Dallas Cowboys: State of the Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
The Super Bowl is over, which means the Dallas Cowboys and 31 NFL teams are prepping for what will be a busy 2014 offseason. Owner Jerry Jones and Co. have already made a few adjustments internally, and that will be the trend going forward.
Dallas has been on the brink or made the postseason for several years now but have also failed in crucial moments more often than not.
Despite an impressive array of talent on offense for some time now, the Cowboys have finished 8-8 without a playoff berth in three straight seasons.
The defense needs to be upgraded at several positions, but Dallas might not be able to do much on that front. The Cowboys are currently a projected $31 million over the 2014 salary cap.
There are more than a few things that the 'Boys must take care of to be a threat in the NFC again. Let's take a look at the state of this franchise and what the offseason may hold.
2013 Season in Review
For the third straight season, what could have been a postseason berth for Dallas ended in mediocrity with an 8-8 record. Cowboys fans have seen this story play out far too often lately.
Former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's squad finished as the worst in the NFL, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and one of the worst the league has seen. The Cowboys defense allowed opposing offenses to total at least 400 yards in eight games last year.
Offensively, DeMarco Murray became the first Dallas running back since Julius Jones to break the 1,000-yard mark. Dez Bryant tallied his own 1,000-yard season, and Tony Romo threw 31 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions.
On paper, the offense was explosive as many expected this past season. In reality, Romo's crew put 22 points or less on the scoreboard five times and went 1-4 when doing so.
The Cowboys just didn't have the defense to slow any opposing offense down which put way too much pressure on their offense to score on almost every drive.
Impending Free Agents
Like most NFL teams, the Cowboys have a laundry list of free agents about to hit the market. Unfortunately for Dallas, two of those players have been two of its biggest pass-rushers in recent seasons.
Here's a look at which Dallas players are about to be free agents.
Other free agents include safety Danny McCray and linebackers Edgar Jones and Orie Lemon. The Cowboys' biggest potential losses this offseason are clearly Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer. Over the past two seasons, the two have accounted for a combined 22 sacks for the Cowboys defense.
Jerry Jones might try to open the wallet to Spencer, but Hatcher is going to be well out of the owner's price range. Other impending free agents Jones could bring back for cheap, though, would be the likes of Jarius Wynn, Brian Waters or Ernie Sims.
Waters seemed to be a natural at opening holes for DeMarco Murray in the running game. Sims has provided crucial depth for the linebacker corps the past two seasons, and Wynn did provide some depth of his own on the line.
Impending free-agent information was retrieved from KFFL.com, a division of USA Today Sports.
Here is where things get confusing. The Cowboys have made several coaching changes since the regular season concluded but haven't really fired anyone.
Former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has been demoted to an assistant coach. Former defensive line coach Rod Marinelli now calls the shots on defense. Ben Bloom replaces Marinelli as defensive line coach and will handle the quality-control duties for the unit.
Offensively, Scott Linehan has come over from the Detroit Lions staff to be Jason Garrett's passing game coordinator. Bill Callahan is still technically the offensive coordinator despite Linehan's hiring. Unsurprisingly, Callahan is not exactly happy with this change, according to team Vice President Stephen Jones' comments to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.
"Bill is not thrilled but Jason didn't expect him to be thrilled," Jones told Mortensen.
Perhaps Callahan is a little grumpy not only because one of his duties is being taken away but because of this stat from Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News:
Since 2007, teams with Scott Linehan on the coaching staff are 32-68. Good fit for Cowboys.— Gerry Fraley (@gfraley) January 28, 2014
The other offensive coaching change is the hire of longtime New York Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope to the same role in Dallas. The Cowboys hired Pope to replace the departed Wes Phillips who joined Jay Gruden's staff in Washington. Pope spent a total of 23 seasons with the G-Men and "one of the great coaches in the league for a long time," according to Garrett.
Perhaps the biggest problem the Cowboys will face this offseason is finding a way to get under next season's salary cap.
Because the team is a projected $31 million over the cap as of now, that means some veteran faces will be shown the door. The most likely of all the veterans to be gone this offseason are Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher and Miles Austin.
Spencer and Hatcher are set to hit the free-agent market, and the Cowboys will have a tough time matching checks with whichever teams are interested in the two. Dallas might be able to talk Spencer into coming back under a cost-efficient deal due to his injury that kept him out much of last season, however.
Unlike his aforementioned teammates, Austin's contract is not up this offseason, but he is due a costly $5.5 million next year.
The veteran receiver hasn't recorded a 1,000-yard season since 2010 and has missed 11 games since then. Quite frankly, Austin's productivity is not worth his paycheck, and Dallas can't afford him right now.
Cutting Austin is just one of several hard choices coming the Cowboys' way this offseason. DeMarcus Ware has stated he's open to restructuring his deal, and it's likely Tony Romo's will be as well. Taking these steps will help Dallas move money—due both players—to later years.
It will take more than a few steps to get the Cowboys where they need to be financially before next season, but these are some of the likely measures they will take to do so.
NFL Draft Needs
If Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer do in fact sign with other teams, Dallas needs to focus on the defensive line this draft. The team's entire approach to this draft should be strongly focused on the defense after its abysmal showing in 2013.
Missouri's Kony Ealy would be the team's ideal first-round pick and would cushion the possible departures of two key pass-rushers.
Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller said in one of his recent mock drafts that Ealy "will draw comparisons to Aldon Smith and they aren't far off." That just goes to show what kind of impact the former Tiger had during his college days. He would be a phenomenal player to have rushing the passer, and he isn't terrible in run defense either.
Safety and quarterback are two other key needs for the Cowboys this year. A third- to fourth-round pick on Tony Romo's heir would be a wise decision after No. 9's two back surgeries tied with the fact he's not getting any younger.
Safety is a position that Dallas has been in need of a superstar at since the likes of Darren Woodson left town in 2003. The team's defensive presence would get a huge boost from having someone quarterbacks had to fear at the position.
Grabbing a safety and defensive lineman early in this draft are absolute musts for Dallas. Quarterback has to be something Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones are thinking about as well, however.
Part of the reason Romo has been successful was due to his ability to ride the bench in his early years. The franchise should take the same approach with his heir.