Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Cowboys, who were doomed by more than just Tony Romo’s injuries in 2015. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
G Mackenzy Bernadeau, CB Morris Claiborne, DL Jack Crawford, RB Lance Dunbar, TE James Hanna, DE Greg Hardy, G Ronald Leary (RFA), LB Rolando McClain, DE Jeremy Mincey, LB Kyle Wilber
Players that must be re-signed
Crawford, Hanna, Leary, McClain. “Greg Hardy is a free agent.” That was all Dallas coach Jason Garrett had to say at the combine when asked about Hardy, who picked up 6.0 sacks in 12 games for Dallas last season after his controversial signing. The production—including help Hardy may have provided the Cowboys’ other pass rushers by drawing extra blocking attention—was nice, but was it worth the trouble? The belief here is that it was not. Garrett sounded like he concurred.
Had the rest of Dallas’s line not struggled so badly in 2015, Hardy’s potential return might not even be a topic of conversation. Jeremy Mincey, the team’s ’14 leader in sacks, and Randy Gregory, a highly hyped second-round pick, combined for zero sacks last season. The bright spots were Demarcus Lawrence (8.0 sacks) and Jack Crawford. In Crawford, the Cowboys have a terrific fit for Rod Marinelli’s scheme: a versatile, active defender who can pick up snaps anywhere along the line.
The depth is not such that Dallas can let Crawford walk, assuming his price remains reasonable. Copy and paste that comment for McClain. It feels like he has been around forever, but the linebacker is still just 26 years old and has been a productive bargain for the Cowboys. Another short-term deal for him would prevent a thin Dallas linebacking corps from becoming even more problematic. McClain also could hit free agency again at age 28 or so.
Another underrated player awaiting Dallas’s decision is tight end James Hanna. The 2012 draft pick has just 33 career catches (Jason Witten handles most of the TE targets), but he is a key contributor as a blocker. Escobar’s Week 15 torn Achilles puts more onus on retaining Hanna, a very capable TE2.
Leary was injured and then lost his starting job to La’el Collins, so he may not stand out as high priority, but his status as a restricted free agent adds value. Slapping a second-round tender on Leary would make for approximately a 300% increase in his contract (from $585,000 in 2015 to $2.356 million), but the Cowboys would either receive a second-round pick if another team signs him or retain an experienced backup.
Most important position to improve
Defensive end. There isn’t much set in stone at this position right now, not with Lawrence requiring off-season back surgery, Gregory facing a four-game suspension, and Mincey and entering free agency. While Lawrence should be ready in time for the 2016 season, the Cowboys still have to start stockpiling talent. (Former Chiefs practice squadder David Irving could help, much in the way Crawford has.)
Marinelli likes to throw his defensive linemen out there in waves—from among the DEs and DTs, only Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford played greater than 60% of defensive snaps last season. It’s not enough for Marinelli merely to have one or two go-to players off the edge.
Signing Hardy and drafting the red-flag-laden Gregory were not moves made just to grab headlines. The Cowboys knew that they were in trouble from a pass-rushing perspective entering last season. They wound up tying for 25th in the league with 31 sacks.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive tackle, linebacker, O-line depth, quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver. Playing without Tony Romo for 12-plus games obviously altered the course of Dallas’s 2015 season, but let’s not pretend this was a remarkable team across the rest of the roster. The laundry list of needs this off-season is proof.
The Cowboys’ aforementioned need at end is prevalent, but they’re also lacking at defensive tackle. Three-year starter Nick Hayden is set to be a free agent, and the Cowboys ideally would upgrade on his play. Fellow interior starter Tyrone Crawford at least offers some pass rush (5.0 sacks, compared to zero from Hayden); he also needed shoulder surgery recently and is a hit-or-miss performer.
The situation at linebacker is rosier, at least assuming the dynamic Sean Lee can stay somewhat healthy. Anthony Hitchens will be back to join him in the lineup, as will one of either McClain or free agent-to-be Kyle Wilber, in all likelihood. A game-changer, like top-five talent Myles Jack out of UCLA, might be the only shake-up worth chasing.
Cornerback might be 1B on the list of biggest needs, if defensive end is 1A. The Cowboys reportedly will cut Brandon Carr ... any ... minute ... now. And if they want to keep Byron Jones primarily at safety, as executive VP Stephen Jones said, Dallas will be in the market for multiple potential starters at corner.
The issues on offense all are worth tweaks, rather than massive rebuilding projects. At wide receiver, Terrance Williams can be a free agent after the 2016 season and has yet to really break through as Dallas hoped. The outlook at tight end is reliant on Escobar’s recovery and Hanna’s contract status. Another contributor at running back would help, but Darren McFadden also topped 1,000 yards with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average last season.
Quarterback comes down to a question of now or later. The Cowboys have to start planning for Tony Romo’s eventual replacement. Do they seek out such help early in the draft or bank on Romo being their guy for another couple years?
Overall priority this off-season
Add playmakers on defense. No team bats 1.000 in the draft, but the Cowboys have scored a steady string of impact starters dating back to 2010: Dez Bryant, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Byron Jones, Demarcus Lawrence. More of the hits have come on the offensive side of the ball, hence Dallas’s clear needs on defense.
This is simplifying the game plan. Sure, the Cowboys could use contributors at tackle, end, linebacker, cornerback and possibly safety (if Jones plays corner or floats around the secondary). Rather than recommend finding five or six starter-caliber players—a near-impossible task in one off-season—let’s leave it at this: The Cowboys have to add defenders who force opposing offenses to account for them.
Those upgrades can occur just about anywhere, really. Draft Joey Bosa to play DE or put Jack alongside Lee, for example, and the entire defense improves.
Marinelli has worked magic to keep this defense operating at its current level. Just imagine what he could do with a full complement of athletes.