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Planning for 2015: Breaking Down the Cowboys Offense

Draft Draft Blog - Planning for 2015: Breaking Down the Cowboys Offense

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Planning for 2015: Breaking Down the Cowboys Offense

It may seem premature to some to start looking at what the Cowboys will need next season, but one of the reasons I think Jerry Jones has repeatedly failed as a General Manager is that he is more of a fan of what’s going on right now, rather than a forward-looking planner.

Hopefully, Stephen Jones is paying attention to what is happening in college right now, and already thinking about next season.

One of the important things to look at when planning for the future is how personnel moves will impact the Salary CAP, and how current contractual commitments limit options.  As much as fans like to talk about certain college players with whom they are enamored, the reality is that the commitments teams have already made are going to influence the decisions they make on draft day.

This is the first article in a series of five articles which will look at the Dallas roster, and predict the draft priorities of the Cowboys in 2015.

With an eye on how current players impact the Salary CAP, and their current level of play, let’s look at the current Cowboys roster, and find out where the holes in 2015 will be, and where the prior commitments will likely lead them away from certain players.  This first article will deal with the offensive skill positions.

STARTING QUARTERBACK

Tony Romo is in the first year of his 6 year, $108 million contract extension.  While some think paying him an average of $18 million is a waste of money, the reality is that this is probably going to prove to be a bargain basement type of deal for an experienced starting QB.

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BACK-UP QUARTERBACKS

Brandon Weeden is in the first year of a two-year minimum salary contract.  Although he is 30 years old, this former 1st round pick from 2012 has few miles on his football odometer, and his strong arm and low salary make him a keeper for the next two seasons.

Dustin Vaughan surprised a lot of us when the Cowboys kept him on the final roster after training camp.  One of three undrafted free agents to make the team out of camp (Davon Coleman and Tyler Patmon were the other two), the Cowboys must see something they like in Vaughan to use a roster spot for him.  Like Weeden, Vaughan is on a minimum contract, making the backup QB spot a bargain for the Cowboys for the next couple of years.

[su_box title=”Conclusions – Quarterbacks” style=”glass” box_color=”#002b5c” radius=”2″]Unless Romo’s back completely gives out, the Cowboys are committed to him for at least another 3 seasons. They have zero incentive to spend a high draft pick to find Romo’s eventual successor in the 2015 draft. Also, they already have a former 1st round pick with NFL experience, plus a developmental prospect playing backup QB. So, even spending a low round pick on a quarterback seems unlikely.

With a scheduled $17.5 million salary in 2015, and a $27.8 million CAP charge, it is almost a guarantee that the Cowboys will restructure Romo’s contract in 2015 to make room to re-sign other young offensive stars such as Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray.[/su_box]

STARTING RUNNING BACK

DeMarco Murray is poised to have a career year.  I know that some will blame his upcoming season on this being a contract year for him.  I’ve never believed that players perform better in contract years.  The NFL graveyard is littered with the dead careers of many, many players who were duds in their “contract years.”  The real reason that Murray will have a career year is that the Cowboys have finally put a decent offensive line in front of him.  Combine that with Romo’s recovering back, and the Cowboys will lean heavily on Murray.  I expect him to have at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage, and he might approach 2,000 total yards.

The issue for the Cowboys is that in 2015, Murray will be a free agent.  If Murray believes the Cowboys are committed to the run, it is likely they will be able to keep him, but it will cost some money to do so.  This means the Cowboys will need to make some cuts in other areas on the team.

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BACK-UP RUNNING BACKS

Joseph Randle is the primary back-up running back who would fill in for Murray if he were to get injured.  I was against drafting Randle in 2013, hoping instead that the Cowboys would consider Zac Stacy or Latavius Murray.  But Randle has played with more power this year than in his rookie season.  He is actually a very good scheme fit for the zone blocking style of offense the Cowboys like to play.  Randle is also a very valuable member of the special teams coverage units.  He is still under contract for 3 more seasons.

Lance Dunbar is considered by many to be the stereotypical “change-of-pace” back.  Tom Landry is actually the one who invented the idea of a 3rd down running back specialist in the late 70’s.  When Tony Dorsett took over the starting running back position, Landry created a specialist role for Preston Pearson as an excuse to get him on the field.

But, if you harken back to the days of Emmitt Smith, you realize that a good running team doesn’t actually need a “change-of-pace” back if they have a primary running back that can block and catch passes, too.  Murray is that type of running back, which makes Dunbar less valuable.  Also, Dunbar is in the final year of his rookie contract.

Ryan Williams was a 2nd round pick of the Cardinals and is currently on the Practice Squad.  Many fans liked the way he ran the ball in preseason, but Williams’ lack of development in his pass protection blocking skills, his late preseason injury, plus his uselessness on special teams convinced the Cowboys to make him their final cut back in August.  If Williams can use this year to improve his blocking and also begin to contribute on special teams, look for him to challenge Dunbar for a roster spot in 2015.

[su_box title=”Conclusions – Running Backs” style=”glass” box_color=”#002b5c” radius=”2″]DeMarco Murray will be a priority Free Agent for the Cowboys to sign in 2015.  With Murray having such a great year so far, the Cowboys will need to come to the table with a generous offer to keep him.  Using Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy’s contracts as a guide, the Cowboys will need to offer him between $7.5 – 9 million per year, over a 4-5 year contract.  Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys offer Murray a 5 year, $40 million contract.

If this happens, then the Cowboys will not be using a high pick on a running back in 2015.  And it is unlikely they need to use a low pick on a running back either.  Ryan Williams gives them the leverage to resign Dunbar cheaply, or just promote Williams.[/su_box]

STARTING TIGHT END

Jason Witten is still considered one of the premier tight ends in the NFL.  I believe that will change in 2014.  Witten is now 32 years old, and is entering his 12th season in the NFL.  With the emergence of DeMarco Murray, and the hiring of Scott Linehan, expect Witten’s number to drop dramatically in 2014.  If Witten gets 50 catches this year for over 400 yards, I will be surprised.

Witten is still under contract for another 4 seasons, but is in the 4th year of his 7 year contract.  Because of his high profile as a leader of the team, it is unlikely that the Cowboys will cut him in 2015.  But after 2015, the Cowboys will likely release Witten as his production continues to fall.

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BACK-UP TIGHT ENDS

Gavin Escobar is not Jason Witten.  But he can be the equivalent of Jay Novacek for the Cowboys.  Like Escobar, Novacek was a long lanky slow-footed tight end who was not good at blocking.  Nevertheless, he was vital to the Cowboys success in the early 90’s.  Escobar might never reach the Hall of Fame level that Cowboys fans have become accustomed to with Witten, but don’t be surprised if he becomes the Cowboy’s starter in 2016.

James Hanna is the epitome of a journeyman backup player; the type of player every decent team needs for depth.  Hanna is not only a decent blocker in the run game, but is a valuable member of the Special Teams units.  In the 3rd year of a 4 year contract, expect Hanna to play out his rookie deal.  This is how 6th round draft picks should be used.

[su_box title=”Conclusions – Tight Ends” style=”glass” box_color=”#002b5c” radius=”2″]The Cowboys are pretty set at tight end for the next two seasons.  Don’t expect them to be using a draft pick in 2015 on another tight end.  While the Cowboys will undoubtedly sign some rookie free agents for training camp, they have no pressing need at this position.  And with Scott Linehan calling the plays, expect the tight end position to be de-emphasized in the overall scheme of the Cowboys attack.[/su_box]

STARTING WIDE RECEIVERS

Dez Bryant, many fans are worried that the Cowboys failure to resign Dez Bryant to a multiyear contract extension prior to the start of the season will cause the Cowboys to lose their most talented player in 2015.  That worry is misplaced.  Both the Cowboys and Bryant are committed to keeping the star wide receiver in Dallas for the foreseeable future.  So, even though Bryant is ostensibly a free agent after this season, he’s not going anywhere.  If all else fails, the Cowboys will use the franchise tag to keep him in Dallas; but, with both sides wanting to get a deal done, this probably won’t be necessary.

Terrance Williams. Those who know me know how heavily I was campaigning for the Cowboys to pick Williams with their 2nd round pick in 2013.  Fortunately, the Cowboys were still able to get him in the 3rd round, and his emergence allowed them to move on from the disastrous contract they gave the always overrated Miles Austin.

One of the big reasons I was so strongly in favor of drafting Williams (aside from the fact he led the nation in receiving yards) was his tenacity at blocking downfield.  Keep an eye out for Williams when Murray is running the ball, and you’ll see that he’s already developed into one of the better blocking wide receivers in the NFL.  Personally, I believe that Williams is in for a long career with the Cowboys, and is an ideal compliment to Bryant.

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BACK-UP WIDE RECEIVERS

Cole Beasley is the Cowboys version of a Wes Welker or Danny Amendola.  Although small, he seems to be able to stay healthy and has a knack for making first downs whenever he touches the ball.  His quickness allows him to get immediate separation, and as Witten’s touches decline, expect Beasley to become more and more of a safety blanket for Romo in 2014.  Beasley is in the last year of his contract, so if he plays exceptionally well, the Cowboys are in danger of losing him in 2015 to free agency.  However, with only 3 years in the league, Beasley will be a restricted free agent, giving the Cowboys the right to match offers other teams might make.

Devin Street is a tall, lanky talented rookie.  If the Cowboys lose Beasley in 2015, Street could step in as the 3rd receiver, with Dez Bryant moving in to the slot position in 3 wide receiver sets.

Dwayne Harris, like Beasley, is in the last year of his contract, and is eligible to be become an unrestricted free agent in 2015.  Although he sits below Beasley on the depth chart, Harris may be more valuable to the team because of his return skills.  Expect the Cowboys to try to resign Harris in 2015.  But also expect him to get some interest from other teams.

[su_box title=”Conclusions – Wide Receivers” style=”glass” box_color=”#002b5c” radius=”2″]With 3 of their top 5 receivers scheduled to be free agents in 2015, it is highly likely the Cowboys will lose at least one of them.  Beasley will get a qualifying offer, and a raise in 2015. But given the NFL’s general hesitancy to sign restricted free agents, I expect Beasley to be back.  On the other hand, the Cowboys might allow Harris to walk.  If they do, then expect them to target a kick returner in the mid to late rounds as a replacement for Harris.

I would keep an eye on the talented college kick returners this year to see who the Cowboys might target with their 4th through 6th round picks in 2015.

As for Bryant, restructuring Romo’s contract will give the Cowboys plenty of room to resign him next year.  One of the likely reasons the Cowboys were unable to sign Bryant to a contract extension this offseason was because of the success they had signing Tyron Smith to a long-term deal.  Smith’s contract ate up the available CAP space, and the Cowboys needed to keep some CAP room in 2014 in case they need it for replacement players if and when other players get injured.  But Bryant will command – and will get – a contract which rewards him as one of the best 5 receivers in the NFL.  Jerry Jones has never shied away from paying his stars, and Bryant will be no exception.

Bryant may not get the $16.2 million per season that Calvin Johnson earns, but he will sign for more than the $12 million per season that Miami paid Mike Wallace.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cowboys give Bryant a 7 year, $105 million contract at an average of $15 million per season – right behind what Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald make.  Keep an eye on contract extension negotiations for both A.J. Green and Julio Jones.  Both of those players are up for contract extensions in 2015, and someone is going to set the market price.[/su_box]

2015 FREE AGENT & DRAFT OUTLOOK

The Cowboys can create about $30 million in CAP space next season with a very few strategic moves.

The big free agent signings in 2015 will be at Wide Receiver and Running Back.  The Cowboys will likely spend a big chunk of money locking up Murray and Bryant in long-term contracts.  The Cowboys prepared for the need to sign Murray and Bryant by releasing Ware last season, and not offering a new contract to Hatcher.

The only significant losses the Cowboys can expect in their offensive skill positions are Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris.  With Ryan Williams waiting in the wings, and the development of Randle, I don’t expect the Cowboys to spend any draft picks on a running back, but they could use a late round pick on one if a talented player drops to them – or if Randle’s off the field issues continue.

On the other hand, I think the Cowboys will actively target a kick returner in the 2015 draft.  Harris fans may not like it, but spending a mid to late round draft pick on a replacement returner is a better use of resources than signing Harris to an overpriced contract.

The Cowboys could choose a defensive back or running back with very good kick return skills.  But they will likely target a wide receiver with kick return skills, because that fills two needs with one player.

2015 Draft Need – Kick Returner/Wide Receiver – target rounds 4-7

2015 Draft Option – Back-up Running Back – target rounds 6-7 or undrafted free agent

Engineer, writer and private NFL analyst, he began developing his own statistical analysis program in 1998 to measure and predict the performance of NFL teams. Scott is also a self-taught expert on the NFL salary CAP, analyzing how Cowboys contracts affect the team this year and in future seasons. Mr. Harris’ skill lies in digging inside the numbers to explain which statistical measurements matter, and which do not.

Mr. Harris developed his skill at writing for his college newspaper, and had his own politically oriented blog for several years. A passionate fan of the Cowboys, Scott uses his skill with numbers and writing to provide a unique viewpoint of the Cowboys and the NFL as a whole.

He is a native of the DFW metroplex and currently resides in Golden, Colorado designing environmental controls systems for data centers, high rise buildings, college campuses, and government bases.

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