Friday, March 14, 2014

What should be the Dallas Cowboys' "Plan B" for 2014 free agency

I previously suggested a plan for the Cowboys' off-season.  Dallas had few realistic paths and happened to do many of the things suggested by myself and others.  Dallas Cowboys' management put themselves into a position to bring leverage on DeMarcus Ware to accept a pay cut, in order to create the space to potentially re-sign Jason Hatcher.

All of that worked pretty well, but the NFL cap going up flooded the market with money and distorted the values of free agents, sinking the plan.  Whereas it appeared Ware was a guy who could get about $7.5M per year in free agency,  the chance of a team paying a premium for Ware was always a slim possibility if Ware was released at the start of free agency.

Ware was indeed allowed to walk early in the free agency period. Still, I think the $10 Million per year Ware received in free agency represents the greater pool of cash in the market as much as anything.  Salaries for free agents are high across the board this year.

The $7 Million per year that Jason Hatcher received from Washington also is higher than the $5 Million or so we estimated.  Free agents we targeted as $2 Million guys --- DE Ziggy Hood of Pittsburgh (projecting him as a 4-3 NT) and HB Toby Gerhardt (projected as a backup HB)  ---- signed for $3 Million per year.

At this point free agency has largely run it's course.  With the extra money in the system, the top 80-90% of the top free agents at each position are already signed.

The Division Outlook

The Philadelphia Eagles look like prohibitive favorites to run away with the division.  The Giants looks substantially better with a newly solidified running game.  RG3 should be healthier this year and the Redskin's coach is likely to tailor their game plans to better tap RG3's talent --- something the Shannahans did not do last season.  The Redskins should be better.

Dallas doesn't look better. While their moves are quite defensible from a long term perspective and suggest a wiser position by cowboy's leadership, Dallas looks like a last place team in 2014.

Dallas landed low-end starters in LDE Jeremy Mincey and 1 technique DT Terrell McClain.  Chicago DE Corey Wooton and Denver DE Robert Ayers are cheap free agents who might be serviceable fringe level starters at DE in a 4-3 allowing for very good depth/ a rotation on the DL...if Dallas is interested.  Many other guys Dallas was targeting, like Seattle 1 technique DT Tony McDaniel, have already signed with other teams.

What's next?

Media speculation is that Dallas should be focused on 27 year old Chicago DT Henry Melton who played the 3 technique in Chicago under Dallas Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli.  (The 3 technique is considered one of the most important positions in the 4-3 Marinelli employs and at 27 Melton should be in his prime.)

In speaking with friends off the cuff yesterday, I threw out that if Dallas signed both Melton and released former Chicago DE Julius Peppers, that Dallas would recover from the losses and be in a fairly good position on it's defensive line.  The reports today imply Dallas is indeed looking at this pair as their free agency solution.

Peppers is had a decent statistical year last year, but there is mounting evidence pointing to him just being a guy at this point.  I am not sure that you chase a 6-9 sack guy if the rest of his game is eroding.

Henry Melton is coming off an injury.  There is a fair bit of risk there in signing him as a free agent as well.  If Dallas signs Melton for the likely going rate ----multiple years at 7 Million per year --- and Melton doesn't deliver, Dallas's playoff hopes are likely not there.

Plus there is the bar fight situation, where he bit a chunk out of a bouncer and is being sued for a million dollars.

And his DWI in college in 2007.  Do we really need another drunk driver?

I have to ask, how mature is this guy really?  Is the fight a one time mistake or is this a guy who is going to have more off the field trouble?

I think there is a strong argument to make your best effort to land him, because if you hit on him you have added to your core, but what if you don't hit on him?  I think if Dallas does this, they need to think seriously about trying to land a second player of similar stature as well.

Let's put Peppers and Melton aside for a second. After looking through the free agents still available, I have some different ideas that could help Dallas achieve a reasonable goal --- solidifying an identity as a tough, good team and making the playoffs as a wildcard --- without mortgaging the future.

A better "Plan B"

Free Agency

MLB Daryl Smith

The guy I would target is Baltimore ILB Daryl Smith. He is a MLB type with good speed who can really cover.  He is a guy who has played at a high level throughout his career but, like Jason Hatcher, Smith has never really gotten paid and is now, at 32, older than team like to pay.  That gives us leverage and makes him a great candidate to pursue.

I am not impressed with the linebacker candidates in this draft.  Signing Smith makes that irrelevant and allows us to focus on both lines in the draft.  There are a lot of linemen worth considering in this draft.

This may be Smith's last shot to hit the big money.  He is hoping for a 4 year $24 Million deal, which most teams won't offer him due to his age.  Baltimore certainly won't.  Denver has an interest in making him a pretty good offer, but it likely won't be $6 Million per year for 4 years.  He might take slightly more from Dallas over an offer from a super bowl contender in Denver.  Guys who have never been paid value things a little differently than most.

If Dallas gave Smith the $24 Million contract he craves, the Cowboys would be able to plug Smith in at middle linebacker and slide the porceleine ninja (Sean Lee) over to the weakside LB.

Middle linebackers are effectively part of the front line of defense in the 4-3 --- essentially they function as part of the line vs. the run. 4-3 defenses funnel running backs at the MLB.  They create head on collisions at your MLB. Smith is far more durable than Lee and he can do most of the things Lee can do, making moving Lee tolerable to the coaching staff.  That would give Dallas a pair of pro bowl caliber LBs who excel vs. the run and the pass.

Such a move combined with the free agent DL additions and presumably some rookies on the DL could do a ton to fix the Dallas run defense.  More importantly it would provide the team with a real, tough minded defensive leader --- the spine the defense has needed for years.

With a $6 million dollar pro-rated bonus and a base salary of 1M in 2014, Smith could be had with a cap hit of say $2.5M this year. 

cap hit: 2.5M, 7.5M, 7.5M, 6.5M

G/C Kevin Boothe

I would try to sign away NYG C/G Kevin Boothe as 1) he is cheap 2) he is a good run blocker 3) he is a competent starter at Guard or Center 4) he was a late bloomer in the NFL and still has some tread left on his tires 5) it weakens the Giant's offensive line forcing them to chase offensive linemen in the draft 6) and finally because a QB can only take a certain number of hits before he start hearing footsteps.   Eli has taken a lot of hits over the last 2 years. If you can help break Eli with smart personnel raids, you should.  With a shell-shocked Eli, the Giants become a non-threat in head to head matchups.

The Giants are trying to sign Boothe now, so approaching him would need to be a priority.  He is worth about 2.5 M a year.

cap hit: 1.5M, 2M, 2M

3 Technique DT Henry Melton

That still leaves 4 Million in space to use to craft an offer to Melton.  By setting Melton's 1st year base at $1M, they could something like a 4 year, 24 million deal with a $12 M signing bonus.  That would likely trump any competing offers, even in a market filled with loose wallets.

I know some would say you could offer less of a bonus to Melton and maybe use the space remaining to also land Spencer, but I suspect you can't get all four with $8M in space.  I would talk to Spencer about an extension and agree to handshake terms on a multi-year deal on favorable terms if he waits until summer to sign with Dallas.

As far as Melton's deal goes, it could be...

cap hit: 4M, 7M, 7M, 6M

The plan for June 1st cuts
There are three guys I would look at as mid-summer cuts. 
Miles Austin
Miles Austin is a $8.249M cap cost.  He would only cost $2.749M v.s the cap if cut after June 1st.  Austin has chronic hamstring injuries and is destined to be replaced by Terrance Williams & Dwayne Harris in the near future anyway. He appears to be gone.
Kyle Orton
Kyle Orton was paid to be the guy who could carry Dallas to victory if Romo went down.  Dallas's defense played lights out and Orton couldn't deliver 25 points against an average Philadelphia defense. Orton is good enough to keep it close, but he is no winner --- ie. not worth paying. Let's be honest. Even if he beat Philadelphia, the Saints would have routed Dallas and Orton would not have been able to deliver enough points.  He has a $4.377M cap cost. After June 1, it only costs $1.127M to cut ties.  You can either draft a replacement or try to resign someone cheap and talented like Alex Tanney.
Doug Free
Doug Free is a $6.25M cap cost and an option to cut.  He would cost $3.02M to cut after June 1st.  I think it is too risky to cut Free. He is just a below average starting left tackle, but keeping Free does give Dallas an experienced backup at both tackle spots in case of injury, even if a $3M base salary is way too much for a backup tackle.  To me, it is worth holding on to him.  His deal ends after this year anyway.
Cutting Austin and Orton this summer would create $8.75M in cap space, allowing the resigning of much more important players like Brian Waters and Anthony Spencer, as well as the rookie class.

summer resigning candidates

WDE Anthony Spencer

Spencer would then be able to walk in and with a player friendly deal that pays him well this year, doesn't allow Dallas to franchise him in the future, and maybe even has a player option to opt out after a year if he outplays his contract.  Spencer is larger than Ware and may prove to be a much netter fit in the 4-3 than Ware. Even coming off a knee repair, I like him better than an old Peppers.

Lets say a 4 year $24M deal with a 1st year base of $3M and a signing bonus of $5M split over the first two years of the deal.  That pays him $8 M this year and is a fairly valuable total deal for a guy coming off a knee repair.

cap hit: 5.5M, 7.5M, 8M, 3M

G Brian Waters

I would still resign Brian Waters for about $2.5M as I think his leadership helped the offensive line find themselves last year.   I want my young linemen imprinting on him...Even if he skips out on camp and his health/age only allow him to start a few games.   Waters getting injured after skipping camp last year actually sent the right message about the need to attend camp.  If it happens again, you would lose a good player, but it again sends the right message.

cap hit: 2.5 M

These deals impact the Cowboys' cap over the next 3-4 years, but given the idea that the cap will be going up more in future years (as is the current thought), that Free and Waters will fall off the payroll after this season, and that Brandon Carr might be cut if he plays poorly this year --- these moves start to look almost like financial neutrals in cap management terms.

I think this sets up Dallas well to run the ball and to stop the run and allows Dallas to draft the best player available (...who fit their schemes and the coaches like).

My next article will take an updated look at the draft with this free agency strategy applied.



    Aw that sucks. I started the article last night and Smith re-signed with Baltimore for 4 years at 16M as I was finishing up this article.

  2. With smith off the board, it makes sense to use the cap space earmarked for him in this article to secure Spencer.