Dallas Cowboys: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
At a crucial point in determining the future of the organization, the Dallas Cowboys have some very important decisions to make this offseason, and it begins in free agency. I've already discussed some free-agent options I believe might come to Dallas.
Now, I want to examine a potential addition at each position who would be the best fit with the Cowboys.
The list of free agents is courtesy of Yahoo! Sports, and I also obtained some specific in-game metrics from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The free agents I chose are the ones I believe would be the best (and most realistic) at their respective positions. For the positions at which I believe the Cowboys shouldn't add any free agents, I'll explain why.
We're kicking off this list with absolutely no one.
With Tony Romo starting and one year still remaining on backup quarterback Kyle Orton's deal, the Cowboys aren't going to bring in another veteran quarterback, nor should they. There just isn't room.
It's very possible that the Cowboys could draft a quarterback or sign an undrafted player at the position, but if they keep a third-stringer, he'll be a young player with upside instead of a veteran they can acquire via free agency.
I like the DeMarco Murray-Lance Dunbar one-two punch the Cowboys have at running back. I don't particularly like second-year back Joseph Randle and his horrific weight-speed combination, but he's probably going to be back in Dallas in 2014. Phillip Tanner is set to become a free agent.
Personally, I'd cut Randle and either draft a running back late or sign a rookie after the draft. I think the Cowboys can do that and still get an upgrade over Randle.
But there's absolutely no way the Cowboys should bring in a veteran free agent.
Running back efficiency peaks basically at the moment a running back enters the league, and it slowly declines from there. Smart organizations don't give second contracts to running backs, and they sure don't give second contracts to backs they didn't even draft.
WR: Danario Alexander
If you've been following my writing this year, you probably know that I have a little bit of a man-crush on wide receiver Danario Alexander. I listed him as one of five free agents who could come to Dallas, and I had this to say about him:
Wide receiver Danario Alexander is No. 1 on my free-agent wish list, and it isn't even close. It's very rare that a 25-year old receiver that stands 6'5", 217 pounds with blazing speed hits the open market. But because of his injury history, that's what's happening with Alexander.
I don't typically buy into "injury proneness" for most players because, since the label is thrown out so loosely, the majority of what we identify as injury proneness is just randomness. That means teams can typically find value on players who have been injured and figure to see a "positive regression" of future injury luck.
Alexander has been injured enough that it really does appear he's injury-prone, though. However, that's going to be priced into his salary. The team that signs Alexander is going to account for the fact that he might not stay on the field.
But he's still a massive receiver who has converted 10 of his 83 career catches into touchdowns. Because he'll come so cheaply, Alexander isn't much of a risk at all. He can step in as an immediate contributor opposite Dez Bryant and, should he go down, second-year man Terrance Williams can fill in.
Ultimately, Alexander is the prototype for the low-risk/high-upside free agent the Cowboys need to covet.
I get that Alexander's injury history is perceived as a red flag. But to determine his true risk, we have to ask whether or not he'll come at a discount because of that history.
The answer is yes, and the Cowboys just can't find a potential No. 1 wide receiver in the event of a Dez Bryant injury, especially one at age 25, anywhere else on the market.
TE: Kellen Davis
While I believe tight end Jason Witten's role in the offense should be reduced significantly, I don't think the 'Boys necessarily need to bring in a free agent. They already have Witten, Gavin Escobar and James Hanna.
If the 'Boys do consider a free agent tight end, though, they should focus on a situational player who can help them in the red zone.
Despite his eight touchdowns in 2013, Witten has never been a premier red-zone threat. The Cowboys have that in wide receiver Dez Bryant, but no one else has necessarily proved they can excel inside the opponent's 20-yard line, where the field shrinks and size matters.
With his length, I think Escobar will prove to be a dominant red-zone force as soon as 2014. That helps. But imagine a red-zone package with Escobar, Bryant, wide receiver Terrance Williams and free agent tight end Kellen Davis, who stands 6'6" and 265 pounds.
Both height and weight matter a lot in the red zone, and Davis has proven that he can translate his size into points; he's converted 12 of his 50 career catches into touchdowns.
OL: Brian Waters
The free agent offensive lineman with the best chance to sign with Dallas is a veteran guard who played very well in Dallas in 2013: Brian Waters.
Pro Football Focus rated Waters as a top 10 offensive player for the Cowboys, even though he played only 336 snaps.
Waters isn't a youngster anymore; he'll begin the 2014 season at age 37.
But he'll also come nearly risk-free. The Cowboys can give Waters a deal with little to no guaranteed money, much like the $1.5 million contract he signed last year. In the likely event that one of the current starters, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary, doesn't live up to expectations, Waters would be a nice, cheap backup plan.
DE: Willie Young
Defensive end Willie Young is a player I've already profiled on Bleacher Report:
The Cowboys clearly need help along the defensive line. Veteran defensive end DeMarcus Ware is fading fast and 2013 free agent addition George Selvie is a No. 2 rusher at best.
To me, defensive end Willie Young is very much like Selvie: a relatively young pass-rusher who has an elite skill set but was unable to do much early in his career. In three seasons, Young has registered only six total sacks.
But most knew Young would take time to develop and the raw tools are there. Young is ridiculously athletic and, like Selvie, has extremely long arms, the trait I've found to be the most predictive of pass-rushing success. With [34.5"] arms, Young ranks among the longest in the NFL.
The Cowboys can sign Young cheaply enough that he can compete for a starting spot without causing much damage if he turns into a backup.
Young is like Alexander; both are youthful, high-upside players who haven't yet lived up to expectations. That's not a good thing by itself, but it can become a positive when you consider the predictors of success are there, but the free agents won't get overpaid because of past success.
In short, it's unlikely that Young's upside is going to be priced into his contract, in which case he'll offer value.
If the Cowboys want to bring in a free agent defensive end like Young, they can concentrate on bolstering the defensive tackle position via the draft.
DT: Drake Nevis
There's a big-name free agent the Cowboys could very well sign to a one-year deal worth in excess of $9 million. His name is Jason Hatcher, and that one-year contract would be the franchise tag.
I would let Hatcher walk, but even if the Cowboys retain him, they'll still have a hole at the other defensive tackle position. It makes sense to move Tyrone Crawford inside as a pass-rushing threat, so hopefully the 'Boys do that.
Even so, it might benefit them to give a cheap free agent interior defensive lineman a look.
Defensive tackle Drake Nevis was one of the top prospects in the 2011 NFL draft, and he spent some time in Dallas in 2013. He's struggled as a pass-rusher during his NFL career, but I thought he played really well against the run during his stint with the 'Boys.
On just 262 snaps, Nevis had 14 tackles. That 5.3 percent tackle rate beats out defensive tackle Nick Hayden (3.6 percent), defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (2.8 percent), defensive end George Selvie (4.1 percent), and defensive end DeMarcus Ware (4.0 percent).
Nevis is again a free agent after signing with the Jaguars, and he's going to cost next to nothing to bring in. The future of the Cowboys' defensive tackle position, however, lies in this draft.
The Cowboys seem to have a hole at the linebacker position, but I think they'll be fine there.
Sean Lee and Bruce Carter will occupy two of the starting spots. There are concerns about their ability to stay on the field, and the 'Boys are indeed getting to the point where they almost have to assume Lee won't stay healthy for 16 games.
Even so, I think the Cowboys have some young players at the position, including Kyle Wilber and DeVonte Holloman, who should fill in nicely. I'm particularly bullish on Holloman, who had 16 tackles on just 96 run snaps in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). With his coverage skills, he could be a real asset for Dallas in 2014.
There's no reason to bring in a free agent.
DB: Stevie Brown
Free safety Stevie Brown was injured in the preseason and didn't play a single snap in 2013. He turned in a big-time 2012 campaign, though, with eight picks and just a 71.3 passer rating allowed on throws his way (via PFF).
Brown's injury is going to drastically deflate his market value to the point that he could become an option for Dallas. The 'Boys like Matt Johnson, J.J. Wilcox and a couple other young safeties, but they could sign someone who has played at a high level in the past in Brown.
Still only 26 years old, Brown would allow Dallas to avoid drafting a safety in a really weak 2014 class.