The Dallas Cowboys are in quite a predicament because, although they clearly need a lot of roster help, they don't have very much salary cap space at the moment. Further, this 2014 free-agency period is a crucial one for Dallas because they need to find bargains.
The 'Boys need to be seeking players whose perceived value is less than their actual worth. Without the ability to bring in a high-priced free-agent stud, the Cowboys need to look for value on players with a lot of upside who won't cost much.
That's easier said than done, obviously, since they need to compete with 31 other teams for each player. That means the Cowboys need to identify and seek out predictors of future success that others aren't valuing. Which types of players typically break out?
Using that approach, I've identified five underpriced free agents the Cowboys should consider bringing into Big D in 2014.
Wide receiver Danario Alexander is No. 1 on my free agent wish list, and it isn't even close. It's very rare that a 25-year old receiver that stands 6'5", 217-pounds with blazing speed hits the open market. But because of his injury history, that's what's happening with Alexander.
I don't typically buy into "injury proneness" for most players because, since the label is thrown out so loosely, the majority of what we identify as injury proneness is just randomness. That means teams can typically find value on players who have been injured and figure to see a "positive regression" of future injury luck.
Alexander has been injured enough that it really does appear he's injury-prone, though. However, that's going to be priced into his salary. The team that signs Alexander is going to account for the fact that he might not stay on the field.
But he's still a massive receiver who has converted 10 of his 83 career catches into touchdowns. Because he'll come so cheaply, Alexander isn't much of a risk at all. He can step in as an immediate contributor opposite Dez Bryant and, should he go down, second-year man Terrance Williams can fill in.
Ultimately, Alexander is the prototype for the low-risk/high-upside free agent the Cowboys need to covet.
The Cowboys clearly need help along the defensive line. Veteran defensive end DeMarcus Ware is fading fast and 2013 free agent addition George Selvie is a No. 2 rusher at best.
To me, defensive end Willie Young is very much like Selvie: a relatively young pass-rusher who has an elite skill set but was unable to do much early in his career. In three seasons, Young has registered only six total sacks.
But most knew Young would take time to develop and the raw tools are there. Young is ridiculously athletic and, like Selvie, has extremely long arms, the trait I've found to be the most predictive of pass-rushing success. With 34 1/2" arms, Young ranks among the longest in the NFL.
The Cowboys can sign Young cheaply enough that he can compete for a starting spot without causing much damage if he turns into a backup.
If the Cowboys don't sign Young, Greg Hardy might be another option at defensive end. Hardy will command a lot of money on the open market. That's for sure. He graded out as the No. 3 overall defensive end Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and, with the sacks he's generated over the past couple years, he could very well price himself out of Dallas's range.
The reason that I think the Cowboys should at least consider Hardy, assuming they can work some magic with their salary cap, is because I believe he's quietly one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. Think top two or three.
At 6'4", 290 pounds, Hardy has the size to be dominant against the run. He's also averaged over 37 quarterback pressures over the past three seasons, so his sack totals are no fluke. And yes, he has long arms (34 inches).
Consider Hardy a long-shot, but he's one of the high-dollar free agents who I believe will actually outplay his contract.
Guard is one of the few positions where the Cowboys could sign a top-tier free agent. The interior line is generally undervalued by NFL teams, so guards rarely get big-time bucks. Further, offensive linemen typically take a long time to develop, meaning a veteran can usually give you a superior immediate return over a rookie.
Pro Football Focus graded Asamoah as a top 20 guard in 2013. He was particularly good in pass protection, allowing only 12 pressures all year. Compare that to 17 and 27, respectively, for Cowboys guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary.
At 6'6", 270 pounds, Corey Wootton is a lean, athletic defensive tackle. As you might imagine, he's much better against the pass than the run. With Jason Hatcher almost certainly leaving Dallas, though, the team desperately needs an interior pass-rushing threat.
Wootton had 7.5 sacks in 2012 before dropping to 3.5 last year. Wootton's quarterback pressures actually increased from 18 to 25, however, suggesting he got to the quarterback plenty in 2013, but was just unlucky with sacks.
That's the kind of undervalued asset the Cowboys need to bring to Dallas.