Cowboys position-by-position free agency needs
Sick of hearing how the Dallas Cowboys won’t be major players when free agency begins on March 11? Well, this isn’t going to make you feel any better, but hopefully more informed.
With the little bit of cap space they will likely have, here’s were the Cowboys could spend their money.
1.) Defensive tackle. The entire defensive line is basically tied for No. 1 on this ranking scale. Both need to be addressed badly. But with Jason Hatcher likely gone via free agency, Nick Hayden is the only returnee who received major playing time in 2013. A healthy Ben Bass and Tyrone Crawford should help here, but another starting caliber player and depth needs to be acquired through free agency and the draft.
2.) Defensive end. If DeMarcus Ware agrees to a pay cut, this group at least has a leg to stand on. If he declines and is cut by the Cowboys, George Selvie and Crawford are the only significant pieces remaining. This is obviously not ideal in a system that is predicated on its front four constantly causing problems for the opposing quarterback. Like tackle, end needs to be addressed in free agency and the draft.
3.) Safety. This has been a problem area for a long time. Jerry Jones said at the scouting combine last month that he likes where the team is at safety. That’s very difficult to believe. Barry Church is a solid player when healthy, but there isn’t much proven talent at the position after him. J.J. Wilcox was drafted in the third round last year, but he struggled to establish himself during his rookie season. The jump from Georgia Southern is obviously a big one. Jeff Heath and Matt Johnson would be next in line, but neither should be expected to be a full-time starter this year. The Cowboys could add a veteran safety like they did last season with Will Allen. However, that didn’t end well.
4.) Linebacker. If the season started tomorrow, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and DeVonte Holloman would likely be the starters. And the Cowboys have reason to be concerned about all three. Bruce Carter never seemed comfortable in Monte Kiffin’s scheme last season. Holloman is a sixth round pick who doesn’t have much experience. Lee is the best of the bunch — and one of the best in the league — but he can’t stay healthy. Could that mean the Cowboys add a middle linebacker and move Lee to the weakside spot where he could remain a tackling machine but sustain fewer hits? Possibly. The depth at all three positions is thin as well.
5.) Wide receiver. If Miles Austin is cut, adding a veteran through free agency seems like a good idea. There should be some relatively cheap options out there. If not, the good news for the Cowboys is this draft is considered to be very deep at the position.
6.) Quarterback. If Kyle Orton retires, a veteran backup is critical. Tony Romo will be 34 next month and he has had two back surgeries in the last two years. The Cowboys need someone that can step in right away if Romo goes down and Orton isn’t on the roster. Even if Orton does play another season in Dallas, adding a cheap third arm through free agency is a possibility as well.
Positions unlikely to be addressed in free agency:
Interior offensive line. Upgrading these positions would likely come through the draft. Travis Frederick is a very solid piece at center and should be starting at that position for a long time. Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ron Leary will likely be the starters again at guard. The position could certainly use some young depth, though.
Tight end. Jason Witten turns 32 in May, but there’s still tread on his tires. He caught 73 passes for 851 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Cowboys spent a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar last year and a sixth round pick on James Hanna in 2011. Both should have a significant role this season.
Running back. DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle should all get carries in 2014. Phillip Tanner has been the No. 4 back but the Cowboys chose not to tender a contract to him, which means he will be a free agent. A replacement for Tanner could be added in the later rounds of the draft or immediately after, via an undrafted rookie free agent.
Cornerback. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick and B.W. Webb will likely be the top four corners entering camp. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see the Cowboys draft a corner in May, because like pitchers in baseball, you really can’t have too many quality defensive backs in the NFL. Adding a veteran corner through free agency doesn’t make sense.
Special Teams. Kicker Dan Bailey signed a long-term contract extension in January, so he’s not going anywhere. Punter Chris Jones is a restricted free agent and should return. Dwayne Harris has performed well returning kicks and punts, and he should continue to have that role. Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley could also help in that area. The biggest upgrade would likely come by adding a defensive back or linebacker in the draft who can also contribute on special teams coverage.