2013 Team Needs: Dallas Cowboys
John Breitenbach suggests a few key free agents that could push the Cowboys into the playoffs, without putting too much stress on their tenuous cap position.
2013 Team Needs: Dallas Cowboys
It was another year where Dallas came so close but failed to overcome the final hurdle. Tony Romo couldn’t have asked for much more than to be given a chance to drive down the field and take his team to the division title, but Rob Jackson ensured the end to Dallas’ season was a dismal one. Changes have come as a result.
Rob Ryan is out as defensive coordinator and his replacement will be legend Monte Kiffin. The 2-gap 3-4 the Cowboys have been utilizing since Ryan took over in 2011 will be replaced by Kiffin’s 1-gap 4-3. One of the most important reasons for the change is probably the development of the Redskins’ running game. The option makes it especially tough on 3-4 outside linebackers, as the Cowboys found out in their two games against RGIII. Dallas’ front office may even had an eye on the arrival of Chip Kelly in the NFC East. There’s a good chance he’ll bring some of his option scheme from Oregon to the NFL.
The position that most crippled the Cowboys’ in 2012 was safety. Gerald Sensabaugh really underperformed after receiving a contract extension last offseason. Sensabaugh, who was so reliable in 2011, looked a shell of his former self. Although he didn’t play in the box a lot (just 122 snaps) he made a measly four defensive stops. Sensabaugh also made only 21 tackles in the run game… and missed eight! He did perform decently in coverage, but that didn’t come close to making up for his poor play against the run.
Across from him, the Cowboys had a revolving door. Danny McCray, Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah are all unrestricted free agents but its unlikely Dallas would want any of them back anyway — you can see their full free agent list here. McCray ranked negatively against both the pass and run and, with 12 missed tackles, was a key problem for the team in 2012. Frampton at least ranked positively but, when it came to crunch time, he let the Cowboys down against the Redskins in Week 17 (-2.0). Peprah provided nothing but missed tackles (four of 14) either after he joined the team. Finally Barry Church, who started the season, is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. The Cowboys thought it wise to sign him to a five-year extension even after the injury but I’m not convinced he’s proven himself to be a capable NFL starter.
Free Agent Fix: Jim Leonhard
Money is obviously the issue for Dallas. The team is already expected to be $18.2 million over the cap in 2013 (partly because of the penalty they were slapped with for contracts in the 2010 season) so they have no choice but to go with cheap options. Leonhard was a good player for the Jets and he did well as a part-time player in Denver. He’s a veteran player who shouldn’t command a big contract and can provide insurance in case Church’s rehabilitation doesn’t go as planned. Leonhard’s coverage ability (+4.6) in 210 snaps will help in the Cowboys’ Tampa-2 and he’s decent against the run.
Aside from Demarcus Ware, the Cowboys’ top two outside linebackers are set to become free agents this offseason. With the aforementioned money issues, it seems a remote possibility that they’ll be able to retain Anthony Spencer. Spencer has always been a better player than most people thought, but it wasn’t until this season that he put it all together and got the flashy numbers that get you mentioned (11 sacks).
Top backup Victor Butler is also slated to be an unrestricted free agent, which is a shame considering he’s always produced in limited opportunities. Butler amassed three sacks, three hits and nine hurries in just 132 rushes. He’s not just a package player either, as he finished the year with a +6.1 grade against the run. He’s not built for an every-down role as a 4-3 defensive end and will likely find himself a bigger role than the situational one the Cowboys could offer.
Free Agent Fix: William Hayes
Assuming the Cowboys’ are unable to re-sign Spencer or Butler, they’ll need a cheap option to play left defensive end. After entering the league in 2008 as a fourth-round pick, Hayes was inconsistent in his first few seasons with the Titans. It wasn’t until he was reunited with Jeff Fisher in St Louis this season that he really developed. Playing behind Chris Long, Hayes proved a valuable contributor, especially against the run. Despite being on the field for only 136 run snaps he made 18 stops, one every 13.2% of plays. That mark was good enough for tops in the league among 4-3 defensive ends (at least 25% of snaps).
While he’s not much of a pass rusher, the Cowboys already have the aforementioned Ware, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff who all excel in that department. Hayes also only graded slightly below average (-0.7) in that department. His seven sacks, six hits and 11 hurries in 173 rushes is certainly not poor productivity and his ability to move inside on passing downs can’t be discounted.
It remains to be seen where Monte Kiffin decides to employ linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee. Lee will probably play MLB and Carter could thrive on the weakside, but that’s by no means set in stone. The latter played well before getting injured, while the former has developed into one of the top linebackers in the league when healthy. Carter and Lee are good examples of balancing the risk and reward of drafting players with injury concerns. Both were coming off season-ending injuries when the Cowboys’ took them in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
The drop in performance of Dallas’ defense really had a lot to do with their top two linebackers getting injured. Once they went down, the Cowboys were forced to go with the perennially awful Ernie Sims and a struggling-to-adjust Dan Connor. Connor will be a better fit backing up Lee on the inside in the 4-3, but that still leaves a hole at one outside linebacker position.
Free Agent Fix: Leroy Hill
Hill has played weakside linebacker in Seattle, but he or Carter could most likely play on the strongside. There are a few reasons the Cowboys should be interested in the eight-year pro. Hill’s experience under Kiffin disciple Pete Carroll will allow him to adjust easier to the scheme, and he can help teach the young duo beside him some of its nuances. He’s also a good player in his own right, ranking 13th overall in our 4-3 OLB rankings. The Clemson product specializes against the run, where he made 15 stops in 203 snaps and missed just a pair of tackles. Hill’s no slouch in coverage either and his versatility helps if the injuries are a perpetual problem.
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