We’re just a few more days away from the official start of the NFL free agency period. Many things could and likely will happen between now and March 9th: Brandon Carr’s release, Morris Claiborne and Rolando McClain being re-signed, and contracts being restructured. The Cowboys’ true spending power for next week’s market is yet to be determined.
For today, let’s take a snapshot of were things are and what the biggest needs will be if nothing changes before next Wdnesday. Here are the five biggest roster needs as of now:
1. Defensive End
Already a top concern before a few weeks ago, the need drastically increased with the news of Randy Gregory’s four-game suspension. With Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, and Jack Crawford all currently free agents, that leaves just DeMarcus Lawrence and Ryan Russell as signed players who could play in Week One.
With seven sacks in his final eight games of 2015, Lawrence is sure to start no matter who’s added. Russell was a fifth-round pick last year who was inactive in 11 of 12 games and then went on injured reserve. Clearly, the need for help is enormous.
Comments last week from Jason Garrett made it fairly clear that Hardy will not be re-signed. Dallas could look to bring back Mincey or Crawford, perhaps even both, on minor deals. However, they will certainly look to add a true starter to pair with Lawrence even after Gregory’s suspension is over.
At this point, Gregory hasn’t shown he can be more than a situational pass-rusher. As promising as he looked in last year’s preseason, the injury and lack of performance afterwards are concerning. Now with the drug-related suspension, Dallas can’t count on Gregory until he improves his track record.
Even if Gregory was reliable Dallas would still be in the market for defensive ends. Whether it’s bringing back some of their own free agents or adding fresh faces, they should be active at this position over the next two months. With Gregory’s issues, the fourth-overall pick in April’s draft is also a possibility.
The position flexibility of Byron Jones makes it hard to separate the defensive backs. Stephen Jones recently said that they would like to play him at safety but that the decision is not final. Obviously, the next two months go will play a major part in where Byron is ultimately used.
Stephen also said that Dallas hopes to bring back free agent Morris Claiborne. What Claiborne gets paid will be a strong indicator of the level of trust they have in him. I would expect a modest deal befitting a number-three corner or occasional starter. Anything beyond that would be, hopefully, out of Dallas’ price range.
With Orlando Scandrick returning from a major knee injury and Carr likely to be cut in the next week or so, there’s still significant need even if Claiborne returns. Dallas will need to add one player of consequence at either corner or safety depending on where they want to play Byron Jones.
They may need two secondary players if they look to completely overhaul the safety position. Barry Church could be released for $4.25 million in cap relief and J.J. Wilcox would save $1.65 million. With Jones ready to fill one spot they may look to add an upgrade beside him and let both of last year’s starters go. But again, Jones playing safety increased need at cornerback.
Many are likely looking past free agency to the draft, hoping that Jalen Ramsey from Florida State will fall to the Cowboys. It’s a dangerous scenario to let the top free agents and rely on the draft to fill needs. Perhaps Dallas sees Claiborne as their insurance policy and are okay with him starting next year.
I like danger in my movies. I occasionally eat stuff well past the expiration date. I’ve been known to drive with about half my windshield still covered in frost.
Living dangerously with your secondary, though? That’s more than I can handle!
3. Backup Quarterback
Though some believe he can heal the sick and walk on water, Kellen Moore isn’t good enough to be our primary backup quarterback. Sorry to any of my readers who are proud and faithful Kellenites, but there’s just no getting around it.
Yes, Moore was better than Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. But he also threw six interceptions in three games and lost them all. If Dallas gets back to being a contending team, as we all hope, then you want someone who knows how to manage a game and play within his own limitations.
I get why people like Moore. He’s a small guy with some flash in his game. But between those flashes are the potential for game-killing mistakes. Until you trust a guy to do enough good that you can suffer the bad, such as Dallas’ relationship with Tony Romo, then that guy isn’t a great option for your primary backup.
I do not believe that Dallas will take a quarterback in the first round and will dive deeper into that topic in my next article. I would expect a third or fourth-round pick to be used on a developmental player who may even be good enough to challenge for the role now. That “maybe” factor means they will need someone else on staff in case the rookie needs some time.
Moore will likely be back to compete, but Dallas needs to look at some of the available free agent quarterbacks. Colt McCoy stands out as one with enough experience and proven ability to be a quality option and probably upgrade from Moore. To really confuse things, they could also look at Matt Moore to compete with Kellen.
4. Defensive Tackle
Though a season-long shoulder injury slowed him down, Tyrone Crawford’s 2015 season was a disappointment after getting a big, new contract. Dallas will hope that he can get back to the player they thought they were paying for and will likely restructure his deal in the next few days to get more cap space.
The big question is what they do at the other defensive tackle spot. Nick Hayden is a free agent and is a polarizing figure. Coaches seem to love him but statistical analysis says otherwise.
In Hayden’s three years as a starter the Cowboys have had been in the bottom-third of the league in run defense twice. He has zero sacks in three seasons. What impact can you say he’s really having?
If Hayden walks that leaves Dallas with a motley assortment of options. Terrell McClain, who recently received the Perfect Attendance Award from the injury report, has a year left on his contract. David Irving was a bright spot last year before injury and should be back to compete.
Compounding the issue is the potential loss of defensive ends who had the size to play inside, such as Hardy, Mincey, and Jack Crawford. Even if one or two of them do return and help the numbers, Dallas should still be thinking about upgrading a spot that I feel they’ve neglected for too long by sticking with Hayden.
If Rolando McClain is re-signed, as Stephen Jones said they were hoping to do, then this becomes a lesser concern. Despite the mutual injury issues of McClain and Sean Lee, Dallas has some decent depth options in Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar, and Damien Wilson. They could survive next year without a major addition.
If McClain doesn’t come back then things get much more critical. I think Dallas could live with a starting three of Lee, Hitchens, and one of Gachkar or Wilson. However, even if they re-sign free agent Kyle Wilber, there would still be a major concern about depth.
Dallas will be in a position to draft one of the top overall prospects in linebacker Myles Jack. They may be considering Jack even if McClain returns. However, as discussed before with cornerback, you’re playing a dangerous game if you wait on the draft to fill needs.
With McClain back Dallas would be wise to still make a shrewd veteran signing similar to what they had with Justin Durant in 2013. Versatility would be a plus given the concerns with Lee and McClain’s health problems.
Without McClain, Dallas would need to consider making much bigger signing next week. Even if you believed Sean Lee was never going to miss another game you’d still need one more impact player beside him. Given Lee’s history, though, you simply have to guard yourself against losing all dynamic play-making from the middle of your defense.