Dallas Cowboys Offseason Roster Analysis

by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters

Dallas Cowboys LogoJerry’s Fun Land has been falling in the Customer Satisfaction Rankings lately. Although a 12-4 record should create happy thoughts, its fan base was frustrated by how the offseason started – a tough loss in the divisional round to Green Bay. Now that the offseason has started, the real frustration will start; how can the Cowboys keep their team intact? They currently have $7 million of cap space and 15 unrestricted free agents. DeMarco Murray. Dez Bryant. Three of the top four offensive tackles. Three of the top six defensive linemen. Three of the top five linebackers. The fans have to wonder…should Jerry Jones even be the General Manager? Can he keep enough of this team together to return to the playoffs, or are we about to witness another run of 8-8 years?

Cowboys Depth Chart

Offense

Quarterbacks

Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan

The three most telling numbers about Tony Romo are 113.2, 6, and 27.8. Romo led the NFL this year with a 113.2 passer rating and rated the #6 QB overall by Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, his cap number for 2015 is $27.8 million. If Dallas wants to sign anyone, Romo needs to restructure as he did last offseason. He can create $12 million in extra cap room with this one move. However, it would create some pressure on the Cowboys until the end of Romo’s contract.

If the 35 year-old QB goes down, the situation would be dire. Backup Brandon Weeden is terrible. He started one game this year and did poorly. Since Romo is signed through 2019, the Cowboys must assume he can play for five more years. I don’t hold that belief. Weeden has one more year under contract, and third-stringer Vaughan is a developmental West Coast passer. The Cowboys need to bring in a veteran for competition and draft a successor in 2016-2017.

Running Backs

DeMarco Murray (UFA), Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar (RFA), Ryan Williams (FUT), FB Tyler Clutts (UFA)

As mentioned, a huge story this offseason is where Murray will end up. It seemed he rushed 6,000 times for 30,000 yards this year. Seriously, 393 carries is quite a load, but prior to the season he didn’t have a lot of wear on the tires. He was not the best or most explosive running back in the league this year, but someone will pay this man to tote the rock and Dallas has no one else near his level. As he is in his prime, he may warrant a 4 yr/$40 million deal, which would cost about $9.25 mil in 2015. I would franchise him for a couple of reasons: it’s cheaper and provides more insurance. Franchising would cost $8.2 mil, and the Cowboys could see if he can stay healthy after the last long season.

If Murray is not signed, this position becomes a need. RFA Lance Dunbar should probably be given a low tender offer because he hasn’t shown much. As a previous undrafted free agent, any team competing for him would not need to give compensation. This would cost around $1.3 mil. If re-signed, he and Randle will continue to compete for the backup job. Randle had the better season and has the inside track; if Dunbar is not tendered or if someone else signs him, it won’t be a big loss.

Fullback Tyler Clutts is just average, but this offense only uses him 10-12 plays per game. Re-signing him to a 2 yr deal should only cost $750K annually.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Top WR: Dez Bryant (UFA), Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley (RFA), Dwayne Harris (UFA), Devin Street
TE: Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar

Bryant has completed his ascendancy into the NFL elite, rating #2 this year behind the Steelers’ Antonio Brown – just in time for a new contract. It just may not be from Dallas. If the cap was not a problem, Bryant might receive something like 7 yrs/$100 million, with the first year costing about $10 mil. It doesn’t matter if he’s worth it – you gotta pay to play.

The rest of the wideouts are average, even if it is fun to watch Beasley play. Beasley is an RFA, though, and it might cost a second-round tender to keep other teams from stealing him. That would be another $2 mil. If they were to extend him for 3 yrs/$5 mil, he would then cost about $1 mil. Since Dwayne Harris is just another guy, they need not worry about signing him. However, Dallas needs to add to their stable in the middle rounds of the draft.

The 33 year-old Witten is still durable (3rd most snaps at TE) and effective in all areas of the game (rated #2 in NFL by PFF). While James Hanna is a decent blocker, neither he nor Escobar are effective in the passing game. I expect status quo here.

Offensive Line

From left to right: Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free (UFA)
Top backups: G/C Mackenzy Bernadeau, T Jermey Parnell (UFA), T Tony Hills (UFA)

If I was calling plays for Dallas, I would call more runs than passes as well. This has less to do with DeMarco Murray’s abilities as those of the offensive line. Tackles Smith, Free, and Parnell were all good-to-great run and pass blockers. Guards Leary and Martin were good as well, although Leary was not very strong in his pass blocking. Center Frederick is the best in the NFL, especially in the run game. Can anyone run behind this line? The team’s opinion on this will affect Murray’s contract negotiations.

Free, Parnell, and Hills are all UFA’s, and the Cowboys need someone to play RT. Free and Parnell both performed well, but Parnell would be $3-4 mil cheaper to re-sign. The problem is that Free is still on the books for 2015 at $3 mil because of a recent contract restructure. Free has more experience, but the obvious flipside is that Parnell is younger. They should sign Parnell for 4 yrs/$22 mil, sign Hills for 2 yrs/$2 mil, and they are set on the line.

Defense

Defensive Line

DE: Tyrone Crawford, Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie (UFA), Anthony Spencer (UFA), DeMarcus Lawrence, Jack Crawford
DT: Henry Melton (UFA), Terrell McClain, Nick Hayden (UFA), Josh Brent, Ken Bishop

Starters Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey were an understated pair, as Mincey did a good job at harassing the QB and the versatile Crawford did a little of everything. Backup DeMarcus Lawrence held his own after coming off the IR, and UFA’s Selvie and Spencer defended the run well enough. However, with Jack Crawford and Lavar Edwards also on the roster, Selvie and Spencer aren’t necessary to re-sign.

Nick Hayden rated dead last in the NFL at DT for the Cowboys, and it would only make sense to let him walk in free agency. That would leave Melton and McClain as the starters. Melton is their best run stopper, but cutting him would create $8.5 mil to sign others. (Author note: Dallas declined Melton’s option on 2/15; he is a UFA.) With the depth on the line, Tyrone Crawford can move to the middle and Lawrence could start. Considering the lack of depth elsewhere, this would be the best course of action.

Linebackers

ILB: Sean Lee, Rolando McClain (UFA), Cameron Lawrence, Mister Alexander
OLB: Anthony Hitchens, Bruce Carter (UFA), Justin Durant (UFA), Kyle Wilber, Keith Smith

When it seemed MLB Sean Lee would lose 2014 to an ACL, Dallas traded for Rolando McClain to stop the bleeding. He “unretired” and did just that, playing well in all areas of the game. Lee will be back in 2015, McClain is a UFA, and it stands to reason that the team will let him walk. They would still have Lawrence, who they would have to re-sign at $570K, backing up Lee. The defense also uses outside guys on the inside for some snaps, so they would be set for now. However, the team should think about a replacement in the draft for Lee if he can’t return to form. If McClain does want to continue his career in Dallas for a reasonable amount (he made $700K in 2014), maybe he’s that replacement.

Hitchens and Carter were bad in coverage, but Hitchens can stop the run and Carter can rush the passer a little, so it may be overlooked. Carter isn’t needed and should find a new team. UFA backup Justin Durant was OK in all areas, though, and it is worth it to re-sign him for 2 yr/$3 mil. UFA James Anderson is also not needed because the depth here is pretty good.

Defensive Backs

CB: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore (RFA)
S: J.J. Wilcox, Barry Church, Jeff Heath, C.J. Spillman (UFA)

It’s interesting that the 3rd and 4th corners, Scandrick and Moore, graded better than the starting pair in 2014…and 2013. This has a few implications. First, Dallas needs to offer Moore a 2nd round RFA tender ($2 mil), because to offer him less means he would be gone almost immediately. Second, the Cowboys have a lot of dead money invested in starters that shouldn’t be starters, which handcuffs management. Carr and Claiborne are two of the seven highest paid Dallas players, taking $18 mil of cap space, and they are not helping the team win. They cannot be cut early enough to help with free agency, but perhaps Carr can be cut after June 1st to provide $8 mil to sign drafted players and help with next year’s extensions. Quite a predicament this is.

Strong safety J.J. Wilcox had a down year in run defense, and Barry Church had an average year on the free side. Backups Jeff Heath and C.J. Spillman was average or below, so in lieu of signing Spillman again, Dallas should address this situation in the draft, because most of the defense has limited pass coverage ability.

Special Teams

Kicker Dan Bailey doesn’t have the biggest leg on kickoffs, but going 5-7 on 50+ yd field goals is no joke. In addition, his accuracy on mid-range field goals is good. He’s signed for six more years.

Punter Chris Jones is a fairly decent directional kicker that doesn’t spend a lot of time wasting field position on touchbacks. He’s an RFA, but it would be better to sign him to a 3 yr/$3 mil contract to save money.

Long snapper L.P. LaDouceur is good enough and under contract for three more years. UFA Dwayne Harris had been returning punts and kickoffs and was pretty good, but he may not return.

Signing Jones brings the final cap deficit to $2 million, if all players who should be re-signed are indeed locked up. There are some way to fix this: cut low-level guys that shouldn’t be cut in order to re-sign them during the summer after June 1st cuts are completed, restructure another contract or two to gain short-term cap flexibility at the expense of future years, or choose one high profile prospective free agent to discard (probably DeMarco Murray).

Initial cap space: $7.4 million

Re-sign: Murray (franchise at $8.2 mil), Dunbar ($1.3 mil tender), Clutts ($745K), Bryant ($10 mil), Beasley ($2 mil), Leary ($585K), Parnell ($4 mil), Hills ($870K), Weems ($585K), Lawrence ($585K), Durant ($1.2 mil), Moore ($2 mil tender) – with a net $1.1 million needed to sign draftees, these are projected to create a $25.3 million cap deficit.

Let walk: Harris, Free, Selvie, Spencer, Hayden, McClain, Carter, J. Anderson, Spillman

Best cap cuts to clear up necessary room: Romo restructure ($12.8 mil), Melton ($8.5 mil), Carr (June 1st cut, $8 mil), Watson ($1.3 mil), Okoye ($870K)

Biggest Team Needs:  S, RB, WR, MLB

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Other team analysis reports and depth charts can be found in the archive.