Dallas Cowboys: 2012 NFL Free Agency

What's Anthony Spencer's game here?

April, 16, 2012
So, Anthony Spencer has changed agents, according to my friends at ESPNDallas.com, in an effort to secure a long-term contract. Seems Spencer isn't satisfied with the $8.8 million franchise number and would prefer the security of knowing where he's going to be playing (and for how much) in 2013 and beyond. Indications are that he'd like to stay in Dallas, just not on a one-year franchise tender.

I think this is a case of a player (and at least one agent) making an inaccurate assessment of his value. The Cowboys' alternative, when they chose to designate Spencer their franchise player, wasn't to lock him up long-term. It was to let him walk and go find a replacement on the market or in the draft. That was the original plan, in fact, but when the Cowboys looked around they discovered that there really weren't any options they believed were better than Spencer. So they franchised him, figuring that gave him another year to become a bigger factor in their pass rush and themselves another year to look for an upgrade.

Spencer is a good player. The Cowboys like what he brings to the run defense, and they like the way he fits into their defense. But he's not a great player, and they do wish he was better at getting to the quarterback. Had there been a half-dozen good pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebackers on the market, they probably would have pursued one and wished Spencer well. It's important, as he considers his value on the market and his place in the Cowboys' plans, that Spencer remembers this.

A one-year, $8.8 million contract is a pretty good deal for a 3-4 outside linebacker who gets five or six sacks a year. If Spencer's looking for a multi-year deal that pays him more, on average, than that $8.8 million, I'm not sure where he thinks he would be able to get that. In fact, there's probably not a team out there that values him as highly as the Cowboys do, since they've seen him up close, had him in their locker room and know what he brings to the table in lieu of eye-popping stats.

Spencer's 28 years old and entering his sixth year in the league. There's a chance he gets better -- that something changes and he becomes a fearsome bookend pass rusher opposite DeMarcus Ware. But it's more likely that he already is the player he's going to be, and that the Cowboys are going to be facing a similar decision on him a year from now. If I were in Spencer's shoes, I'd sign my franchise tender. Because at this point in free agency, if something were to change and the Cowboys were to revoke it and set him free on the open market, I don't see how Spencer could do any better.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Spencer's new agent can make the Cowboys see something in Spencer they haven't seen to this point. But while the point of the franchise player designation might be to buy time for the sides to work on a long-term deal, I don't think that's the way the Cowboys are using it in this case. I think they're just buying another year to see if Spencer blossoms into the player they hope he can be or if a better option presents itself. The sooner Spencer understands that, the better off he'll be.

Let's all chill about Laurent Robinson

March, 14, 2012
You guys know I'm active on Twitter (@ESPN_NFCEast and, to a lesser extent, @DanGrazianoESPN). I'm there to answer whatever questions I can, and at times like these the activity is more intense than it is at other times of the year. So I'm on there in between blog posts to help out. You can ask questions, vent, call me names, whatever. I'm there for you.

Some of the questions I get on there become so frequent that they take on lives of their own and become worthy of their own posts. Such is the case, I feel, with the question of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Laurent Robinson, who is making free-agent visits to places like Jacksonville and appears unlikely to return to Dallas.

To hear Cowboys fans on this topic, you'd think we were talking about the second coming of Jerry Rice. I mean, Robinson played very well for the Cowboys last year, and only three players in the league caught more touchdown passes, but I refuse to buy into the idea that replacing his production would become a major offseason priority for the Cowboys if and when he signs elsewhere.

Possible options for replacing Robinson include:

1. Throwing the ball to Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant more.

2. Finding a third wide receiver in the bargain bin, which is where they found Robinson last summer when no one else wanted him.

This isn't rocket science. Robinson became Tony Romo's favorite red zone target and ended up with 11 touchdown catches, but that doesn't mean Romo would be crippled in the red zone without him. Witten used to be his favorite red zone target, and there's no reason to think he can't be again. If they can keep Austin healthy and if Bryant (just 23 years old) continues his development, they won't need a No. 3 wide receiver to produce the way Robinson did. Robinson's production was a pleasant surprise, but it's not as though Romo and the Cowboys would have been lost without him.

The Cowboys need help on defense and on the offensive line. They're pretty well-stocked at receiver. Falling in love with Robinson and overpaying him off his first good season would be a free-agent gamble, and given their strengths and their needs, it's one the Cowboys would do well to let some other team make.

So long, Terence Newman

March, 13, 2012

We've known for months that, when the time came, the ax wouldn't hurdle Terence Newman, and it didn't. The Dallas Cowboys have released the beleaguered cornerback who became the symbol of their second-half defensive problems, according to Todd Archer and Calvin Watkins.

The move saves the Cowboys either $4 million or $6 million against the salary cap, depending on the official timing of it and whether the NFL's 31 other owners decide two years from now that they didn't agree with it. (Yeah, I made that last part up.) The Cowboys also cut kicker David Buehler (which they announced, unlike the Newman move, and remains a secret for some reason) and, according to Todd and Calvin, restructured the contracts of cornerback Orlando Scandrick and tackle Doug Free. The Scandrick restructure converts $5.9 million of his $7.1 million base salary into bonus money. Similar deal with Free, as they convert $4.8 million of his $6 million base salary into bonus money.

All of the moves are designed for the salary cap, which the Cowboys need after the league docked them $10 million worth of cap room over the next two years for violating a handshake agreement the teams made to not spend too much during a supposedly uncapped season in 2010. Todd and Calvin calculate that Tuesday's moves cleared $15.82 million in 2012 cap room. Dallas is expected to be aggressive in free agency in spite of the sanctions, and it needs help at cornerback, safety and on the offensive line. Expect it to be mentioned in pursuit of the top cornerbacks on the market, such as Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, once free agency opens at 4 p.m. ET.

Newman played well at the start of this season upon his return from injury, but he slowed down severely as the season went along. He gained an unfortunate sort of national notoriety in the season finale that decided the division title, when two Giants fullbacks were able to hurdle him while he tried to tackle them. The Cowboys were looking to upgrade from Newman last summer and likely would have cut him had they succeeded in signing Nnamdi Asomugha. But they held onto Newman instead, and the defense suffered for it.

A free agent list for the Cowboys

March, 13, 2012
At 3:01 CT the free agency period starts in the NFL.

ESPN NFL analyst Ed Werder talks about how the NFL's salary cap penalty could prevent the Cowboys from re-signing free agents, namely WR Laurent Robinson.

Listen Listen
With that we've got a list of potential targets for the Cowboys:
  • Brandon Carr, CB: Finished with four interceptions and 13 pass breakups for the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • Cortland Finnegan, CB: Credited with five tackles for loss and 12 pass breakups for Tennessee.
  • Richard Marshall, CB: Started nine games for Arizona last season and finished with three picks.
  • Eric Wright, CB: Ended 2011 with four interceptions and 16 pass breakups for Detroit.
  • Evan Mathis, G: Started 15 of 16 games at left guard for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.
  • Ben Grubbs, G: A 2011 Pro Bowler from the left guard spot for Baltimore.
  • Carl Nicks, G: The premier free-agent guard on the market. Might go back to New Orleans.
  • Trai Essex, G: A backup guard for Pittsburgh who can also play a little tackle.
  • Chris Myers, C: One of the best centers in the game. Houston covets him, though.
  • David Hawthorne, ILB: A nice fit in the Cowboys' scheme. Led Seattle in total tackles.
  • Dan Connor, ILB: Finished with 75 tackles and three tackles for loss with Carolina.
  • Shaun Hill, QB: Backed up Matthew Stafford in Detroit last season.
  • Kyle Orton, QB: Cowboys tried claiming him last season, but missed. Threw 10 TD and 11 INTs last year.
  • Luke McCown, QB: Was Blaine Gabbert's backup in Jacksonville.

Carl Nicks is going to cost ya

March, 12, 2012
Free-agent guard Carl Nicks has long been on the wish list of Dallas Cowboys fans. The Washington Redskins could use him too, as they look to shore up their offensive line in front of what will be a high-priced rookie quarterback. So if you're wondering what Nicks is going to cost in free agency, we have the answer. Well, we have Nicks' answer, courtesy of an interview he gave on WWL radio in New Orleans:
On his contract demands:

“I plan to be the highest paid guard in the NFL. You can take that whatever kinda way but that’s my goal, so…more than Logan Mankins got I guess.”

On if he feels he’s earned that:

“Absolutely. I mean I don’t wanna sound cocky or anything but I busted my butt for four years, I made a couple Pro Bowls. For my first three years I was the lowest paid guard of all the starting guard in the NFL. And I never complained, I never held out, I came in early to sign my tender when no one else was doing that. I’ve been dedicated to the team and I’ve proven my stats speak for itself. I just feel like I should get paid what I deserve.”

In case you're wondering, the contract Mankins signed with the Patriots last year was $51 million for six years with a $20 million signing bonus. So if you want Nicks, you need to know he's looking for more than $8.5 million a year. Too much to spend on a guard? Well, the Patriots didn't think so, and as a result neither does the best guard on this year's free-agent market. Will the Cowboys pay that much, given their many needs on defense? Will the Redskins pay that much, given their needs at wide receiver, in the secondary and the money they'll have to spend to sign Robert Griffin III after they draft him with the No. 2 pick?

For me, that's too much for a guard. I think you can find guards cheaper, late in the draft if need be. But odds are that somebody's going to pay it, and Nicks is a stud. Personally, I think the NFC East's guard-needy teams would do well to stay away if that's the neighborhood in which Nicks is going to get paid. But nobody's asking me.

What should Cowboys do at safety?

March, 10, 2012
Everybody knows the Dallas Cowboys need to upgrade their secondary, and much of the attention has been on cornerback, where Terence Newman is sure to be released and the Cowboys are being linked to cornerbacks such as Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan in free agency and Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirkpatrick in the draft. But they also need to address safety, and the Cowboys' website raises the interesting name of Brodney Pool as a possible solution there. Pool played for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Cleveland and could be a fit in Dallas if it decides not to retain his former teammate, Abram Elam:
Having started alongside Elam in Cleveland, Pool's signing with the Cowboys would mean that Elam will play elsewhere in 2012, most likely. Gerald Sensabaugh has been locked up to a long-term deal, but the Cowboys could use an upgrade opposite him. Pool and Elam are comparable talents, but Pool is three years younger and has a bit more size and athleticism. The team would seem unlikely to use a first-round pick on one of the draft's top safeties like Mark Barron of Alabama, and could hope to buy more time for a young player like Barry Church before inserting him into the starting lineup. Pool is quite capable of bridging that gap.

This is the kind of name that makes sense for the Cowboys at a position where they have a serious need but aren't likely to fill it with a pursuit of the biggest, flashiest names. I wouldn't rule out them taking someone like Barron in the first round of the draft, especially if they like whatever they've done at cornerback in free agency. But there are enough Pool-type veteran safeties on the market that the Cowboys should be able to find someone to give them what they need at the position.

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 9, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Dallas Cowboys

Key free agents: WR Laurent Robinson, S Abram Elam, LB Keith Brooking, LB Anthony Spencer (franchise)

Where they stand: Dallas needs serious help in the secondary and will have to decide whether it wants Elam back at safety while it pursues at least one cornerback. The Cowboys are expected to release Terence Newman, and they could look to add depth at that position and a new starter. Franchising Spencer indicates that while they would like to improve their pass rush, they won't be players in the Mario Williams market. Expect their free-agent focus to be on defensive backs and possibly some upgrades on the interior of the offensive line. They would like Robinson back as their No. 3 receiver, but if he's going to get No. 2 receiver-type offers, they'll likely let him walk.

What to expect: The top two cornerback targets are likely Kansas City's Brandon Carr and Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan. You can't rule out Dallas making a play for Saints guard Carl Nicks, who'd be a huge help to their offensive line. But someone like Baltimore's Ben Grubbs is likely to be more attainable financially. What the Cowboys really need on the line is a center, but it's not a great market for those unless they can get their hands on Houston's Chris Myers. The Cowboys likely will hunt for some second-tier safeties and inside linebackers to add depth, then target defensive back again early in the draft.

New York Giants

Key free agents: WR Mario Manningham, OT Kareem McKenzie, CB Aaron Ross, CB Terrell Thomas, LB Jonathan Goff, P Steve Weatherford (franchise).

Where they stand: The Super Bowl champs must get their own cap situation in order first, as they project to be about $7.25 million over the projected cap. That may mean tough cuts of people like Brandon Jacobs or David Diehl, or it may just mean some contract restructuring (like the big one they apparently just did with Eli Manning). Regardless, don't expect the Giants to spend big to keep Manningham or Ross. They're likely to bring back Thomas on a team-favorable deal as a result of the knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, and they'll probably let McKenzie walk and try to replace him internally (which favors Diehl's chances of sticking around).

What to expect: Just like last year, don't expect the Giants to be big-game hunters. They like to grow their own replacements. If Manningham leaves, they won't go after the top wide receivers but might try to find a bargain or two to supplement the young players from whom they're expecting more production next season. They could find a midlevel safety if they don't bring back Deon Grant, and if Jacobs leaves they'll probably bring in a veteran running back or two to compete in training camp with their youngsters. They liked Ronnie Brown last year as a possible Ahmad Bradshaw replacement when Bradshaw was a pending free agent, so there's a name to watch for if you want one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key free agents: G Evan Mathis, DT Trevor Laws, DT Antonio Dixon (restricted), WR DeSean Jackson (franchise), QB Vince Young

Where they stand: Other than Mathis, whom they're working to try and re-sign before he his the market, the Eagles don't have many internal free-agent issues to worry about. They franchised Jackson because they're not ready to give him a long-term deal just yet. He's a candidate for a trade, but it would have to be a very nice offer. If they traded him, they'd hunt for a wide receiver, but they may do so anyway -- just at a lower level (think Plaxico Burress). The interior of the defensive line is in fairly good hands with Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson as starters, but they could stand to add depth to that rotation. And while they signed Trent Edwards a couple of weeks ago, they'll keep looking for a better veteran backup quarterback option with Young sure to be gone.

What to expect: Do not -- I repeat, do not -- expect the Eagles to be the same kind of player they were in free agency a year ago. Andy Reid made it very clear several times during the 2011 offseason and season that last year was unique, and the Eagles don't like to do business that way in general. They do need linebackers, and they have the cap room to play on guys like Stephen Tulloch or Curtis Lofton or even, if they wanted to get really nutty, London Fletcher. But while you can expect them to add a veteran or two at the position, don't be surprised if they sit out the higher-priced auctions this time around.

Washington Redskins

Key free agents: S LaRon Landry, LB London Fletcher, DE Adam Carriker, TE Fred Davis (franchise), QB Rex Grossman

Where they stand: Mike Shanahan said in December that Fletcher was a priority, but he remains unsigned with less than a week to go before free agency. Presumably, they'd still like to lock him up before he hits the market. If they can't, they'll have to replace a major on-field and off-field presence. Carriker is likely to be back, but the Fletcher situation has to be settled first. Landry likely is gone unless he wants to take a low-base, high-incentive deal to stay. The Redskins are sick of not knowing whether he'll be able to take the field from week to week. Grossman could return, but only as a backup to whatever quarterback upgrade they find.

What to expect: The Redskins could have more than $40 million in cap room with which to maneuver in free agency, and they're going to need it. They need a quarterback, of course, and if they can't make the trade with the Rams to move up to No. 2 in the draft and pick Robert Griffin III, they'll look at Peyton Manning and Kyle Orton and possibly Matt Flynn, though he doesn't appear to be high on their list. What Shanahan really wants is a true playmaking No. 1 wide receiver, which is why the Redskins have their eyes on Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, who are at the very top end of that market. They'll be able to outbid almost anyone for those guys if they want to, but they may have to get quarterback figured out first if they want to persuade one of them to take their offer over similar ones. They'll also hunt for help on the offensive line and in the secondary, as they need depth in both places.

Should Cowboys pursue Finnegan?

March, 6, 2012
Free agency is one of several ways for NFL teams to improve their rosters. It offers some solutions to often glaring problems. But it doesn't offer many perfect ones. When a player becomes a free agent, part of the reason is because his former team decided it didn't want him anymore. This can happen for several reasons, many of which have little to do with the quality of the player or the person in question. But the fact is, if you hit the market, you do so (at least in part) because your prior team didn't do what it took to keep you from hitting the market.

Which brings us to the Dallas Cowboys, who need a cornerback, and Cortland Finnegan, a former Tennessee Titans quarterback who's now a free agent. There seems little doubt that Finnegan should be high on the Cowboys' list of free-agent targets along with former Chief Brandon Carr. But any team that looks to sign a free agent wants to know as much as possible about him -- and about why he became a free agent. Fortunately for us, as we contemplate Cowboy needs, we have Paul Kuharsky, the estimable steward of the AFC South blog, to explain to us why Tennessee is letting Finnegan go:
Here's why: They don't think he's a $10 million a year corner. While he's a very good and versatile defensive back, he's not going to single-handedly erase a top receiver every week. Even had the Titans decided to give him the franchise tag, he would have hated it and griped. He's a good guy at heart, and did a lot for the team and the community, but his nasty streak, on and off the field, could show up at bad moments and be unhealthy. The last time he got money, he didn't react to a fatter wallet well.

So there you have it, Cowboys fans. Caveat emptor, which applies to every free-agent pursuit for various reasons. Finnegan would no doubt be a huge upgrade over the 2011 version of Terence Newman, and whatever drawbacks there are to him are likely outweighed by the on-field benefit he'd bring. Just a little reminder that, as much fun as free agency is, it rarely offers flawless fixes.