Dallas Cowboys' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
While there have been numerous changes to the defensive coaching staff, we can assume that part of that discomfort can be attributed to the Cowboys' lack of salary cap space. This problem has marginalized free-agent activity and still threatens the 2013 NFL draft.
It's pretty clear that while drafting poorly, as Dallas has in the recent past, you can't build a contender in March by spending of millions of dollars in free agency. Because of this fact, the Cowboys are not hurting because they haven't spent money on veterans that get overpaid to go to another team.
But because the Cowboys have not been highly active in the free-agent market in 2013, the pressure now falls on the upcoming draft in April.
The biggest offseason priority for Dallas is to land at least three immediate contributors, or more, with only six selections in the draft. But the players they choose have to help fix the following five issues that have kept the Cowboys in a state of mediocrity for the past two seasons—and 2010 was nothing to hang your hat on either.
All contract data courtesy of Spotrac.com
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com
Extend Tony Romo's Contract
This is a very simple necessity for two reasons.
First of all, the Cowboys are in no position to let quarterback Tony Romo walk following the 2013 regular season, regardless of the outcome.
With only backup quarterback Kyle Orton presently on the roster, the future at quarterback simply isn't in sight yet—unless you see something in passers like Brady Quinn, Rex Grossman, Matt Leinart and Byron Leftwich that the rest of the NFL does not.
Second, Romo's present salary cap figure of $16.8 million has to come down. Otherwise, Dallas cannot afford to sign draft picks, let alone any free agents that may or may not make any difference.
The bottom line is this: Romo is the quarterback of the future for the Cowboys, and rightly so. Say all you want about his lack of playoff victories dating all the way back to high school, but there's no questioning Romo's production and overall ability.
Romo is among the most deadly passers in the NFL. No Dallas quarterback has thrown more touchdown passes than Romo's 177. Barring injury, he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He's expected to be extended any minute now and this will pave the way for the all-important draft picks and free agents, undrafted or otherwise, that land in Dallas in less than a month.
Quarterbacks don't grow on trees, and you don't allow a franchise passer to walk unless you have a better idea.
Dallas definitely does not—and forget Romo being hit with the franchise tag following this coming season, because it can't happen.
Improve the Running Game
This is where the focus shifts to the offensive line, and there's much to address here.
The question is: How?
More and more mock drafts have the Cowboys selecting an interior offensive lineman such as Chance Warmack of Alabama or Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina in the first round of the NFL draft.
Given the fact that Dallas just spent significant money last year on free-agent guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, it's depressing that we're still discussing offensive guard as a need.
But the reality is that until Romo has a dependable running game, Dallas isn't heading anywhere in the postseason. The Cowboys need upgrades at possibly both guard positions and also center, all positions we could see addressed in the first three to four rounds beginning on April 25th.
You think that Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman just woke up one morning in early 1992 and magically became a Super Bowl-winning passer?
Aikman couldn't even stay healthy prior to '92, and this did not change until the emergence of a dominant running game behind a dominant offensive line.
Romo deserves the same. Only when this happens can his career be properly defined.
Improve Pass Protection
Just over a month ago, Jones went on record saying the his franchise quarterback can play well despite an offensive line that really isn't very good at pass protection. But don't be confused by what he meant with those statements.
Yes, Romo handles pressure extremely well. He's among the most dangerous quarterbacks of all time when he gets outside the pocket.
The problem is that Romo has to do this way too often. The results are impressive statistically, but then they pale when looking at wins and losses.
The Cowboys have played musical tackles with starters Doug Free and Tyron Smith the past two seasons. This has to stop. Understanding that Free was simply awful in 2012, I can't say that the lousy play from the new guards mentioned earlier didn't also contribute to this issue.
True, Free could end up on the street prior to next season. More likely is that he either stays right where he is or moves inside to guard.
But one way or the other, Romo's pass protection has to improve. Dallas could go a long ways towards that end by improving a running game that, frankly, stinks.
Do you want your quarterback always facing 3rd-and-long, or would you rather have him facing shorter situations? If you chose the first option, then you play too much Madden.
Pass-blockers can't protect all day long. Penalties, sacks and interceptions will always be higher when your offense has to make long conversions as often as the Cowboys have under the tepid administration of head coach Jason Garrett—remember that he was also the offensive coordinator during the equally lousy administration of former head coach Wade Phillips.
If Dallas thinks it needs another right tackle, then draft one. Or, let Free have a second season back at his natural position and chances are the pass protection will improve.
Either way, Romo has to quit running for his life.
Improve the Run Defense
At no point during the 3-4 era, now concluded, were the Cowboys built to stop the run. This inevitably led to some of the most embarrassing rushing attempts by opposing running backs in the history of a franchise that long ago called its defense "Doomsday."
In fact, the two longest touchdown runs ever given up by the Cowboys came in the final game ever played at Texas Stadium in 2008.
Last year, the Dallas defense allowed exactly 4.5 yards per carry, the kiss of death for most defenses unless your offense is scoring better than 35 points per game, which the Cowboys certainly didn't.
Nose guard Jay Ratliff was never a true, prototypical nose guard. I guess I will never understand why Jones allowed his second-most disruptive pass-rusher to stand in the path of the most resistance for so many years—and people act surprised by the fact that Ratliff fought injuries most of last year.
Now, having switched back to the 4-3 alignment under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, some relief should be on the way.
No longer does Dallas need a space-eater who weighs between 330 and 340 pounds in the middle of a three-man defensive line.
But the Cowboys still need some beef up front, especially since the plan seems to be having outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer move up to the line to play defensive end. These two pass-rushers are considered undersized. The strategy employed by all Dallas opponents will be to run the ball as much as possible, same as it has been for the last several years.
This is precisely why I believe the Cowboys may not jump on the offensive line immediately in the draft, despite the fact they really need to.
Defensive tackle is a larger need than some realize. Dallas should be looking to add some bulk and chaos as soon as possible.
Improve the Pass Rush
If not for Ware, the Cowboys would have had no significant pass-rushers in the last several seasons. As good as Ware is, he can't do it alone.
Ratliff might be on the downside of his career, and I'm not betting that he has a significant resurgence next season in the 4-3 alignment.
Spencer finally hit double-digits in sacks for the first time last season, but now he's being asked to move up to the defensive line for the first time as a pro.
Remember that each of those players are 29 years old or better, and it's time to start locating the future pass-rusher for the franchise.
Unlike the quarterback position, you don't pass on a premium pass-rush specialist just because you already have one. They are simply too important and there's too many different ways to utilize those rare skills.
We know what Ware is, regardless of where he plays. But Spencer and Ratliff bring more uncertainty for the reasons listed above.
Yes, offensive line is a primary area of concern—but a dominant pass rush can take mediocrity all the way to the Super Bowl to win it.
Just ask the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants.
This dynamic cannot be ignored. All the cornerbacks in the world will not take a defense to the next level by themselves. The Cowboys discovered this fact last season after spending far too much on free-agent Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne.
The good news is that the corners are in place.
The bad news is that there doesn't appear to be enough volatility in the pass-rush department.
Perhaps Ware, Spencer and Ratliff are enough. But the time is now to bring in another defensive end or defensive tackle that penetrates the backfield often enough to blow up both passing attempts and running plays.
We hardly ever saw penetration in the 3-4 alignment, and this killed several seasons for the Cowboys, especially down the stretch in at least a few Decembers.
But it has to happen in Kiffin's new 4-3 scheme if Dallas is to call its defense a strength.