In part one of this three-part series, we looked at the offensive positions that the Cowboys need to fill or upgrade in the upcoming offseason. Now we’ll take a look at the upcoming defensive needs.
The defense has had a good year in 2015 but they suffer from a lack of sacks and turnovers. Worse, the Cowboys have multiple contracts expiring and could have as many as 5 new starters in 2016. So there are some major upgrades that need to be addressed while also filling several critical voids. Let’s take a look at each of the unit’s upcoming needs.
Well, the good news is that Orlando Scandrick will be back, but we do not know if/when he will be back to his pre-injury level. So will he be a starter or will he be the slot corner? For the sake of this article, let’s assume he is a starter and will move to slot in nickel situations. What else will the Boys need at corner?
With Tyler Patmon gone, I’m not sure who will be the backup slot corner, which would tend to make me think Dallas will need to address this backup need. Terrance Mitchell is playing slot now, but is that out of necessity more than preference? I really do not see them with Mitchell and Deji Olatoye both on the roster to start next year. One will go back to the practice squad; most likely Olatoye. My personal belief is that the Boys will address the backup slot corner either in the middle rounds of the draft or by signing a veteran backup.
So what about the three outside corner positions? You have to think that Mitchell could take the 5th corner position on the team due to his versatility and tough, physical play. So that leaves the two outside corner positions.
Most people believe Brandon Carr is gone. The Boys will dump his 13mil salary and use it to upgrade the corner position (or other positions). I agree. Not that he will be gone but that the Boys will not pay him 13mil. I am sure the Cowboys will ask him to take a cut this year. Carr could probably get another team to pay around 3.5-4 million (around the top 45 salaries) per year on the open market. So if the Boys came to him and guaranteed the 13mil but split it over two or three years, you would think that Carr would be foolish to turn it down.
By doing this, the Boys make Carr one of the primary three outside corners. He will be either the two or three (assuming Scandrick is the one) and that should also free up money for the Boys to look at signing a veteran shut-down corner. If there is a difference maker in the 8-10 million dollar range then the Boys should pull the trigger. If they do this, expect them to draft a corner in the mid-rounds to be the primary slot backup.
However, if they do not feel good about free agent options, another option would be to bring back Morris Claiborne. He can fill the second corner position and be the lead outside corner in the nickel. He had a good year and will probably be a fairly affordable option (4 to 4.5 million). It’ll be interesting to see if/what the Cowboys offer.
Another option would be to use one of their first two picks to get a corner who could start fairly early in his career. If they go with an early draft pick, expect them to get a seasoned vet to back up the slot and provide insurance for the rookie.
The last option is to use the 13mil in Carr’s salary to re-sign him, re-sign Claiborne, and to draft an impact rookie in the first three rounds. But that is probably not in the works. But we’re dreaming a little now, right?
Number of Positions: 5
Players: O. Scandrick, B. Carr, TBA (Mitchell or Olatoye), TBA (Draft Pick), TBA (Vet, maybe Claiborne)
Upgrade Needed: Starting outside corner (slot will be upgraded with Scandrick returning)
Optimal Scenario: Carr reduces salary 60%, Claiborne is re-signed, draft a great young corner in the 2nd or 3rd round who will contribute and be the primary backup for the slot corner.
If our plan for the corner position works out then Byron Jones can be left as the starting free safety. I like Barry Church at strong safety and J.J. Wilcox can be Church’s primary backup.
Jeff Heath is a free agent though I would be surprised if the Boys did not re-sign him. He is their backup to the backup insurance, and he is the special team’s guru.
So the only need at safety should be at backup free safety. This is a position that could go either way, draft or veteran free agent. I would think that because there are so many other free agents needed that the Cowboys would try to draft and develop someone. I could see a 4th or 5th round pick being used for a free safety.
However, if an opportunity to draft an elite free safety presented itself early in the draft, Jones could be used as a corner next year and that would eliminate the need to draft a corner. This is another scenario that could play out that gives the Cowboys more options during the draft, which is definitely a good thing.
Number of Positions: 5
Players: B. Jones, B. Church, J. Wilcox, TBA (Heath most likely), TBA
Upgrade Needed: Free Safety (keeping Jones there)
Optimal Scenario: Cowboys draft a starting corner early in the draft which allows Jones to stay at free safety. The Boys then draft a good developmental free safety prospect in the mid-to-late rounds.
Decisions regarding the linebackers will get interesting. Sean Lee will be there unless he retires due to concussion issues. By the way, if I’m the Cowboys, I shut him down so he is ready for 2016. That would also allow us to see what Damien Wilson has and give him some valuable playing time.
Anthony Hitchens is also going to be on the roster, hopefully as the primary backup to the Will and Mike positions. Wilson is on the roster and will be another backup Will. I actually think Wilson may turn out to be the best outside edge blitzer the Boys have.
Andrew Gachkar is also signed and will continue to be a vital player on special teams. I also like him better than Hitchens as a backup MIKE, but that is just me.
Now this is where the fun starts. Kyle Wilber and Rolando McClain are free agents. So there goes your best middle and strong side LBs. Yes, I know that Hitchens starts at strong, but he is not built for the position and so the Boys should look for a starting Sam LB that should be fairly affordable in free agency.
The Cowboys have Mark Nzeocha on the roster, but I’m not convinced the Cowboys will keep him unless they keep seven LBs. I think the last decision may come down to the Boys keeping 4 safeties and 7 LBs or 5 safeties and 6 LBs. If they do keep him, he will be primarily on special teams and the backup for the Sam LB position.
So what I envision is the Boys needing to replace a starting Mike LB and Sam LB. Though the chances of getting both with all of the other needs are pretty slim. You would think they bring in at least one vet. I do not think you will be able to get a starting Mike unless you use one of the first two picks, possibly the third. I do not think they value the Sam position enough to draft a SAM linebacker in the first three picks and I don’t think you can get a starter drafting in the fourth or later. So I think they address the LB position in free agency.
My guess is they re-sign McClain and pick up an affordable veteran who will play the SAM position and help on special teams.
Number of Positions: 6, possibly 7
Players: S. Lee, A. Hitchens, D. Wilson, A. Gachkar, possibly M. Nzeocha, TBA (Vet), TBA (probably draft)
Upgrade Needed: Starting LBs at middle and strong
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign McClain and sign a starting quality strong side LB
The DE position will likely be tumultuous and have the most change. Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey are both free agents and my gut says that neither will be back. Well, I say it’s 50/50 that Hardy returns.
Randy Gregory has not had the year we expected and will probably not be ready to start next year, so let’s slot him as the third DE and pass rush specialist.
DeMarcus Lawrence is getting better and I project him as the starting DE. But on which side he will play depends on who they sign in free agency.
So if that scenario plays out, the Boys will need to find a starting DE and a fourth backup DE. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dallas bring in a bigger run stuffing DE and use a third or fourth round draft pick on an undersized speed rusher in the mold of Lawrence and Gregory. This would move Lawrence back to the right side DE position.
If the Boys do re-sign Hardy (or someone like him), then look for them to draft a bigger DE that can be teamed with Lawrence on the left.
The DT is another position that will have change. Jack Crawford is a free agent; as is Nick Hayden. But the Boys do get Terrell McClain back at the one.
It looks like David Irving is the real deal and will play both DE and three-technique. I think he will be the primary swing DE/DT on game day. Basically, he will fill the position of fourth DT and fourth DE.
I project Ryan Russell to play the three-technique mostly. Hopefully, he is getting stronger and working on his explosiveness. But like Irving, he will play both DE and DT.
Of course the Boys have Tyrone Crawford signed long-term as the three, but it would not surprise me if he splits his time evenly between the one-technique and the three-technique. Personally, I think he makes a better one than three. He is a nightmare for centers.
The Boys are likely to keep 9 positions, so let’s look at what positions need to be filled. Working from lowest priority to highest:
9. Swing DE/DT – Ryan Russell
8. Fourth DE – TBA (Possibly Irving, if Jack Crawford is re-signed for backup three)
7. Back Up One-Technique – Terrell McClain
6. Back Up Three-Technique – David Irving
5. Third DE – Randy Gregory
4. One-Technique – Tyrone Crawford (could fill three if one technique is signed)
3. Left DE – TBA (If Hardy is signed, then Lawrence will fill)
2. Right DE – DeMarcus Lawrence
1. Three-Technique – TBA (Could be filled by Crawford if one-technique is signed)
So to summarize, there are three positions that will need to be filled. A starting DT (could be one or three), a starting DE, and the fourth DE. But if Jack Crawford is re-signed then Irving will be moved to cover the fourth DE and that will leave you with only the two starting positions which need to be addressed.
Number of Positions: 9
Players: T. Crawford, T. McClain, D. Lawrence, R. Gregory, D. Irving, R. Russell, TBA (DE starter), TBA (4th DE), TBA, (starting one or three technique).
Upgrade Needed: Starting One/three-technique, starting DE, backup three.
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Hardy (or an equivalent impact rusher), draft an explosive three-technique, move Tyrone Crawford to one-technique and re-sign Jack Crawford to back up the three (along with Irving).
That’s my assessment of the defensive needs the Boys should address this offseason. The Cowboys could wind up with a new starting DE and DT. In addition, they could have one or two new starting LBs. Finally, the Cowboys will likely have at least one new starting corner (not even counting Scandrick coming back) and could have two if they Boys cannot agree to a contract with Carr.
So there is a possibility that half of the Cowboys defensive starters will be new next year. That is a lot of change for a unit that performed well this year.
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of this series, I’ll dive into some of the trends and analyze possible next steps in a little more detail. Stay tuned.