NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.
From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.
Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.
The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.
Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.
Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.
The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).
Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.
Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.
How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?
Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.
The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).
As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.
The move chews up $150,000 of the roughly $2 million worth of salary-cap space.
Jones averaged 45 yards per punt in his first full season with the Cowboys. He appeared in two games in 2011 as an injury replacement for Mat McBriar and four games in 2012 before a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season.
Jones had a 39.1-yard net average and had 30 of his 77 punts end up inside the opponents’ 20. Teams averaged only 9.2 yards per punt return against the Cowboys in 2013.
Earlier in the offseason the Cowboys signed kicker Dan Bailey to a seven-year extension worth $22.5 million.
The free-agent market opens at 3 p.m. CT Tuesday. Teams and agents have been able to talk about interest and parameters since Saturday, but players have not been able to talk directly to clubs or set up visits.
Whether the Cowboys release Ware or reach an agreement on a new contract, they will gain salary-cap space. By cutting Ware, the Cowboys would gain $7.4 million in cap space.
But the Cowboys do not need to cut Ware to get under the cap. After restructuring three deals (Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick), reducing one (Mackenzy Bernadeau) and releasing Phil Costa last week, the Cowboys are roughly $2 million under the cap.
While that is enough to sign a player to a reasonable deal, it is not enough to help fill multiple holes on a defense that finished last in the NFL in 2013. It would not be enough to keep last year's sack leader, Jason Hatcher, who is expected to receive heavy interest from teams in free agency.
Ware's camp would like a quick decision so that if he is cut, he would be able to hit the open market when teams have the most money to spend.
Ware's 117 career sacks are the most in franchise history, and he earned Pro Bowl honors from 2006 to 2012, but posted a career-low six sacks in 2013. Ware, who turns 32 in July, missed three games with a quadriceps strain and was bothered by a nerve issue in his elbow that required surgery after the season.
At the NFL scouting combine, executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would be efficient spenders in free agency. In the past, they have set the markets on players -- like cornerback Brandon Carr, who received a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012 -- only to not get enough payoff on the deals.
With Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith nearing the end of their contracts, the Cowboys want to have enough cap room to keep their two young Pro Bowl performers.
Such is the case with Miles Austin and the Dallas Cowboys
In order for the Cowboys to use a post-June 1 designation on Austin, they cannot release the two-time Pro Bowler until after the new league year starts on Tuesday. By doing that, the Cowboys would save $5.5 million against the cap, but they would not have access to the money until June 1. Most of that money would go toward the team’s draft picks.
If the Cowboys did not use the designation, they would save less than $400,000 with the move. The downside to the June 1 cut is the cap hit will spread over two years. Austin would count $5.1 million against the cap in 2015 as a June 1 cut.
Austin caught only 24 passes for 244 yards in 2013, missing five games with a hamstring injury and failing to catch a pass in two contests. With the emergence of Terrance Williams, the Cowboys could partner the second-year receiver with Dez Bryant in the starting lineup but could also look to low-cost veterans in free agency.
As it stands today, the Cowboys released Everette Brown and Corvey Irvin from the unit, and are in discussions about a pay cut with starting defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
The group has four linemen who become free agents in Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Jarius Wynn and Martez Wilson.
Hatcher will test the market and could be too expensive to bring back either with a new contract or a franchise tag. Spencer is coming off microfracture surgery and team executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team is open to bringing him back. The team also has a strong interest in returning Wynn to the roster.
Overall, this group has depth issues.
Ware is the biggest question mark because the team doesn't want him to have a high salary-cap number ($16 million), but the team could be forced to just release him and create $7.4 million in cap space.
George Selvie (end) and Nick Hayden (tackle) are returning starters who excelled under line coach Rod Marinelli. However, if the Cowboys can find an upgrade in the draft to replace or create competition, it would replace Selvie and/or Hayden.
One of the keys to this group is pressure. As a whole, there wasn't enough pressure from the front four when Monte Kiffin was running the defense. Things could change under Marinelli and if the Cowboys secure better talent and get better performances in the secondary, to help with the pass rush.
Last year, Cowboys' officials said the line was a position of strength and it wasn't. The team lost Tyrone Crawford, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Ben Bass to injuries.
Ware missed three games with a quad injury and the best lineman on the team was Hatcher, who led the team with a career-high 11 sacks.
The Cowboys did badly in the draft last year when it came to this position because it was hoping the current players on the roster would respond, and it bypassed upgrades at the position.
The Cowboys can't do that again this year.
Jones said the team isn't going to force selecting a lineman just because they need one; the Cowboys want to continue the trend of selecting the best man available.
Whatever the Cowboys elect to do, finding better talent in the draft is a must in 2014.
IRVING, Texas -- Wade Phillips has the second-best winning percentage of any coach in Dallas Cowboys' history. Better than Tom Landry's. I think Phillips might know that.
On Thursday, Phillips tweeted this:
And later followed up with this addendum:
My surprise was that Jason and I had coached the same number of games. Not the record - time passes quickly -I wish Jason & Cowboys well— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Like most things with Phillips, he lacked context.
When Phillips took over in 2007 as head coach, he inherited a team from Bill Parcells that was ready to win. QB Tony Romo was going into his first year as a full-time starter. The defense had DE DeMarcus Ware at his best. WR Terrell Owens was putting up big numbers.
The Cowboys went 13-3 and had the best record in the NFC. Phillips was the perfect antidote to Parcells and the players responded. Well, they did to a point. The Cowboys were not the same after beating the Green Bay Packers to move to 11-1 and effectively clinch home-field advantage.
They got lucky to beat the Detroit Lions the following week. They lost two of their last three games, but they were in shutdown mode against the Washington Redskins with nothing to gain from a win.
Other than momentum they had lost.
The Cowboys lost to the New York Giants in the divisional round at Texas Stadium, and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.
That's basically when the Romo narrative started. Maybe you heard that Romo went to Cabo during the wild-card weekend. Did it affect the outcome of the Giants' game? Of course not, but the perception machine was rolling, and has been rolling ever since.
In 2008, the Cowboys acted as if they were predestined to not only make the playoffs but win the Super Bowl. Go back and watch the "Hard Knocks" episodes, and you see a team full of itself. They finished 9-7, missed the playoffs and were a mess late in the season.
Phillips could not pull it all together and looked inept as he attempted to deal with the fallout from the Adam "Pacman" Jones' incident. Phillips earned a reprieve in 2009 when Dallas posted an 11-5 record, won the NFC East title, and recorded a playoff win -- but that was the high point.
The Cowboys went 1-7 to start the 2010 season, including an embarrassing home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a gutless loss to the Packers (45-7) the following week. After that game, Jerry Jones made the switch to Garrett, and the Cowboys are 29-27 since and have not made the playoffs.
Garrett did not inherit a team ready to win the way Phillips did in 2007. By the time Garrett took over, the Cowboys were growing old on the offensive line, and there were too many people (especially those in offices at Valley Ranch) who believed they had the best talent in the league.
The head coach of the Cowboys has tremendous sway with Jones. The Cowboys did not take Randy Moss in 1998 at least in part because then-coach Chan Gailey didn't want Moss.
On that premise, the 2008 draft -- with Dallas' two first-round picks -- was a mess because the Cowboys didn't even attempt to re-sign those first-rounders (Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins) when their contracts expired. The 2009 draft was a colossal failure in part because Jones was convinced that it could be a "special-teams draft," which is as ludicrous as the "draft for backups" the team had when Barry Switzer was the coach in 1995.
This is not in defense of Garrett. He has made plenty of mistakes on the field and in the draft.
Phillips has had a tremendous career in the NFL that has spanned decades. He is a terrific coordinator, but is he in the same conversation as guys like Dick LeBeau, or even Monte Kiffin? I'm not sure a Phillips defense scared offenses the way LeBeau's defenses in Pittsburgh and Kiffin's defenses in Tampa Bay did. Phillips was a good head coach but could not get his teams in Denver, Buffalo or Dallas past a certain point.
Phillips knows his resume inside and out. He can cite team stats and all the Hall of Famers he has coached.
He can claim his tweet was more about the number of games he and Garrett have coached, but it looked more like a passive-aggressive shot at the guy who replaced him, and a way for him to remind everybody of his record.
By the way, his winning percentage is .607. Landry had a .605 winning percentage.
Phillips has spoken to the people through Twitter with these comments:
Then we have this:
My surprise was that Jason and I had coached the same number of games. Not the record - time passes quickly -I wish Jason & Cowboys well— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Cowboys reg season gms coached- Galley-32 Campo-48 Phillips-56 Garrett-56 Parcells-64 Switzer-64 Johnson-80 Landry-418— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Recently, Phillips said his age, 66, was holding him back from another head coaching job. Phillips is a good coach who achieved some success with the Cowboys in his four seasons. He was the perfect hire for the Cowboys after four hard years with Bill Parcells’ demanding ways.
Parcells, a Hall of Famer with two Super Bowl rings, has a style that grinds on players.
Phillips is more of grandfatherly type of coach whose style is the opposite.
Garrett probably needs to grind on the players more, and while there is a healthy respect level for the man, his philosophy is not leading to positive results: meaning playoff appearances.
It was just interesting to see Phillips come out of nowhere to discuss his record with the Cowboys. I remember Jerry Jones saying a few years ago that Phillips never had a honeymoon as the head coach with the Cowboys.
Phillips' reign was always questioned about whether he had command of the team and if the respect was there.
If you look at core group of players, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the most success they obtained was under Phillips.
There was the 2009 playoff win, the two division titles with a No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC in 2007, all under Phillips.
Yet, we had the Pacman Jones suspension, the 44-6 loss at Philadelphia, Terrell Owens’ antics and finally the 1-7 start to the 2010 season, which led to Phillips’ firing.
Maybe Phillips is just being passive aggressive with his Twitter thoughts about what he thinks of Garrett. The current coach of the Cowboys is entering the final year of his contract and there’s no guarantee he’ll receive an extension. (Phillips, by the way, received one extension from Jones).
Maybe Phillips is trying to remind everyone that his time in Dallas brought better results than Garrett’s. At least Phillips got to the postseason.
And in some ways Jones is mindful of this and probably can’t give Garrett the contract extension he wants until he can break the Cowboys cycle of 8-8 seasons.
If Garrett can’t do that, the tenure of the son of the late Bum Phillips will always have been a more successful period in Cowboys history.
The biggest name to watch from the pro day was cornerback Jason Verrett, a potential late first-round or second-round pick.
The Cowboys have an interest in bringing Verrett in for a private workout, but will be cautious because of his health. Verrett will need surgery to repair a torn labrum.
"[The doctors] feel like it’s gonna be a very short process," TCU coach Gary Patterson told TCU 360. "Everybody that’s done it has been able to be back before camp. On the high road, I think that’s what he’s anticipating. That he’ll be back before camp."
Verrett, the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, missed just one game last season because of the injury.
As for the workout, Verrett did 19 reps of 225 pounds, impressive considering he needs surgery. Verrett didn't run the 40, however he posted a 4.38 40 at the combine. Verrett had a 39.5 vertical jump at the pro day.
Quarterback Casey Pachall, safety Elisha Olabode, tackle James Dunbar, guard John Woolridge, cornerback Keivon Gamble, running back Waymon James and center Eric Tausch participated in the pro day as well.
Basically, Polian, who is among Jerry Jones' circle of trust outside Valley Ranch, subscribes to the theory that a free agent can be a useful tool if you spend wisely, but the economic risk almost always outweighs the on-field production.
Let's highlight a couple of Polian's positions from the Insider story.
2. Don't sign a player and change his techniques.Cowboys' take: Dallas invested heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency and the draft in 2012 and moved away from their supposed strengths -- man coverage -- to play mostly zone when they switched to Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys need to find a way to blend their coverages more to play to the strengths of Carr and Claiborne.
It is hard enough for players to adapt to a new team. For example, don't take a Tampa 2, 3-technique and expect him to become a Parcells/Belichick 3-4 DE. Those are totally different techniques, and players who have to make that type of adjustment don't make the transition well. Adapting and then trying to learn a new role on top of that adds complications that can ruin your investment. You could have a relatively brief window of return, so retraining shouldn't be a big part of it.
7. Don't pay a player above his grade.Cowboys' take: Let's stick with Carr again. The Cowboys overpaid for him (five years, $50 million) but that was the market for free-agent corners. The St. Louis Rams paid Cortland Finnegan the same amount and will cut him once the league year starts. At the time of the signing, the Cowboys were not criticized for signing Carr, who has not missed a game in his career and was young. But they have yet to see the on-field production for their off-field pay out.
Don't give A-money (or years) to a B-player, and so on down the line. As discussed at the start of this article, the free-agent market as a whole is almost always a losing investment. Just because another team is willing to give a player a certain contract doesn't mean he's worth that price to your team. There is no universal price for a player because every player has a different value to each team. You need to trust your internal valuations and proceed off those figures, not the market.
11. Do beware of players whose production dramatically increases in their contract year.Cowboys' take: It's not that Jason Hatcher was lousy, but he never produced more than 4.5 sacks in a season before 2013. Polian also has a 'don't pay age' axiom, which could affect Hatcher, who turns 32 in July, but could teams be worried about his 11-sack spike in a contract year?
If a player is lousy for three years and then spikes in Year 4 and becomes a world-beater, be careful. You're more likely to get the production from those first three seasons, but you'll be paying for the results of the fourth. It's not a knock on the effort of the first three years, it's a trust in the bigger sample size.
"I think I made the best decision for my situation, I really do," Maclin said.
What does Maclin have to do with the Dallas Cowboys? It got me to thinking about Anthony Spencer.
Spencer played 34 snaps in 2013 before undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. Like Maclin, he was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him in 2012 and ’13, paying him roughly $19 million. The knee injury ruined Spencer’s ability to find a long-term deal.
So would it be in Spencer’s best interest to return to the Cowboys on a one-year deal for a third straight season, albeit at much lower price?
His agent, Jordan Woy, said Spencer should be ready to go in training camp or the preseason games. It would seem to make sense for Spencer to remain with the Cowboys since their athletic training staff knows him best and knows where he is exactly in his rehab. The coaches know him best as well and would know when he would need rest to make it through a season after such a tricky surgery.
Maclin is 26 and returning to form after an ACL tear nowadays is much more commonplace. Spencer turned 30 in January and microfracture surgeries do not guarantee success, although the Cowboys have worked a few players back into the mix from it in the past.
As with everything, it will come down to opportunity and price. Spencer might find it better to go to a 3-4 team to play outside linebacker instead of defensive end in a 4-3 to bet on himself on a one-year deal and the Cowboys might want to get younger.
But a one-year deal would make sense for the Cowboys to have some cushion along the defensive line and make sense for Spencer in hopes to find a better deal in 2015.
If the Cowboys stick with the same simple restructure process of Romo in 2015 and convert $16 million of Romo’s $17 million base salary, then they would add another $3.2 million in signing bonus proration per year in 2015-19.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones said it is a challenge to manage the cap with a quarterback with cap figures that are greater than $20 million. That’s putting it kindly.
Let’s say the 2015 cap goes up 10 percent to $146 million, which is possible but perhaps too high of a projection at this date. Romo’s cap number would chew up almost 19% of the cap. That’s a good percentage of the cap on one player, especially with the Cowboys needing to take care of Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith.
A few years ago Jones said the Cowboys would need DeMarcus Ware to play at least one season at a high cap number, but they continually restructured his contract and now the team finds itself unwilling to have their all-time leader in sacks count $16.003 million this year.
In a perfect world, the Cowboys would need Romo to play at least one year of this deal at a high cap number. Is it impossible? No, but it would limit what the Cowboys can do.
And if the Cowboys find themselves in a position where they want to part ways with Romo, they almost would have to do designate him as a post-June 1 cap casualty in 2015-18, which would spread out the accelerated signing bonus over two years.
To the Cowboys, this is simply the price of doing business in the NFL with an elite quarterback and that’s why winning now (a two-, three-year window) is so important.
Some of it is front-office based, but that situation will not change. This is Jerry Jones’ team and he will run it the way he wants to run it.
Where the Cowboys have to improve, clearly, is on defense. The obvious need is defensive tackle -- for right now. If DeMarcus Ware is no longer on this team -- and Jones did not guarantee the franchise’s all-time leading sacker a spot -- then pass-rushing defensive end moves to the top of the chart. Rod Marinelli’s defense works only if the front four gets pressure. Without Ware and Jason Hatcher, who had 11 sacks in 2013 and is a free agent to be, the Cowboys’ best defensive lineman is George Selvie. Think about that for a moment.
The Cowboys can say they won’t draft for need, but the need will be too great to avoid. And it’s not just the draft. They would have to find a player or three in free agency.
Ware had a down year in 2013 with six sacks. That’s still more than Anthony Spencer had in five of his six seasons (I won’t include 2013 since he played only 34 snaps) and seven of Hatcher’s eight seasons.
The Cowboys need to be careful with what they are doing with Ware.
Position: Defensive end
2013 salary: $715,000
Summary: He was signed on Oct. 15 and played Oct. 20 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He started one game – at defensive tackle – and finished the season with 12 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and six pressures. He started the year with the San Diego Chargers, making three tackles and a sack in five games.
Why keep him: Depth, depth and more depth. Wynn wasn’t bad as a rotation player and he offered some position flexibility by being able to move inside if needed. While that is not his strong suit, he can get a defense through a game. His six pressures tied for sixth on the defense.
Why let him go: Not to be cavalier about a position that held the Cowboys back in 2013, but they can do better. Perhaps Ben Bass, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, can provide the depth they want from their defensive linemen and have more pass-rush ability. Plus, the Cowboys figure to address the position in the draft as well.
Best guess: He will be allowed to look around and if the Cowboys find themselves in a pinch later in free agency, they can give him a call.
“We’ll never see him,” Jerry Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan. “We couldn't get there if we traded three drafts to get him. But he's an outstanding player. The area I feel the best about our chances in is at our quarterback. And I feel that way for the next several years. The only exception to that being injury.”
But who could really be in play for the Cowboys in the May draft?
Jimmy Garoppolo and San Jose State’s David Fales at the combine.
While Garoppolo’s status is rising -- Bill Polian sees him as a first rounder -- he could be on the Cowboys’ radar in the second or third rounds. The Eastern Illinois tie with Tony Romo is intriguing. Both players won the Walter Payton Award as seniors. Garoppolo threw for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in 2013.
Fales was a two-year starter at San Jose State, playing for former Cowboys assistant Mike MacIntyre in 2012. He had 66 touchdown passes in his two seasons and had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl. He could be a possibility in the middle rounds.
2013 salary: $1.5 million
Why keep him: While he was not the All-Pro performer he was in his days with the Kansas City Chiefs, Waters brought stability to the middle of the line. His strength helped with the attitude of the running game, and he remained a solid pass protector. He showed he can still play and be more than a functional piece of an offensive line.
Why let him go: He turned 37 on Feb. 18, and at the end of the season had yet to decide whether to have triceps surgery or not. He cannot play again if he doesn’t have the surgery. Mackenzy Bernadeau raised his level of play after Waters went down for the season, and the Cowboys could look to select a top guard early in the draft. Waters has made it known he is not a fan of the offseason or training camp, so he would not have time to get accustomed to the players around him. He has played only five games in the past two seasons, having sat out the 2012 season.
Best guess: The Cowboys keep Waters’ name in their Rolodex, and if they need to make a call in the summer to gauge his interest, they will make it. He has kept himself in good shape and has shown he does not need a ton of time to get ready. But this option exists only if he has the surgery.