set at defensive tackle. At most they will add depth options, such as the aforementioned Jack Crawford, or mid or late-round rookie talent.
ADDED: Rolando McClain, Kyle Wilber
After re-signing McClain and Wilber the Cowboys now have their entire 2015 linebacker corps returning. McClain will re-join Sean Lee as assured starters while Wilber will be in the mix with Andrew Gachkar, Anthony Hitchens, Mark Nzeocha, and Damien Wilson for the third starting spot and backup roles. The financial details of Wilber's deal are not yet known.
Dallas could still add talent in the draft but it would appear they are mostly done with the linebacker position in free agency. Not only are they bringing back all of their young prospects but Nzeocha is essentially a fresh face after missing most of last year with injuries. Compared to other positions, I think they will be content with the relative stability they have here.
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So with those moves, how have the rankings changed? Here is my updated top five:
- Defensive End
- Running Back
- Another Defensive End
We've already discussed the first two in detail. I put defensive end on here twice because the Cowboys are ridiculously thin at the position right now. Their Week One starters would be Demarcus Lawrence and Ryan Russell, who was active in just one game all last year. They clearly have to add some bodies and still need a starter opposite Lawrence who they can count on for a full year.
At running back, the situation behind Darren McFadden right now isn't great. Lance Dunbar is visiting other teams and Robert Turbin remains unsigned, leaving some guy named Rod Smith as the only backup. My free agent of choice is Alfred Morris, formerly of Washington, who has the kind of one-cut running style that suits our line very well. There are several other options out there but nobody jumps off the page as an upgrade to what Dallas would have by just re-signing Turbin. Whoever they add, we can all agree that significantly better depth is needed before entering a second year with McFadden. His history for performance and health problems after a big year is consistently ugly.
The departure of Mackenzy Bernadeau to Jacksonville leaves backup center as another important consideration. Ronald Leary is coming back but has not impressed when Dallas has tried him there before. There is talk that Zack Martin could play it in an emergency but that means impacting two positions. Another player with Bernadeau's versatility would be great but, with Leary re-signed, Dallas can afford to add just a pure center as well.
Could the Cowboys be more active this week now that the first wave and the big contracts have passed? We'll find out soon.