Positions of Need
Nick Hayden and Henry Melton played 585 and 433 snaps respectively at defensive tackle last season, but both might not be back in 2015. Hayden is a free agent and should not be welcomed back as a starter, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle in 2014 and their 2nd worst in 2013. Melton was significantly better, grading out 14th at his position in 2014, but he’s had recurring knee problems and the Cowboys are not expected to pick up his 3-year, 24 million dollar option this off-season. He could be back on a cheaper deal, but as it currently stands, the Cowboys need to add at least one, if not two new defensive tackles to the mix to go with budding young star Tyrone Crawford, who graded out 13th at the position on 536 snaps in 2014.
DeMarco Murray was such a big part of their offense in 2014 with 392 carries, but the Cowboys only offered him a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal before free agency so it sounds like Murray will test the open market and likely chase the money. Their depth behind him is less than ideal as Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, and Ryan Williams have 80, 105, and 58 career carries respectively. They’ll need to find a replacement for Murray in the likely event he leaves. Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley will both be options 27th overall.
Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, and Rolando McClain combined to make 27 starts at linebacker for the Cowboys in 2014 and all three are free agents. Anthony Hitchens, who played 541 snaps and made 8 starts, returns, but he struggled mightily as a 4th round rookie, grading out 35th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers, including 40th in coverage grade. He shouldn’t be anything more than a 3rd linebacker going forward. Sean Lee will be back in 2015 as well, moving to outside linebacker, but he missed all of the 2014 season with a torn ACL. One of the most injury prone players in the NFL, Lee has missed 31 games in 3 seasons and can’t be trusted to stay healthy going forward. They’ll need to sign someone else at the outside linebacker position.
Jeremy Mincey did a solid job as a starting defensive end for the Cowboys in 2014, while DeMarcus Lawrence flashed in limited action as a 2nd round rookie and should be ready for a bigger role in 2015. However, with both George Selvie and Anthony Spencer set to hit free agency, they’ll need to add depth if they aren’t able to re-sign one or both of them. Lawrence is still unproven, while Mincey is going into his age 32 season and was cut mid-season by the Jaguars as recently as 2013.
I mentioned above that Rolando McClain is a free agent this off-season. The Cowboys are expecting him back as they’ve moved Sean Lee to outside linebacker, but if he doesn’t re-sign, they’ll need a replacement. Lee could move back to the middle, but he’s incredibly injury prone and that would leave a huge hole at outside linebacker. Even if McClain returns, there’s no guarantee he can stay out of trouble, given his past. Depth needs to be added here at the very least.
Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, and Sterling Moore were the Cowboys’ top 3 cornerbacks in 2014 in snaps played. Scandrick and Moore graded out 10th and 22nd respectively among cornerbacks, but Carr graded out 90th out of 108 eligible and Moore is a free agent this off-season. Carr is a cap casualty candidate, while Moore might not be back. Morris Claiborne will be back from injury in 2014, but he’s coming off of a torn patellar tendon and hadn’t shown much in 3 years before that, since being drafted 6th overall in 2015. Help could be needed at the position.
Doug Free played well at right tackle last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle, while reserve Jeremy Parnell played very well in 5 starts when Free was hurt, grading out 20th overall at his position on just 388 snaps. However, both those players are free agents so they’ll need to re-sign one of them or find a replacement. If I were them, I’d go with Parnell, who is younger (age 28 vs. age 31) and will likely come cheaper.
If, for whatever reason, the Cowboys don’t bring back Dez Bryant in 2015, they’ll need to replace him somehow.
Key Free Agents
WR Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. He’ll almost certainly be given the franchise tag and cost a boatload to re-sign long-term. The Cowboys seem prepared to meet his demands. They better hope Bryant doesn’t regress or let himself go once he’s gotten his boatloads. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player.
RB DeMarco Murray
The Cowboys tried a very interesting approach with DeMarco Murray in 2014. Knowing he likely wouldn’t be back as a free agent at the end of the season, the Cowboys decided to ride DeMarco Murray into the ground, giving him 392 carries and not caring if it destroyed his body long-term. The results were very good as the Cowboys went 12-4 and won a playoff game on the back of Murray and his 1825 rushing yards. However, he’s a very risky signing this off-season for a variety of reasons, especially in a league where running backs are getting decreasingly valuable every year. For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They offered him a mere 4-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season. Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800 yards on volume largely. He also won’t be able to bring the Cowboys’ offensive line to his next destination so his efficiency should go down too. The Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. Murray should have a huge buyer beware stamp on his head.
MLB Rolando McClain
Rolando McClain has a crazy story. Drafted 8th overall in 2010 by the Raiders, McClain came into the league with a ton of potential. McClain showed that potential early in his career, grading out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL, including 14th ranked in 2010 and 11th ranked in 2012. However, he was kicked off the Raiders in the middle of his strong 2012 season because of issues with the coaching staff and then, after briefly resurfacing in Baltimore, was out of football entirely in 2013. He’s been arrested 3 times already since he’s been in the NFL. However, the Cowboys took a shot on him in 2014 and that talent was still there after all that, as he graded out 8th among middle linebackers in 2014, serving as a savior on the Dallas defense. McClain is obviously going to be a risky guy to pay on the open market, but he’s only going into his age 26 season and he’s plenty talented so someone will give him a big deal with minimal guaranteed money. Dallas would welcome him back.
OT Doug Free
Free has been with the Cowboys since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2007, 8 years ago. He played just 17 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, but jumped into the starting lineup for 8 starts in 2009 and graded out 30th among offensive tackles. He followed that up by starting 16 games in 2010, grading out 5th among offensive tackles, and getting a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal out of it. That contract didn’t start great though, as he graded out below average in each of the first 2 seasons of the deal, including 68th out of 80 eligible in 2012. Things got so bad he moved to left tackle to right tackle to the bench by the end of 2012. Rather than cutting him the following off-season, the Cowboys agreed to a reduced salary in 2013 and it paid off. Free graded out 20th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. He’s going into his age 31 season, so he won’t get a long-term deal really, but he should be someone’s starting right tackle next season and he should get paid reasonably well.
OT Jeremy Pernell
Pernell has a chance to be this off-season’s Anthony Collins, an inexperienced offensive linemen who has flashed when given a chance that gets a significant amount of money as a starter on the open market. Pernell was a 2009 undrafted free agent coming into this season that had played 294 snaps in 5 seasons in the NFL coming into 2014, but he ended up playing 388 snaps, making 5 starts, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked offensive tackle in 2014. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better than him. He won’t quite get the 5-year, 30 million dollar deal Collins got last off-season, as his history isn’t quite as clean as Collins’ was, but Pernell could easily be making starter’s money to start somewhere next season. That somewhere could be Dallas if they decide he’s a younger, cheaper version of Doug Free.
DE George Selvie
George Selvie played just 662 snaps in the first 3 seasons of his career combined from 2010-2012, after being drafted in the 7th round, but he’s found a starting job in Dallas over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts over that time period. However, with Jeremy Mincey locked in as one starter and DeMarcus Lawrence likely moving into the starting lineup in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, the Cowboys might not have a starting job for Selvie in 2015. Given that he graded out slightly below average in each of the last 2 seasons, he might be better off as a 3rd rotational defensive end. He’s a borderline starter wherever he goes and shouldn’t break anyone’s bank.
DE Anthony Spencer
Anthony Spencer, at one point, was given the franchise tag in back to back seasons and was one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game. From 2007-2012, Anthony Spencer, a first round pick in 2007, was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and maxing out at #1 overall in 2012. After playing so well on the franchise tag the first time in 2012, he was tagged again in 2013, but it didn’t go so well as he played just 1 game thanks to a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery. Spencer was back for 13 games in 2014, but he played just 384 snaps, though he did grade out slightly above average. Going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible he’ll never be the same player again, but he’ll be another year removed from the injury in 2015 and he’s a nice buy low option for a team with a pass rush need on a tight budget. Pittsburgh comes to mind and a return to Dallas is also an option. He’s probably a better fit for his natural 3-4 system, but he played in a 4-3 in college and in the past 2 seasons in limited action in Dallas.
OLB Justin Durant
Justin Durant was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007 and has quietly had a very solid career, grading out above average in 7 of the 8 seasons he’s been in the NFL. However, he’s averaged just 585 snaps per season, often playing as purely a two-down run stopper, a role he excels in. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s played just a combined 538 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off a torn biceps injury. He’ll come cheap this off-season, but he still can play a role for a team next season.
OLB Bruce Carter
The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts. Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and he heads into free agency as a borderline starting outside linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons. His best role might be as a two-down run stopping 4-3 outside linebacker. A move back to middle linebacker is also an intriguing option.
DT Nick Hayden
Hayden has made 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, but he’s been a major liability on the field, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their worst ranked defensive tackle in 2014. This should come as no surprise considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012 and played just 33 snaps in 2011. Wherever he ends up next, he should not be a starter. I’m not even sure he should be in the league. He’s started out of necessity for the Cowboys over the past 2 seasons and they should focus this off-season on finding an upgrade.
Cap Casualty Candidates
DT Henry Melton
Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. As he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, but he has a 3-year, 24 million dollar option that the Cowboys have to make a decision on this off-season. He wouldn’t technically be a cap casualty, but I expect the Cowboys to decide against bringing him back for the rest of his contract. Melton played well when on the field in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. There’s still a chance the Cowboys bring him back on a renegotiated deal. He’s had the best years of his career under Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who was previously in Chicago, he’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury.
CB Brandon Carr
Brandon Carr signed a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago. However, he’s only graded out 52nd, 58th, and 90th among cornerbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014, showing middling play at best and not living up to his contract whatsoever. The Cowboys would only save 566K on the cap by letting Carr go, as they’ve kicked a lot of money forward on his contract already, but they could make him a post-June 1st cut and save more on this year’s cap at the expense of next season’s, or agree to a pay cut with him. Anything would be better than paying him another 8.5 million in 2015.