5 Biggest Issues Facing the Dallas Cowboys This Offseason

John Owning@@johnowningCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2014

5 Biggest Issues Facing the Dallas Cowboys This Offseason

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are coming off of their third-straight 8-8 season and must fix some key issues if they want to get over that hump—issues like replacing DeMarcus Ware, finding a 3-technique defensive tackle and solving their health crisis.

    The Cowboy's offseason philosophy seems to be changing from signing big free agents and overpaying players for past performance to focusing on the draft. This could be due to Jerry's son Stephen Jones taking more control of the day-to-day operations of the team. 

    This philosophy may be better in the long run, but it has left them with gaping holes—especially on defense—in the mean time. The releasing of Cowboys icon DeMarcus Ware and not re-signing Jason Hatcher, whom then signed with the Washington Redskins, have left the Cowboys void of stars and play makers on defense. However, these decisions were necessary for the Cowboys to get better in the long term. 

    This philosophy should give Cowboys fans hope that they can make the right decisions and solve these issues they are facing.

    The criteria I used was an assessment of which issues have the potential to negatively affect the Cowboys—both immediately and long term—if not solved and how difficult it will be to solve the issue.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    Backup Quarterback

    According to Dallas Morning News' Rainer Sabin, Kyle Orton is not sure if he still wants to play in the NFL and is considering retirement. This would leave the Cowboys without a backup quarterback, which holds growing importance to the team because of Tony Romo's back injury.

    Back injuries have a tendency to be recurring. With that in mind, the Cowboys need a backup quarterback who is competent enough to take over the team if Romo gets injured again.

    The Cowboys must figure out if Kyle Orton is actually going to retire or if his second thoughts were just that—only thoughts. 

    This didn't make the list because it doesn't seem likely that Orton will actually hang up his cleats. According to Dallas Morning News' Rainer Sabin, Jerry Jones seems to think Orton will not retire. 


    Finding a No. 2 Receiver

    With Miles Austin's decline in play and recent release, the Cowboys have been lacking a valid receiver to line up opposite Dez Bryant

    The Cowboys did draft Terrance Williams in the 2013 NFL draft, but it still remains to be seen if he will develop into a legit No. 2 receiver. 

    However, it is because of Terrance Williams that finding a No. 2 receiver didn't make the list. Since Williams has the potential to become a viable option opposite of Bryant, this may not be as pressing of a need as the issues actually on the list.  

5. Finding Tony Romo's Replacement

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Tony Romo is 33 years old and entering his 12th NFL season. It is time for the Cowboys to try and find his eventual replacement. Even though quarterbacks have shown a tendency to play at a high level through their mid-thirties, it would be best for the Cowboys not to plan on that.

    Romo has had two back surgeries in the span of one year and that has to be worrisome. It would be best if the Cowboys solved this issue sooner than later. 

    The Cowboys don't want to be stuck without a viable option when Romo either decides to retire or his injuries severely diminish his performance.

    The NFL is a quarterback league, and any team left without a good quarterback is left without a real chance at winning the Super Bowl. 

    It should be very concerning to the Cowboys brass that they do not have a young quarterback on the roster whom they can groom to be Romo's inevitable replacement. This is why the Cowboys should not rule out drafting a quarterback as early as the second round in the draft. 

    The Cowboys need to find someone, most likely through the draft, that they can develop to replace Romo in the next two to four years. 

    When Romo is done as an NFL quarterback, the Cowboys shouldn't waste the prime years of their most valuable players, like Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee, looking for a quarterback. 

    However, it seems like Romo will be fine for at least the immediate future.

    According to Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota, Tony Romo's back rehab is on track and going very well. 

    Since it seems like Romo will be back by OTAs without any problems, there is not as much potential for an immediate negative impact here as there are for the other issues later in the list. 

4. Finding a Free Safety

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    While the Cowboys have a solid starter with strong safety Barry Church, they are in desperate need of a legitimate free safety. It was especially evident during last season with rookies Jeff Heath and J.J Wilcox sharing the role. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilcox got a coverage grade of -6.8 and Heath had a coverage grade of -3.1. These are both way below average for a starting caliber safety. 

    According to Bleacher Report's own Matt Bowen, as NFL offenses become more pass-oriented, it is the primary responsibility of the free safety to be good in coverage. The Cowboys need a single-high safety that is good in coverage in both Cover-1 and Cover-3 schemes. Even though the Cowboys play a modified Tampa-2 defense, they do mix in quite a bit of Cover-1, Cover-3 and man concepts. 

    The Cowboys could look to the draft for players like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor or Jimmie Ward to help mitigate this problem. However, that would make the Cowboys admit that their pick of J.J. Wilcox was a failure. 

    The Cowboys need to figure out what the potential of Wilcox is and how long it will take him to realize this potential. Wilcox seems to have some upside, given that he is still learning the nuances of the safety position. He only played at safety for one year at Georgia Southern, plus his one year with Cowboys gives him plenty of room to develop. 

    However, it may take him a couple years to learn the nuances of free safety and be a viable starting option. This could give the Cowboys some major pains in the short term.

    Although the free safety position is a big hole for the Dallas Cowboys, the upside of J.J. Wilcox gives them a chance to have a good option in the long term.

3. Finding a 3-Technique

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    With the departure of Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys have a major gap in the middle of the defense at their 3-technique defensive tackle position. 

    I recently wrote an article about why it would be a good idea for the Cowboys to let Jason Hatcher walk. Even though it was the right decision to let Hatcher leave, it did leave a big hole in middle of their defense.

    The 3-technique lines up a shade outside of the guard and they try to shoot through the B (between the guard and tackle) gap. This is why Marinelli and Cowboys coaching staff emphasize the need for their defensive line to have a "quick twitch."

    At the moment, the Cowboys have no viable starting caliber 3-technique defensive tackles on their roster. This should be very concerning for the Cowboys and their fans, since the 3-technique is such an integral piece to their defense.

    However, help may be on the way. According to ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer, Henry Melton is scheduled to come visit the Cowboys after his visit with the Seattle Seahawks.

    There is no guarantee that he will sign with the Cowboys, and—after Melton—the defensive tackle market is almost depleted. 

    The most likely situation will lead the Cowboys to look for a solution in the draft. While Pittsburgh's defensive tackle Aaron Donald seems like a perfect fit, he may be picked before the Cowboys are on the clock at pick 16. The rest of the 3-techniques in the draft have considerable question marks.

    Florida's Dominique Easley has knee concerns and Arizona State's Will Sutton has weight and arm length concerns. Also, according to DallasCowboys.com's Bryan Broaddus, the Cowboys see Florida State's Timmy Jernigan as a 1-technique.    

    Because of the many options the Cowboys have to fill this hole, the lack of a 3-technique lineman seems to be an easier fix than the issues ranked above it on this list. 

2. Injuries

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys seem to have been snake bitten with injuries the last couple of years. Whether it is Tony Romo's two back surgeries, Sean Lee's constant battles with the injury bug or the slew of hamstring injuries, the Cowboys have had to deal with a lot on the injury front. 

    According to ESPN Dallas' Jean Jacques Taylor, the Cowboys used 20 different defensive linemen this year, which shows how badly injuries affected them. It is almost impossible to have a successful defensive line while using 20 different defensive lineman throughout the year. 

    What the Cowboys must do a better job of is injury prevention, especially for soft tissue injuries like the myriad of hamstring pulls the Cowboys had to deal with. 

    The Cowboys training staff must do a better job of educating the players on how to eat right and treat their bodies well, so that they can prevent a lot of the injuries they have been facing.

    It is impossible to prevent all injuries because freak accidents and unfortunate incidents do occur all the time.

    According to ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer, the Cowboys are taking steps toward figuring out why they have had such injury problems.

    Hopefully, they can figure out the reason behind all their injury woes, because if they don't, then they will have to deal with many more underachieving seasons.

1. Replacing DeMarcus Ware

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    The Cowboys must find a way to replace not only DeMarcus Ware's production on the field, but also his leadership off of it.

    On the field, Ware was a constant headache for every offense he faced, often drawing double teams to help negate his effectiveness. Even though Ware battled constant injuries during the 2013 season, he still had to be game-planned against. This undoubtedly helped defensive end George Selvie to a career year. 

    What hurts the most about losing Ware may be what he did while not on the field. Ware was the unquestioned leader and captain of defense. According ESPN Dallas' Calvin Watkins, Ware was the primary reason why Dez Bryant and Jason Witten's feud during the game against the Detroit Lions didn't escalate any more than it did. 

    The Cowboys may never find another player that was both as dominant as Ware was on the field and as respected of a leader off of it. 

    The Cowboys will need to look to replace his production on the field first and hope another player, like Sean Lee, can grow into the leader Ware was. 

    In the NFL it is becoming increasingly important to pressure the quarterback. Look at the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos. They got constant pressure on Peyton Manning and it led to them blowing out the Broncos in epic proportion. 

    With the proliferation of spread offenses, it is especially necessary to pressure the quarterback without having to blitz. The best way to do this is with the defensive ends coming off the edge and creating pressure on a consistent basis. 

    This is why the Cowboys are in desperate need of finding a player—or players—to replace Ware's production. 

    According to ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer, the Cowboys are interested in Julius Peppers as a short term replacement for DeMarcus Ware. Also, according to 105.3 The Fan's Mike Fisher, the Cowboys have interest in Jared Allen. 

    Both Allen and Peppers are viable options as short term replacements for Ware, however neither should be anything more than a bridge until the Cowboys can find a young talented defensive end. 

    Because of the major losses—not only on the field but off—replacing DeMarcus Ware is the biggest issue that the Cowboys face.