Dallas Cowboys' Top 5 Remaining Offseason Priorities
The Dallas Cowboys have had a relatively quiet, yet productive, 2014 offseason, but their work isn’t finished just yet. It’s still very possible that they'll bring in another bargain bin free agent or two, and they’ll of course look to upgrade their roster via the draft.
The Cowboys have done a nice job of addressing a couple weaknesses, but there are still plenty of holes to fill, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. They need to do more to upgrade their pass rush, with multiple options available in both free agency and the draft.
As was the case to start free agency, the Cowboys’ top priority should always be finding value. For both free agents and rookies, that means securing players whose expected production exceeds their cost. The “cost” for free agents is their contract, while for rookies it’s both their contract and draft slot.
With that said, let’s examine the Dallas Cowboys’ top five remaining offseason priorities.
Lock Up DE Anthony Spencer to a 1-Year Deal
Anthony Spencer’s market value isn’t much after playing in just one game in 2013, so Dallas has a chance to retain him cheaply. It should be able to ink Spencer to an incentive-based one-year deal, which will buy it time to find its defensive end of the future.
With Spencer, George Selvie, and potentially Tyrone Crawford outside, the Cowboys can draft a rookie defensive end in the first two rounds and perhaps not worry as much about the position as was originally assumed.
There aren’t a whole lot of first-round talents at defensive end in this class (outside of Jadeveon Clowney, who the Cowboys won’t be able to draft), so they’ll probably need to search for one in the second round to secure proper value.
And outside of Spencer, there’s just nothing available at defensive end in free agency. RotoWorld has Robert Ayers as the top available end in the NFL—yes, the same Robert Ayers who has 12 sacks in five NFL seasons. The pickings are slim, giving Spencer additional value.
Determine If the Young Free Safeties Are Enough
As it stands right now, J.J. Wilcox is probably the favorite to start at free safety for Dallas. Are we comfortable with that?
Wilcox actually has plus athleticism, having jumped 35 inches vertically and 10’4” in the broad at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2013. He also ran a 4.09 short shuttle. Wilcox played just one year of safety at Georgia Southern, so we knew he’d take some time to develop.
If nothing changes, Wilcox will compete with Matt Johnson and Jeff Heath for playing time. Heath isn’t an NFL-caliber safety, but Johnson might be the real deal. We just don’t know, however, since he hasn’t been able to remain healthy. Nonetheless, odds are good that either Wilcox or Johnson will be able to give the ‘Boys something in 2014.
But in the scenario that Johnson gets injured again and Wilcox doesn’t play up to par, what’s the team to do? We saw last year how much a poor free safety can hurt a defense. Thus, the Cowboys need to determine if they want to draft one.
The first-round options are Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. Both could be options if Dallas trades down from the 16th overall pick, but chances are the team will wait on a safety. It should realize that, although it doesn't have a sure thing on the roster, it has such power in numbers at free safety that it should take care of itself.
Upgrade the Wide Receiver Position
The Cowboys aren’t weak at the top two wide receiver positions with Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams. But with the amount of plays Dallas utilizes “11” personnel, the third receiver is basically a starter for this offense.
A lot of people like Cole Beasley as a slot guy, but he’s 5’8”, 180 pounds and has averaged 9.2 yards per reception during his NFL career. Even worse, he’s managed only 6.3 yards per target. In comparison, Bryant has tallied 8.7 yards per target during his career—just a half-yard short of what Beasley totals on his receptions.
Beasley doesn’t get up the field and won’t consistently score touchdowns. So remind me why he’s considered to be so valuable. Because he catches five-yard passes on third down while defenses are doubling Bryant and Jason Witten?
People overestimate Beasley’s worth because he has a high catch rate; he’s caught 54 of his 79 career targets (68.3 percent). But we need to be concerned not only with how often good things happen when a wide receiver is targeted, but also how much those good things benefit the offense. There’s very little upside in throwing to Beasley. There are times when he’s valuable, but a player like Bryant and his 61.9 percent catch rate is preferable all day because there’s upside to his game.
The obvious source of wide receiver talent is this year’s draft, where a number of potential No. 1 players are going to slip into the second round; Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, Fresno State’s Davante Adams and Penn State’s Allen Robinson could all be available in the second round and provide immediate competition to Williams. Imagine an offense with Robinson and Bryant outside and Williams in the slot—a true high-upside trio with real scoring potential.
Draft a Defensive Tackle
The Cowboys did an amazing job in locking up defensive tackle Henry Melton to a low-risk/high-reward deal. The fact that they acquired Melton for 2014 at a max payout of $5 million with the potential to cut him risk-free (or keep him for three more years) is outstanding.
But they need another defensive tackle. The obvious hole is at the “one-technique” position—the “anchor” in the middle of the line—but should the Cowboys really pass up a potentially elite pass-rushing three-technique if he’s there? Yes, Melton plays that position, but why not play two legitimate pass-rushing defensive tackles, daring teams to run the ball?
In today’s NFL, defenses should do everything they can to get offenses to keep the ball on the ground. So if a player like Pitt’s Aaron Donald—a three-technique—falls to Dallas in the first round, it absolutely cannot pass him up. Great coaches find ways to mold their schemes around talented players, which is what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli should do if the Cowboys can land Donald.
Actually, Donald is such an outlier in an overrated defensive tackle class that he’s the one player for whom Dallas should consider trading up (albeit only a few spots at the most). The top free-agent defensive tackles on the market, according to RotoWorld, are Kevin Williams, Pat Sims, and Ryan Pickett. There’s not much there, so the draft makes sense. Actually, the incoming rookies could determine Crawford’s fate; if the Cowboys land Donald, he’ll likely move to defensive end, and if not, he makes more sense on the inside.
Find the Running Back of the Future
DeMarco Murray is going to be a free agent in 2015. Lance Dunbar has shown promise, but he’s a complementary piece at just 188 pounds. Joseph Randle’s odds of NFL success are minuscule because he runs a 4.63 40-yard dash at around 200 pounds.
The Cowboys need to draft a running back in the middle or late rounds of this draft. The last thing they should do is think they can re-sign Murray at a bargain bin price in 2015, only to have him command decent running back money (which is already too much to pay to a back who will be 27 years old).
Running back is a position at which you can find tons of talent even in the late rounds. That’s due primarily to 1) the position being dependent on the offensive line for production and 2) NFL teams being horribly inefficient at drafting running backs; since 2000, mid and late-round backs have averaged more yards per carry than running backs selected in the first two rounds. That’s ridiculous.
There are two things the Cowboys should seek in a rookie running back: straight-line speed and a small-school background. Running backs typically need at least decent straight-line speed to produce in the NFL. Further, small-school backs have continually offered much more value than their BCS counterparts.
The prototype in this year’s draft? Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon. At 5’9”, 209 pounds, McKinnon ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash, jumped 40.5 inches vertically, and recorded an insane 11’0” broad jump. Projected to go in the middle to late rounds, he could be this year’s most undervalued player.