The Cowboys are coming off a disappointing 4-12 campaign, just one season removed from nearly making it to the NFC championship game.
How can they get back on track in 2016? Here’s a look at potential cuts, re-signings, free-agent pickups and draft targets:
1. Cuts and negotiations
CB Morris Claiborne: The first thing the Cowboys need to do is part ways with Claiborne. They have an option on the 2012 No. 6 overall selection, and they’d have to be a lot more optimistic than me to pick it up. After a promising rookie year, a combination of injuries (he’s averaged about 50 percent of the defensive snaps) and poor play (this year he’s our 109th ranked CB) left the front office with few reasons to retain his services.
CB Brandon Carr: It’s not that he’s been terrible, but he’s never come close to justifying his ridiculous contract. A cap number this year of $13 million is about four times what he’s worth, and the Cowboys can free up about $6 million on release. However, given Claiborne is probably gone and Orlando Scandrick will be returning from injury, leaving things in just his and the apparently capable hands of Byron Jones may be a step too far. My preference here is to negotiate him down to a more reasonable number (say, $7 million, which is the amount of dead money on release) and keep him as contingency for another year.
RT Doug Free: After Week 11, his departure was looking like a no-brainer, but he’s turned things around since allowing just one sack and six hurries and grading out as our ninth-best tackle. Is it too little, too late? At a saving of $2.5 million, you still need to replace him, and La’el Collins looks raw. I’d prefer to season the rookie for another year at guard, and trust Free can do a decent job for one more season.
2. Players to re-sign before free agency
LB Rolando McClain: As you often see with players coming back after an enforced rest, he played poorly for four weeks, but picked it up thereafter. He’s a superior athlete who knows how to cover, and that’s a skill set in short supply in the NFL. He’d be the only free agent I’d make definite plans to resign before free agency.
DE Greg Hardy: The Cowboys rightfully took a tremendous amount of heat for signing him, but on the field he is an elite player and had some superior performances. If the market is lukewarm in free agency, I’d expect the Cowboys to take another run at him, but only if the price is less than $8 million a year.
DE Jeremy Mincey: He’s a decent bit part player, and at about $1.5 million APY over a couple of years, a worthwhile addition, but certainly more a secondary target than a primary.
3. Top free-agent targets
There’ll be a little money for free agency this year, but not much particularly if they get McClain. I’d recommend they don’t attempt to play initially, but splurge on maybe one player in the secondary market and look to play more in the tertiary phase.
Secondary free-agent targets
WR Marvin Jones, Bengals: The success of the Bengals may have driven his price too high, but he has the ability to either draw coverage from Dez Bryant or capitalize if he doesn’t.
FS Walter Thurmond, Eagles: One of Chip Kelly’s success stories. The lack of effort by many teams in free agency may leave this star relatively unsought after, and he has the skill set in coverage the Cowboys need to complement Barry Church’s “in-the-box” ability.
Tertiary free-agent targets
WR Rishard Matthews, Dolphins: Did a decent job in difficult circumstances with the Dolphins. May be an under-the-radar guy who they can get for a reasonable price
FS Isa Abdul-Quddus (Lions), Robert Golden (Steelers), Chris Clemons (Cardinals): A few things in common with these guys; they are all good in deep coverage and relatively unknown. Maybe less so Golden (in terms of coverage), but he compensates for that by being one of the best special teamers around, contributing significantly in five of six phases.
CB Josh Robinson, Vikings: When Josh Robinson played slot corner, he used to be a trivia question around PFF: “Which corner has a higher completion percentage targeting against him than throwing against air?” In 2013, he allowed 39-of-41 targets to be completed. This year, he’s played all of six snaps, but it’s 2014 that is the season of interest. Playing 94 percent of his snaps on the outside (mostly LCB), he did a passable (if hardly outstanding) job. Unlike most teams, with Jones and Scandrick, the Cowboys are solid in the slot, but need help outside, and while Robinson will never be a long-term solution, he’s better than what they currently have at a significantly lower price.
QB Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks: Oh, how I’d love to put the name of Chase Daniel in here (I feel he could be this years Tyrod Taylor), but I just feel the bidding war for him will be too intense for the Cowboys' financial status. I could be wrong, and maybe the league doesn’t like him as much as I do, but if they do, all of the 49ers, Rams, and Texans have about three times as much cap space as Dallas. Therefore, I’m going with the QB the Cowboys can afford most likely to deliver given a decent supporting cast, and that’s Jackson. I firmly believe that, with him, the Cowboys would have won at least four more games and been in the thick of the playoffs.
4. 2016 NFL draft needs
QB: They have to look at quarterback (maybe multiple times), and this is as good a year as any, with a class that might be lacking star power, but appears to have decent depth.
CB: Dallas could really use an outside guy, possibly looking at one with the No. 4 overall pick. Florida State corner Jalen Ramsey graded as our second-best college cornerback and could be an option.
G: If they let go of Doug Free and move La’el Collins to right tackle in 2017, then they’ll need a replacement left guard.
RB: When a player like Darren McFadden can look half-decent playing behind your line, you know it’s pretty good. One thing is for sure here—a high-round pick is not essential to running the ball and that goes doubly when you have the best group in football.