Offseason Outlook: Dallas Cowboys

Pending free agents:

Top 10 2015 cap hits:

  1. Tony Romo, QB: $27,773,000
  2. Tyron Smith, T: $13,039,000
  3. Brandon Carr, CB: $12,717,000
  4. Henry Melton, DT: $9,250,250
  5. Jason Witten, TE: $8,512,000
  6. Sean Lee, LB: $5,450,000
  7. Morris Claiborne, CB: $5,175,069
  8. Orlando Scandrick, CB: $4,351,250
  9. Barry Church, S: $3,250,000
  10. Mackenzy Bernadeau, G: $2,824,168

Notable coaching moves:




As a youngster, did you grow up dreaming of becoming a right tackle? Is there a Fathead replica of your team’s starting left guard overlooking your couch? No, offensive lineman aren’t celebrated as much as the players at skill positions, but we all know how vital the o-line really is. After years of building the unit, the Cowboys’ offensive line helped propel them to the top of the NFC East.

Tony Romo, who has had his ups and downs in recent years, finished the year as the No. 6 quarterback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). DeMarco Murray took advantage of those truck-sized holes created by the o-line and rushed his way to a career year. Dez Bryant cemented himself as one of the very best (if not the best) receivers in the NFL, lighting up opposing cornerbacks on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, the defense went from last in the league in 2013 to 19th overall in 2014 – not exactly the 1985 Bears, but a step up from being the “-Allas” Cowboys.

The Cowboys have reason to believe in 2015, but their electric offensive duo is eligible for free agency and there are numerous holes to address.

Positions Of Need

The Cowboys’ needs will depend heavily on what happens with Bryant and Murray and, by all accounts, the wide receiver is far more likely to return to the Cowboys than the running back. If Murray is not retained (we’ll discuss his situation in depth in a bit), there are a number of options that Dallas can turn to. It’s been long rumored that Jerry Jones would love to land Texas native Adrian Peterson. In fact, the two chatted over the summer and reportedly discussed the possibility.

“Well, I understand, Adrian,” Jones said. “I’d like that, too … Well, I love your story. I love your daddy’s story. I’ve always respected what you’ve been about. I’ve always been a fan of yours.”

Peterson would later downplay the sweet nothings whispered between the two but the mutual interest is abundantly clear. The Vikings, meanwhile, hold the cards and they could still push for 100 cents on the dollar in spite of AD’s off-field troubles from last year. Or, they might not be willing to discuss Peterson at all with Dallas. The last time these two franchises consummated a deal involving a franchise running back, the Cowboys came out ahead by a mile.

Alternatively, the Cowboys could turn to the draft for their next starting tailback. Georgia star Todd Gurley once seemed destined to be a top pick, but his 2014 ACL injury could put him within range for Dallas later in the first round. Beyond Gurley, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman are among the best backs on the board and both have drawn comparisons to Murray for their running style. In free agency, Dallas will find notables like Mark Ingram and the oft-injured Ryan Mathews. Ingram, of course, had a breakout season with the Saints in 2014 that was derailed a bit in the middle by a broken hand.

It sure doesn’t sound like the Cowboys will have to replace Bryant, but if they do, guys like Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Mike Wallace, and more could be available on the open market. At this point, if Dallas does anything at wide receiver, it seems more likely that they would look into supporting players with Cole Beasley (restricted) and Dwayne Harris (unrestricted) in limbo.

On the other side of the ball, Dallas could have a ton of work to do with defensive linemen Nick Hayden, Anthony Spencer, and George Selvie all out-of-contract. Meanwhile, if Henry Melton remains on the roster through the first day of the 2015 league year, a three-year extension worth $8MM annually and $9MM guaranteed will kick in. Melton appeared to be a mortal lock to remain under that contract at one point last season, but finishing the season on IR has thrown that in flux.

Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, and Rolando McClain are all headed towards free agency, which could lead the Cowboys to go shopping for linebackers. Cornerback could also be a need for the Cowboys if Brandon Carr isn’t willing to restructure his deal.

Key Free Agents

Re-signing Bryant will be the Cowboys’ No. 1 priority this offseason. While there was a good amount of dialogue between the wide receiver and owner Jerry Jones, Bryant ultimately didn’t get an offer he liked enough during the season as he opted to gamble on himself. That bet paid off big time as Bryant turned in a career year with 88 receptions, 1,320 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Needless to say, keeping Bryant for the long-term won’t be cheap, and that means that the franchise tag is a distinct possibility. At an estimated $13MM, the franchise tag isn’t a drop in the bucket either, but Jones won’t hesitate to do it if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on a new deal. Of course, the very threat of the franchise tag could light a fire underneath Bryant’s camp.

Jerry loves his stars, but he’s apparently gun-shy about giving Bryant a big long-term deal because of his off-field issues. Bryant’s reps will likely seek a deal worth $12-14MM in average annual value, making the franchise tag something of a no-brainer. The Cowboys could be persuaded into making a multiyear pact happen if they get a break in guaranteed dollars, but I don’t think they’ll mind Bryant playing for his money once again.

Unfortunately, the game of football isn’t as fair to running backs. Murray also turned in a career year, but at this time it doesn’t sound like the Cowboys are willing to shell out big bucks to keep him. Recently, Jason Cole of Bleacher Report heard from sources that the reigning offensive player of the year should command between $7-10MM annually on a new deal. Meanwhile, a report from Ian Rapoport of indicated that Dallas’ latest offer came in at about $4MM per season. There’s one heck of a bridge to gap between Murray and Dallas and the Cowboys might not be willing to meet him halfway. Still, Murray put on a ton of miles in 2014 and his fumbling issues were troubling and it’s possible that his market won’t be as hot as he expects.

On the offensive line, Dallas will have to figure out what to do at right tackle with both Doug Free and Jermey Parnell eligible for free agency. Free was ticketed to be the starter in 2014, but injuries mucked with those plans, opening the door for Parnell. The Cowboys would love to keep both, but that might not make budgetary sense for the team. If Free’s foot and ankle troubles appear to be behind him, it wouldn’t surprising to see him return while Parnell gets signed to be someone else’s starter.

Even though Dallas has serious uncertainty when it comes to its linebacking troupe, the club at least has the flexibility of Anthony Hitchens and can plug him in at any spot necessary. Still, in a perfect world, Dallas would retain McClain and put him in the middle, allowing Hitchens and the returning Sean Lee to take care of the outside spots. It seemed unlikely at the time he was acquired from the Ravens, but McClain turned out to be a rock for the Cowboys in the face of Lee’s season-ending injury. Keeping both Durant and Carter would be a solid play by the Cowboys but with Carter’s measurables, it’s not hard to see another team swooping in and paying more than Dallas would be comfortable with.

Possible Cap Casualties

With a cap hit north of $12.7MM, Carr will be out of Dallas unless he is willing to take a pay cut. Back in January, Jones made it clear that he’s not interested in a restructuring and instead wants a salary reduction.

There’s an issue of going and borrowing some money, borrowing it in the sense of hedging, taking money from future years,” Jones said. “There’s an issue there. Carr played well this year and I’m not as critical of Carr as others. But that’s a lot of money. One thing that we just got to do is we’ve got to make sure that every way we can, we get the value for the money.”

Releasing Carr outright would save the Cowboys $8MM against the cap in 2015 but it would leave them with a $7.4MM burden the following year. Moving on from Carr would be doubly difficult since Morris Claiborne, another underachiever, is not guaranteed to be ready for the start of the 2015 season thanks to his torn patella tendon. It seems like a pay cut, even if it’s a modest one, would be in the best interest of both parties.

The Cowboys would probably like to welcome Melton back for another season but they’ll probably look to work out a new deal. A new contract for the 28-year-old defensive tackle would probably call for a big drop in guaranteed money with a reduced average annual value as well. Melton finished the year as the 14th ranked defensive tackle in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues

Romo’s contract calls for a $27.77MM cap hit in 2015, before dipping to $17.64MM in 2016. Jones, as we mentioned when talking about Carr, is wary of shifting financial burden into future years to clear up the current cap situation. However, it’s hard to see Dallas really sticking to that plan considering the work that needs to be done this offseason. The Cowboys have a limited window to win with Romo under center and there’s no real succession plan in place for the 34-year-old (35 in April). Of course, at Romo’s age, an extension is probably off the table.

Recently, Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap looked at the Cowboys options when it comes to a possible restructuring for Romo and he found that there were two viable solutions. The first would be a restructuring where $7MM is converted into a signing bonus, rather than the maximum allowable figure of $16.03MM. That would create $5.6MM in cap space with a workable $14.2MM in dead money in 2017. Alternatively, Fitzgerald suggests that Dallas could take away from Romo’s massive 2015 base salary and shift that money over to the following year, where his current base is just $8.5MM.

Overall Outlook

After capturing their first NFC East title since 2009, it finally appears that things are falling into place for the Cowboys. In order to repeat, however, they’ll have to find a way to keep their needle-movers without compromising too much for future seasons.

Information from Over The Cap was used in the creation of this post. Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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