Grading the Strength of Each Position on Cowboys Roster Heading into Free Agency

Alex Hall@@AlexKHallCorrespondent IIIJanuary 8, 2014

Grading the Strength of Each Position on Cowboys Roster Heading into Free Agency

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    After a third straight 8-8 season for the Dallas Cowboys, head coach Jason Garrett must once again look over his roster and figure out what went wrong. Much like Garrett will do this offseason, this article looks at every position on Dallas' roster to decide which needs new blood via free agency.

    If a position receives an "A" letter grade, it means it does not need to be addressed in free agency. A "B" grade means the position could use a veteran who won't cost a ton to bring in.

    A "C" or "D" grade means that the position needs a solid veteran to come in. An "F" means the team needs to bring in a big-name free agent at the position.

    According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, the Cowboys are currently more than $20 million over the $126.3 million salary cap set for the 2014 season. It's important to keep that fact in mind when thinking about which veterans owner Jerry Jones can lure to Dallas this year.

    Here's a look at which positions the Cowboys need to upgrade and which are just fine heading into next season.


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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Grade: A

    People can make all the Tony Romo and Kyle Orton jokes they want, the Cowboys are in fine shape at quarterback.

    Romo just signed his big contract extension last offseason and finished 2013 with 31 touchdowns and more than 3,800 yards through the air. Orton did arguably end the Cowboys' season with that late interception against Philadelphia, but he kept his team in the game up until that point.

    Orton is one of the best backups in the NFL, and Romo is among the top-10 starters at his position. In an offseason where Dallas is a bit strapped for cash, there's no reason to bring in any other quarterbacks.

Running Back

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Grade: A

    DeMarco Murray finished 2013 with more than 1,121 yards rushing, the most by a Dallas running back since Emmitt Smith was in the backfield. Murray also missed two games due to injury this past season.

    DeMarco Murray now has more rushing yards in a season than any Cowboys RB since Emmitt Smith.

    — Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 30, 2013

    Joseph Randle didn't do a ton when he started in Murray's absence, but he was only a rookie. He might have only averaged three yards per attempt, but don't expect Dallas to try and find a new backup just yet.

    Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner are two names that always impress during the preseason and camps as well.

    The Cowboys are good enough at running back that they don't need to bring in another for any reason. Randle, Dunbar and Tanner will push each other until the No. 2 running back position is filled heading into the new season.

    All three are serviceable as backups to Murray, with each possessing some amount of potential if given enough carries.

Wide Receiver

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Grade: B

    The Dallas Cowboys have themselves a solid wide receiving corps headed by Dez Bryant and rookie Terrance Williams.

    The former Baylor Bear posted 731 receiving yards with five touchdowns in his first NFL season. Those numbers aren't the same as Bryant's 1,233 yards and 13 end-zone receptions, but they're not half bad.

    Cole Beasley also put together a fine 2013 season. He wasn't a huge factor game-in and game-out, but he made some clutch receptions for Tony Romo on several occasions.

    Miles Austin has all of a sudden become the weak link on this position's depth chart. He just never looked like the same player who put together back-to-back 1,000 plus-yard seasons from 2009-2010.

    With the Cowboys' shaky cap situation, it's likely that Austin will get cut this offseason, and the team will bring in a cheaper option at wide receiver. Austin is set to cost Dallas $5.5 million against the 2014 salary cap.

Tight End

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Grade: A

    Jason Witten might not have had a 1,000-yard receiving year in 2013, but he's still had three of those in the past five seasons. He did however rack up eight touchdown receptions this past season.

    Witten isn't getting any younger at age 31, but he's still going to be one of the Cowboys' key offensive weapons next year. Backups Gavin Escobar and James Hanna were each acquired in the past two NFL drafts, so don't expect them to go anywhere either.

    Dallas has no reason to bring in any free agents at tight end until training camp. Whoever it brings in at that time will simply work to challenge Escobar and Hanna to work harder.

    Hanna could lose his job to a veteran in training camp, but other than that scenario, there's no reason to expect changes at this position.

Offensive Line

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: C+

    The Cowboys didn't have the best offensive line in the NFL last year. What they did have on the line was a much improved year compared to 2012 using largely a lot of the same players.

    Tony Romo posted just 10 interceptions last year after a career-high 19 in 2012, possibly because he had more time in the pocket. No. 9 was sacked 35 times, but hey, that's one less time than 2012 and 2011.

    Dallas invested its first-round pick into center Travis Frederick last draft, and he performed adamantly his rookie year.

    Guys like Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau aren't phenomenal blockers, but it just seemed like Romo had so much more time in the pocket this past season compared to 2012.

    This unit could use some competition for starting roles at both guard positions and depth all around, however. The Cowboys could help their cause by convincing Brian Waters to come back for one more year before retirement.

    Former center and guard Andre Gurode is also set to hit the market, likely at a price Dallas can afford as well. He has played for Jason Garrett before and would give the team depth at two different positions with his versatility.

    Dallas needs to bring in a few new players at offensive line, but those guys don't need to break the bank. The Cowboys shouldn't have any troubles filling their needs at this position through some bargain shopping.

Defensive Line

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    The defensive line gets a "C-" grade based on the possibility of losing both Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher this offseason. Both players are set to hit the open market this year. Based on Dallas' salary-cap situation, it's unlikely the team can afford to re-sign both or even one of them.

    The Cowboys are going to need to find cost-efficient and talented replacements if both Spencer and Hatcher walk. It also wouldn't be surprising to hear if George Selvie comes asking for a raise after tallying seven sacks last year.

    Defensive line is where Dallas is most likely to see the most turnover from a season ago. This team needs to find players who can lessen the blow of losing two top-notch players.

    The Cowboys have two options at defensive line in free agency. Option one is to real in a big fish like Greg Hardy or Jared Allen as well as grab a cheap defensive tackle. Option two is to find two serviceable replacements at both the defensive tackle and end positions.


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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: B

    The Cowboys still have two of the better young linebackers in the NFL in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The only issue with the two is that they are prone to injury. Both Lee and Carter missed time in 2013 due to injury.

    Dallas needs some insurance at linebacker, and it can do so by simply re-signing Ernie Sims. The veteran is set to hit the free-agent market this year, but the Cowboys shouldn't let that happen.

    It's not like Sims is guaranteed to come back, but it will likely cost just as much money to replace him as it would to re-sign him. He signed a one-year deal last offseason for a league-minimum contract.

    Sims has been with the Cowboys for two seasons now, and it would be better to keep a familiar face than have to teach a newcomer the defensive system.

    This team has learned through the past two seasons that it pays to have insurance at linebacker and needs to remember that when free agency comes.


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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: C+

    Orlando Scandrick had one heck of a 2013, but original starters Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were a bit more underwhelming.

    Carr was clueless on how to stop Calvin Johnson against the Lions. He also had a little trouble with Pierre Garcon in Week 16. Carr's 60 tackles and three interceptions weren't half bad, though.

    It wasn't a disastrous year for the former Kansas City corner, but it wasn't a head-turning one either. Some might have been expecting the latter scenario after having a full season in Big D under his belt.

    Claiborne at one point lost his job to Scandrick last season, and for that it's worth bringing in a cheap or even slightly more costly veteran. The former first-round draft pick is still learning, but Dallas needs depth at this position anyway.

    If the Cowboys bring in a veteran, it will put Claiborne on notice and give them more depth at a key defensive position. They learned the hard way just last year how bad an injury bug can spread through a unit.


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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: D

    J.J. Wilcox was drafted in the third round just last season, but he also lost his starting job to undrafted rookie Jeff Heath at one point. Barry Church is the veteran between the two starting safeties, but he's not above being replaced.

    The Cowboys need a solid veteran safety to come in and shore up the secondary. Names like Donte Whitner, Jairus Byrd and Bernard Pollard are potentially set to be available. This might be the position Dallas makes a big splash.

    Wilcox doesn't need to start next year; he could learn from spending some time in a backup role with the team. Getting a top name like a Pollard or Byrd would be a huge upgrade for this defensive unit.

    Besides the very obvious salary-cap issues, there's no reason for Jerry Jones not to open his wallet for one of the top safeties available.

Special Teams

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Grade: B+

    Dwayne Harris had himself a standout season as both both a kick and punt returner. Dan Bailey hit 28 of his 30 field-goal attempts and didn't miss an extra point. Both of these guys proved to be key on special teams for the Cowboys last year.

    Chris Jones is the only reason this unit didn't receive a high grade. He finished ranked No. 20 among all punters with just a 45 yards-per-punt average. This might have been Jones' first full season as the Cowboys' punter, but don't be surprised if the team brings in some competition in training camp.

    Dallas' special teams unit doesn't really need a whole lot of tinkering this offseason and should be low on the list of positions to address for Jason Garrett.


    Alex Hall is a Dallas Cowboys featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @AlexKHall.