(Click HERE for Part One of this two-part series.)
Yesterday we started looking at the roster and focused on the guys either definitely or highly likely to be in next year’s training camp. Today the conversation turns to far more questionable players, those either entering free agency or with contract and performance issues that could lead to their release. This promises to be a more interesting and controversial discussion, so I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the Comments section!
TIER 3 – The Probables
Players: L.P. Ladouceur, Kellen Moore, Rod Smith (RB), Vince Mayle, Rod Smith (WR), Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford, Chris Whaley, Casey Walker, Mark Nzeocha
Analysis: Everyone listed here is under contract for 2016 except for Crawford. Ladouceur probably could’ve been in Tier 1 but he does cost about $1.2 million on the cap. If times got tough there’s always the chance that Dallas could cut him and bring back one of the young long snappers they’ve had in past camps. It’s doubtful given Ladouceur’s perfection at his craft.
The Kellen Moore Truthers out there not doubt feel he should be higher than this, but he could easily be cut if Dallas ends up adding Robert Griffin III or some other veteran free agent. I think they’d keep Moore regardless of what happens in the draft so that there’s a veteran in the mix at camp.
Jack Crawford is an unrestricted free agent who I think Dallas will try to lock up before the market opens. His versatility as an inside/outside lineman is attractive and fills a gap created by the likely departure of Jeremy Mincey. He also has not had enough exposure during his Dallas tenure that he or his agent would expect much success in free agency, meaning they’ll likely jump at whatever Dallas offers.
Speaking of defensive tackles, McClain and Whaley are both injury-plagued guys that Dallas has been footing the medical bills for for at least a couple of years. There’s no real cap benefit to cutting either, so I think Dallas will continue to hope in getting return on their investment and bring them back to compete. McClain has shown he can be a factor when healthy and could wind up replacing Nick Hayden if things finally go well for him physically.
The rest of the players are young prospects who should get to camp but do run the risk, like any depth chart bottom dwellers, of being squeezed out by other signings or draft picks. I’m fully prepared for any of them to be released but not based on current circumstances.
TIER 4 – The 50/50 Club
Players: James Hanna, Ronald Leary, Greg Hardy, Nick Hayden, Rolando McClain, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Jeff Heath
Analysis: This is where things get interesting. I could probably do an entire article on just Hardy or Carr or Claiborne, among a few others. We’ll try and cover as much ground as we can here.
Hardy is a very unique case. He’s made a ton of money the last two seasons from his incentive-heavy deal with Dallas and the franchise tag from Carolina in 2014. Dallas has already eaten the public outcry from signing and keeping Hardy during his personal problems. With Hardy coming off a down year and having already earned massive paydays, there’s a chance Dallas could secure him with a modest deal. He’s still just 28-years-old and flashed his dominance at points during the year. It will all come down to how much Dallas wants to deal with the headaches and whatever issues Hardy poses in the locker room, and only they really know what their breaking point is.
It’s unfortunate that Claiborne’s free agency coincides with the Carr situation, because that is hurting Dallas’ leverage in dealing with both of them. Dallas can free up about $6 million by cutting Carr outright and $9 million if they spread the hit over two years. His camp refused to discuss a salary reduction last year but his market value would be even lower now. Ideally you would just release him and upgrade the position with someone who is a better fit for the scheme, but that’s where Claiborne’s potential departure creates issues.
With his rookie deal now expired, Claiborne will be an unrestricted free agent. As a former sixth-overall pick he hasn’t been underpaid, making over $16 million during his first four years. It’s unlikely that Claiborne could even get that kind of money in free agency now despite being just 26-year-old (as of Feb 7th), given his injury issues and lack of performance. How much does Claiborne want to remain in Dallas? How much do the Cowboys feel he could still contribute? These will determine if they even discuss a new deal, and perhaps this will ultimately decide Carr’s fate as well.
Rolando McClain is the last of the major question marks. He really turned it on toward the end of the season and will still be in his prime at 27-years-old entering free agency. McClain has proven to be a game-changer when he’s motivated, but that is the eternal rub when it comes to him. How much stock can you really put in what McClain did during a contract year given his history of retirements and off-and-on performance? Dallas could look to bring him back on another one-year, incentive-laden deal but I doubt they’ll go beyond that. McClain didn’t attract any flies in free agency last year so perhaps he’ll take whatever he can get.
Ronald Leary and Jeff Heath are both Restricted Free Agents who were previously undrafted. Dallas would likely be able to secure Leary with the $2 million (projected) second-round pick tender, making him a strong backup at a reasonable price. The question there, which I plan to write more about soon, if whether or not they really want to cost Leary his shot at a starting job and bigger payday elsewhere. Heath they could probably give the $1.5 million original pick tender to if they really value his work on special teams, but they’ll likely just let him test the market and bring him back for even cheaper if at all.
Nick Hayden will again be an unrestricted free agent and I hope that they finally look for an upgrade. I’ve never understood why they like Hayden so much. He’s a 4-3 tackle who can’t rush the passer and doesn’t consistently stop run. I get he’s probably a nice locker room guy but you could do much, much better and need to given the state of the defensive line. I really hope they find a difference-maker this offseason who can free up Tyrone Crawford to be more of a disruptive presence.
James Hanna will also be a free agent and probably has way more value to the Cowboys than anyone else. He is a far better blocker than Gavin Escobar and might even be able to play out of the backfield with Tyler Clutts also being a free agent. Dallas might offer him a solid deal not only for what he can do now but also as insurance and leverage in 2017 for when they have to make a decision on Escobar’s future.
TIER 5 – The Unlikely
Players: Matt Cassel, Lance Dunbar, Robert Turbin, Tyler Clutts, Charles Brown, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Jeremy Mincey, Kyle Wilber, Josh Thomas, Danny McCray
Analysis: Matt Cassel is a free agent and I don’t think any of us will be disappointed to see him go. I’m really surprised that he couldn’t do more with what he had to work with, especially given the uptick in play we saw from Kellen Moore. Cassel had clear confidence issues on the field and that completely destroys any value he had as a veteran presence.
Lance Dunbar was poised to have a breakout year after his first few games but ultimate just broke, landing on Injured Reserve for yet another season. He is now 26 and, despite the clear talent, has shown no ability to stay on the field. Dallas could bring him back for a minimal deal but I imagine they will look to younger plays at the position with the shortest shelf life. Robert Turbin, also 26 and a free agent, seems unlikely to return.
Dallas tried to find a better fullback than Tyler Clutts last year, signing Jed Collins and Ray Agnew III before they ever brought Clutts back. I imagine they will again search for an upgrade, or perhaps just use Hanna or another tight end in the role.
Bernadeau has starting experience and versatility as a guard or center. He could end up starting somewhere as a stop-gap given that he’s 30-years-old. I think Dallas would be happy to bring him back as a backup but he’ll want to see what his options are before re-signing. Charles Brown was brought in as a stop-gap himself but I’m sure Dallas will look to other options for their tackle depth chart.
Mincey has said he’d like to return to Dallas but I think they’ll look to get younger. As already mentioned, Jack Crawford provides the same versatility and Dallas should be looking to make several upgrades to the defensive line this offseason. Another free agent is Kyle Wilber and he may end up signing with a 3-4 team to get back to the pass-rushing that originally got him into the NFL.
Lastly, defensive backs Josh Thomas and Danny McCray are both veteran free agents at the bottom of their depth charts. It is rare that those guys come back, and especially given the overhaul we expect the Cowboys to make in the secondary.
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There are other players associated with the team right now; 11 guys signed to Futures contracts. Any of them could end up at training camp or are just as likely to be dumped to make room for other prospects who become available from waivers, undrafted free agents, and so on. There’s really no point in getting into those guys given the state of flux.
The dominoes should begin falling sometime in early-mid February. We’re sure to go even deeper on some of these topics, especially those top defensive free agents, in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned!