As an organization whose long-term path could very well be decided in the upcoming year, the 2014 free-agency period is going to be crucial for the Dallas Cowboys. If they mishandle it, the 'Boys could quickly become a team with an aging, overpaid roster and a coaching staff unequipped to handle the team's issues.
The draft is going to be critical for Dallas, but the Cowboys can improve their options in April by making the right moves in free agency. Here are five big moves they should make to begin their path to success.
We know the numbers. The Cowboys allowed 6,645 yards this year, which is the third-worst total of all time. Garrett's offense was mediocre, which is really all that it has been during his tenure as an offensive coordinator and head coach in Dallas.
When we think about a coach's job security, the question shouldn't be "does he deserve to be fired?" but rather "is there a better man for the job?" There are 32 head coaches, 32 offensive coordinators, 32 defensive coordinators and so on in the league. Do we have any good reason to believe that the Cowboys' coaches are among the 32 most qualified candidates in the world for their respective positions?
I don't think so.
While there's a salary cap on players, no such limitation exists on coaches. I personally believe the head coach is perhaps the second-most important component to a team's success, behind the quarterback.
But even if he's less valuable, there's still a major competitive advantage to identifying and paying for the best possible candidate because there's no financial downside (beside just spending Jerry's money, which I'm plenty OK with).
Note: I don't think the Cowboys should reduce quarterback Tony Romo's contract, nor is there any chance of that happening. Instead, they should look at shifting around some of the money to open up 2014 cap space.
According to Spotrac, Romo is set to cost $21.8 million against the 2014 salary cap, which is a massive number. The Cowboys can reduce that cap hit by converting some of Romo's base salary, which is $13.5 million in 2014, into a signing bonus. That signing bonus would then be dispersed over the remaining life of the contract, reducing Romo's cap charge this season.
I think it's important to note that this decision isn't without risk, obviously, since the Cowboys would be guaranteeing more of Romo's contract. The cap move is actually one reason the Cowboys have a little cap trouble now.
When you guarantee money to a player who isn't worth it (think running back Marion Barber), it can really hurt in subsequent seasons if the player is no longer a contributor or even off of the team. You never want to mortgage the future.
However, I've found that quarterbacks can play at a very high level late into their 30s. I had no worries about Romo finishing his contract when he signed it, and I still don't. As long as Romo finishes the deal playing at a high level, there's no downside to guaranteeing him more money; his overall contract value wouldn't increase, but rather just when he gets the money.
Most important, restructuring Romo would open up 2014 cap space the Cowboys desperately need.
The Cowboys don't have a huge number of impactful players set to hit free agency, but there are still a handful of veterans who have played well in recent seasons who will be free agents. Among the Cowboys' free agents are defensive end Anthony Spencer, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and linebacker Ernie Sims.
Hatcher in particular represents an awesome test for Dallas because he's the sort of player the team might have re-signed in previous years. The recent contract extensions to players like defensive tackle Jay Ratliff are evidence that the Cowboys haven't been afraid to reward players for what they've done as opposed to paying them for what they will do.
The only free agent the Cowboys should bring back is kicker Dan Bailey, but he's actually a restricted free agent, meaning he probably won't need to be offered an extension.
Hardy 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.
I typically think teams should avoid signing high-dollar free agents because they are necessarily outliers from prior years. The reason they're commanding so much money is usually because they're coming off of career years, meaning their play is likely to regress.
I don't think that's the case with Hardy, who is a truly elite talent. In my eyes, he can become the top pass-rusher in the entire NFL. If the going rate for Hardy places him in the second tier of pass-rushers as opposed to in the elite range, the Cowboys should at least give him a look.
Hardy is the only high-priced free agent I would consider.
The Cowboys' free-agent strategy is going to need to be built upon finding underpriced commodities: players who have yet to break out but who have the potential to be big-time players. There are always guys who haven't lived up to expectations, and thus come very cheaply on the free-agent market.
Dallas can't just blindly target players who have performed poorly, of course. Instead, the Cowboys need to search for players who possess predictors of future success. Since teams pay for sacks when signing pass-rushers, for example, you can often find value on players who have pressured the quarterback often but haven't recorded a high number of sacks. The predictor of future play is there, but not the past numbers that warrant a big deal on the open market.
When you're talking about potentially elite players who will come cheaply, the list starts with wide receiver Danario Alexander. All of the signs of dominance are there: height (6'5"), weight (217 pounds), youth (25) and the ability to score (10.3 percent career touchdown rate).
I think Alexander would be an amazing addition to the Cowboys' roster, but more important, he's symbolic of the type of player Dallas should target this offseason.