With the Dallas Cowboys finishing the 2011-12 season at 8-8, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones has a colossal undertaking in front of him to move Dallas forward into the playoffs.
The Cowboys have needs in the defensive backfield, as well as the offensive and defensive line.
But before we can get into where Dallas is actually headed next season, we need to examine everything from the team's salary cap situation and free agents to holes in the roster and determine the Cowboys current free-agent situation.
Once we have determined where the team stands, we can then turn our eyes toward the draft and which players fit best.
To fix the Cowboys will not be an easy undertaking, just look at the team's problems with making it to the playoffs. If Dallas makes smart free-agent and salary-cap decisions, then that is when the Cowboys will start to see success.
March 17th, 2012:
ESPNDallas.com is reporting that the Cowboys will release offensive lineman Kyle Kosier. Dallas recently signed two new offensive linemen, which man Kosier expendable. Kosier served as a mentor to right and left tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. By letting of of Kosier, Dallas will save $1.5 million and continue their march toward youth upfront.
March 16th, 2012:
The Cowboys have signed guard Nate Livings according to ESPNDallas.com. The deal is worth $19 million over five years.
March 15th, 2012:
March 14th, 2012:
Fullback Lawrence Vickers is now a Dallas Cowboy. The team reached a deal with the fullback today to possibly replace Tony Fiammetta.
ESPNDallas.com is reporting that the team has inked guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to a four-year deal.
The Cowboys have signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year deal worth $50 million. He is the star pick-up for Dallas and will add a physical nature and youth to their defensive backfield.
March. 5, 2012:
Jason La Canfora of NFL.com is reporting via his Twitter handle that the Cowboys have franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. He also tweeted that the team and Spencer will try to work out a longer term contract.
The Cowboys have been relatively quiet so far in terms of signing free agents and re-signing players.
Dallas recently decided not to bring back long-time cornerbacks coach Dave Campo after the Cowboys finished 23rd against the pass in 2011.
The most recent, significant salary cap news from Dallas comes in the form of a contract signed by defensive tackle Jay Ratliff.
He signed a five-year, $40 million extension back in September of 2011.
So, according to sportrac.com, the Cowboys biggest cap hit in 2012 will be the contract of quarterback Tony Romo. His number is roughly $14 million, with linebacker DeMarcus Ware coming in second with a $10 million hit.
Dallas is $12.6 million under the salary cap for 2012, and that's without restructuring or cutting players. If the team decides to part ways or re-do a few deals, like Terence Newman, then that may free up additional dollars. In the interim, let's just take a look at the current cap situation.
As mentioned above, Tony Romo has a $14 million cap hit for Dallas in 2012. He re-worked his deal last year to give the team a little breathing room in the form a $6.5 million in salary cap space. Ware did the same for his to help with the Cowboys cap situation.
The most pressing cap hit for Dallas will be that of Terence Newman. He will represent over $8 million against the Cowboys' cap next year, and Dallas should have plans to get rid of him.
If they decide to outright cut Newman, that should save the team between $4-6 million in 2012.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is paid like a starter but is unlikely to actually hold that role in 2012. He has a base salary of $4.7 million next season.
Dallas has more than a few players under contract next season who will count little against their cap. Starting fullback Tony Fiammetta played a huge role in the Cowboys' rushing attack in 2011.
His base salary next season is only $565,000. There's rookie DeMarco Murray ($510,281), offensive lineman Bill Nagy ($465,000) and tight end John Phillips ($565,000).
Each player plays past their contract worth and should have great seasons in 2012.
The only question Dallas needs to answer immediately, at least when it comes to the salary cap, is when to release Terence Newman.
There's no need to keep him around for the money in his contract and his play on the field. Once the team decides to part ways with him, they can turn their attention toward free agency and the draft.
The Cowboys had plenty of chances to make a move toward the playoffs in 2011. They just failed at every turn. The team lost every game it needed to win and ended up with a disappointing 8-8 finish.
They finished 15th in points scored and 11th in yards per game. With so much offensive talent, the Cowboys should not finish outside of the top five. Besides discipline issues and a lack of team continuity, Dallas has the sky as their limit.
The Cowboys are set at starting quarterback as Tony Romo is coming off a career season in 2011. But the backup quarterback situation is unsettled as quarterback Jon Kitna decided to retire.
The team will have to address their second quarterback option in either free agency or the NFL draft. Third-string quarterback Stephen McGee has yet to develop into what the team sees as a viable second option, so he will either remain as the third option or find himself cut.
Dallas is likely to swap tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free in the offseason. Free played the left side, with Smith learning the right last year. With Smith’s rookie season behind him, he seems ready to handle Tony Romo’s blind side in 2012.
Free is a good tackle, but he regressed a little last season. Smith is more athletic and has better footwork than Free, which are both contributing factors to the potential switch.
Dallas also has to address their need at guard as Kyle Kosier is getting older and may be cut. The left guard position is unsettled as well as Derrick Dockery is not likely to return as the team needs a long-term solution.
Any team with a defensive ranking of 23rd against the pass needs to reassess. Terence Newman looked old and slow in the second half of the season, and if corner Mike Jenkins could stay healthy, he may have a shot at being very good.
The most pressing need for the Cowboys will be in the secondary, secondly the linebacker position and lastly the defensive line.
Where in the world do we start? Dallas was torched twice by Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning in 2011. Manning had 346 passing yards against Dallas in the final game of the season and an even 400 during their first meeting.
If anything, Dallas needs to fix their secondary to fight against Manning. They also have to face Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and whomever the Redskins decide to put behind center next season. But the most pressing issue is that of stopping or slowing Manning.
Dallas cannot do that with how the team is currently constructed. Newman needs to go, Jenkins needs to get healthy, there is need for a long-term answer at strong safety and there are depth concerns. Free agency and the draft will be the team’s best friend this offseason to address those needs.
Finding a nose tackle is key for Dallas because the team needs to move current NT Jay Ratliff to defensive end. The Cowboys can do that by drafting a nose tackle and pairing Ratliff with Marcus Spears on the edge.
Plugging the middle and letting Ware and Spencer speed rush off the edge to snag the quarterback would be a great addition to the team’s defensive options. A strong pass rush is just about key to a Super Bowl win, just ask the Giants.
The Cowboys have a short list of free agent with only three of them being restricted. The rest are unrestricted (UFA).
If Dallas fails to secure their services before free agency starts, each player is free to sign with another team.
According to spotrac.com, here is a list of the unrestricted and restricted free agents for 2012.
P Mat McBriar (UFA)
CB Alan Ball (UFA)
TE Martellus Bennett (UFA) Update: Bennett has signed a one-year deal with one of the Cowboys chief rivals, the New York Giants.
LB Keith Brooking (UFA)
S Abram Elam (UFA)
G Montre Holland (UFA)
LB Anthony Spencer (UFA) Update: Jason La Canfora of NFL.com is reporting via his Twitter handle that the Cowboys have franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. He also tweeted that the team and Spencer will try to work out a longer term contract.
The Cowboys did not plan to tag Spencer, opting to allow him to test free agency. But once the 49ers re-signed their outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks to a six-year deal, it kind of forced the team's hand. Dallas has until July 16th to work out a long term contract with Spencer and he can still refuse to sign the tender. Either way, it looks like Spencer will be a Cowboy for awhile.
LB Bradie James (UFA)
My thought is that the team will re-sign McBriar, Holland and maybe Alan Ball. The rest will be allowed to test free agency.
Clifton Geathers (RFA)
WR Jesse Holley (RFA)
WR Kevin Ogletree (RFA) Update: ESPNDallas.com is reporting that the Cowboys have re-signed wide receiver Kevin Ogletree to a one-year deal.
If the team is unable to re-sign receiver Laurent Robinson, they will likely keep Ogletree. I also believe Dallas should keep Holley.
The Cowboys have a list of old free agents who will only return for depth or lack of better options reasons. Linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are aging and have value as back-ups. Everyone else is marginal at best.
It isn’t tough to determine the contract worth for James and Brooking, but the numbers may creep up for Holley and Ogletree.
Mat McBriar ($1 million)
McBriar is coming off foot surgery, and Dallas may devalue his worth because of it. He's still one of the league’s best punters, and if he fully recovers, I expect Dallas to sign him at a reduced price.
Update: McBriar is no longer a top priority for the Cowboys as the team has announced that punter Chris Jones will take over punting duties in 2012. The team may bring McBriar back for training camp, but all signs point to him going into free agency.
Alan Ball ($565,000)
I do not think the Cowboys should bring Ball back. His previous contract was a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. If he returns, his contract should be half of that.
Martellus Bennett ($635,000)
Bennett is a great blocking tight end, but he drops off a bit in terms of catching the ball. Dallas needs him to do both, and since he can’t, the two need to part ways. He can come back for a reduced rate, but for me, it isn’t worth it.
Keith Brooking ($400,000)
Of course, these numbers are all estimates. If Brooking returns, which is doubtful, he will come back for cheap. Dallas can keep him as a backup and for certain Nickel situations, but otherwise there's no need to keep him.
Abram Elam ($1.7 million)
Elam made $2.5 million last season, and if he returns, I expect Dallas to give him a seriously reduced salary. He was the communications guy in the defensive backfield and did not do a great job of that.
Dallas needs a long-term option at safety, and Elam is not in those plans.
Montrae Holland ($500,000)
I think that Holland should remain for depth. He's an OK lineman who can fill in when needed or when the starter needs rest. He made $500,000 last year and should make the same amount in 2012.
Anthony Spencer ($3 million)
Update: Spencer has been Franchised according to Jason La Canfora of NFL.com. La Canfora states that Spencer and the team will continue to work on a longer deal.
Spencer will be allowed to test free agency, and my thought is that he’ll be back in 2012. I think that a $3 million hit next season is enough for a player like Spencer. He’ll get the team a few sacks, and if Ratliff moves to the edge and a new nose tackle is brought in, his numbers may rise.
Bradie James ($2 million)
My $2 million number may be a serious overestimate. James just finished a five-year, $20 million deal with Dallas. No way he has a snow ball’s chance in hell of getting another deal like that with Dallas.
Played great while he was here, and deserves to win, but Dallas has to move on or sign him to a reduced deal.
Clifton Geathers (Practice Squad)
Geathers has been a project of the Cowboys and so far, he hasn’t worked out. Keep him on the practice squad or release him, but there is no need to place a number on him.
Jesse Holley ($385,000)
Holley aided the Cowboys greatly in their win against the Niners last season. I think he will eventually have good pay-off for the Cowboys, but he’ll have to continue to work hard and show Dallas his worth.
Another one-year deal worth what he made last season would be worthy enough.
Kevin Ogletree ($385,000)
Ever since I saw Ogletree struggle to find where he needs to line up against the Redskins, my thoughts on him have changed. I thought he would turn into a pretty good slot guy for Dallas, but I may be wrong.
It may be worth keeping him for another season because Dallas has so much invested, but it also may be time to move on. The Cowboys cannot make that decision yet because of depth and the uncertainty of Laurent Robinson.
Mat McBriar: Re-signed
Dallas will re-sign McBriar because he still has upside and the Cowboys have no other options at punter. He has been great for their defense simply due to his ability to pin the opposing team deep in their own territory.
Alan Ball: Released
My gut is that he will be let go, and the team may eventually bring him back. He'll get other looks, but his time in Dallas has not been that great.
Martellus Bennett: Released
I think the team is ready to give up on Bennett, and he seems to have his head in other places sans the football field.
He has great talent, but maybe he needs a fresh start.
Keith Brooking: Released
He's older, and if Dallas decides to let him walk, he may retire. The team has to get younger at linebacker and keeping Brooking is antithesis of what the team needs to do to get better.
Abram Elam: Released
Unless defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fights to bring him back, Elam will be allowed to walk. He was stop-gap in 2011 and as the defense grows in Ryan's scheme, they'll need something more than what Elam was last year.
Clifton Geathers: Practice Squad
He won't see any game time next season, but he may be a suitable practice squad player.
Montrae Holland: Re-signed
I really think Holland will be brought back for another season. He played OK, and Dallas doesn't have much wiggle room in terms of players on the offensive line.
Jesse Holley: Re-signed
My hope is the team decides to bring him back. I think that it is to early to give up on him, and they should stick with Holley. My thought is that he will be given one more season to prove himself.
Bradie James: Released
James will probably want more money than what Dallas is wiling to give, and for that reason, I believe he will be allowed to walk.
Kevin Ogletree: Re-signed
It depends on Robinson, but Dallas has a lot invested in Ogletree, and I believe he will be given one more season as well.
Update: Spencer has been Franchised according to Jason La Canfora of NFL.com. La Canfora states that Spencer and the team will continue to work on a longer deal.
Available Cap Space (projected): $7.3 Million
The Cowboys are about $12.6 million under the cap before any roster changes and if they re-sign the players I mention above, they should still have about $7.3 million left-over. Now I've never claimed to master the art of math, so if I am a little off, don't hold it against me.
This does not take into account how the contract leans and length. These are only potentially one year deals and the number that may count against the cap for 2012.
If the Cowboys sign who I believe they should, the team will still have glaring holes to fill. The team will have to turn to the draft or free agency to fill their needs.
By keeping Holland, the Cowboys will keep continuity and depth, but they will still lack deep depth and a better option at guard. The team will still have to draft a guard and tackle to make themselves whole.
Moving Ratliff to the end position will open a gaping hole at nose tackle. Dallas will need a guy with plenty of weight and strength to handle some of the league's larger centers.
Cutting Newman and letting Elam go will send Dallas into a state of emergency at safety and corner. The draft will be their best friend because free agency may become empty pretty quickly.
Dallas will have to sign a free agent to go along with whatever rookie the team decides to draft at cornerback. Cortland Finnegan and Ronde Barber are two guys I think Dallas should target.
Finnegan is tough and physical, and Barber would provide a steady veteran hand in the locker room. Barber can also still play the position.
Antonio Gray is a 320-pound behemoth who can plug the middle and send Ratliff to defensive end. Dallas may also be in the hunt for the services of former Washington Huskie Alameda Ta'amu. He's a 335-pounder who would provide youth and size.
Carl Nicks will be highly touted by the Cowboys. He's a free agent from New Orleans and only 26 years old. The Saints will look to hold on to Nicks, but if Dallas throws enough cash at him, he may leave. Trai Essex, a former guard from Pittsburgh, will also be available. He's a former starter who can add depth.
Dallas has a number of players that will fit in their system, but only a few of them are likely to sign.
S Deon Grant (New York Giants)
QB Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders)
LB Barrett Ruud (Tennessee Titans)
G Carl Nicks (New Orleans Saints)
G Trai Essex (Pittsburgh Steelers)
NT Antonio Garay (San Diego Chargers)
CB Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
CB Cortland Finnegan (Tennessee Titans)
All targets above are realistic, but Dallas will not have the room available to sign each one. If Dallas signs Nicks, he will likely command the most money. I will put what I think the Cowboys need to offer, but I am unsure if Dallas can afford them.
Guard Carl Nicks: Five years, $30 million
Nicks wants a contract that averages around $8 million a year for seven seasons. My thought is that he will not get that type of money will Dallas, but he would come close. The Cowboys would have to cut and maybe restructure a few deals, but Nicks is worth this type of investment.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan: Four years, $25 million
Finnegan wants a long-term deal worth about $50 million. I would not give him that type of contract because I do not believe he's worth that much, and he cannot continue to remain durable and play physical. These would be two deals that would break Dallas, so they would have to pick one.
Nose Tackle Antonio Garay: Three years, $10 million
I actually think that a $10 million contract for three years is a bit of a bargain. Garay is worth it even though he can be inconsistent. He will plug the middle and provide sack opportunities for Ratliff and linebackers. Sounds simple enough, right?
Safety Deon Grant: One Year, $3 million
I wanted Dallas to sign Grant last season, but he went back to the Giants. Turned out to be a great move for him as New York won the Super Bowl. Grant is entering his 13th season as a pro, so his time is winding down. If the Giants fail to bring him back, Dallas should give him a second look.
He's solid and will provide leadership on and off the field.
The Cowboys need help in the defensive backfield. It is really as simple as that. If you watched Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins play in 2011 and believe otherwise, I have some ocean front property in Nebraska to sell you.
Dallas was 23rd against the pass in 2011, and Newman seemed to age as the season got older. Jenkins actually had a decent season, but he could not stay healthy.
For the Cowboys, the future is in the draft. Grabbing free agents to fill needs is something the Redskins do. It does not fix problems and never will.
Dallas needs to get better via the draft, and I believe they will do just that this season.
There's also the need for help at inside and outside linebacker, the offensive and defensive line, possibly tight end and quarterback as well. Depending on where Dallas heads in the first round will determine their later-round draft strategy.
If the Cowboys select a player like Dre Kirkpatrick or Janoris Jenkins in the first round, I believe either guard or inside linebacker will come in the second round. I've seen safety and center for the Cowboys in the first, but I truly believe it will be a secondary selection.
Last season, I thought that Prince Amukamara would go to the Cowboys, but Dallas chose tackle Tyron Smith instead. I do not believe that will happen this year as the secondary is pressing.
Once inside linebacker and corner are taken care of, Dallas can focus on adding depth to those positions as well as possibly addressing quarterback and tight end. If not, the Cowboys need a nose tackle and a guard.
The Cowboys first pick is fluid, so mocks may change by the week. Right now, I have Dallas taking either Dre Kirkpatrick or Janoris Jenkins. Depending on who they choose will depend on how rounds two through seven go.
I'm going with Jenkins here because I think that Kirkpatrick will be off the board. If he isn't, then Dallas should snap him up as soon as they can. I would even suggest moving up a couple of picks just to take him.
If Dallas has the ability to draft Washington NT Alameda Ta'amu, then they should. If he's available in the second round, Dallas has to draft him. He's a big guy, 335 pounds, who has the size and quickness to make a good choice for nose tackle.
Audie Cole and James-Michael Johnson are two guys on my radar. Johnson may be a project, but he will be worth the time spent. Cole can contribute just about immediately and Dallas would get younger and quicker as soon as the draft is over.
Kelechi Osemele is a guard the Cowboys may have to take in the second round. If it's either him or Ta'amu, Dallas has to go nose tackle and address the guard in the late rounds. Lucas Nix is another guard who may be available in the fifth round.