For instance, how does the draft in April and the free agency season of March fit together? Which of the priorities for this squad move to the top of the list? And how quickly can the Cowboys declare and address their biggest needs?
That really is the biggest question, isn't it? What do they see as their biggest issue? Because, you could make a case for 3 different departments on this team being the most vital issue to address. Despite the fact that they were playing for their divisional title on the final night of the season, it would seem that the Cowboys must do something about their offensive line (interior), their defensive front, and their secondary. If any of those spots go untouched, then in late July when the team reconvenes in Oxnard, California, there will still be some substantial warts that must be addressed.
If you have read my material over the last several months, you know that my priorities sit directly at the line of scrimmage.
Priority #1 is an interior stud on the OL like Carl Nicks or perhaps drafting a Peter Konz type.
Priority #2 is to find a DE or NT that can finally help Ratliff and Ware construct the type of defensive front that could take over a game like the Giants have routinely found.
Then, Priority #3 is to improve my secondary.
The reasoning for this order is simply understanding that the better teams in this league are doing things from the inside-out, and they always have. Know you are in the NFC East and must play and deal with the Giants and Eagles and their dominant defensive fronts on a regular basis. You better be able to block Trent Cole and Jason Babin. You better have a plan for dealing with the Giants front all day with their deep rotation as they will have pretty much everyone back. This is why I need another piece on the inside of my OL.
But, priority #2 (or 1a) is to figure out how to make my defensive front way more difficult to deal with. So, that #14 pick in the 1st round is ear-marked for a difference maker there, if I can find a match. And let's also not forget that my biggest internal decision is what to do with Anthony Spencer and his contract situation. We simply must understand the ramifications of keeping him or letting him go and the dominoes that a decision like that would set into motion. If Spencer must go, then your priorities might shift to making sure you find his replacement first and foremost.
Which brings many of you in my email box to Houston's Mario Williams. I have been asked on countless occasions about his availability and his fit in the Cowboys scheme. Houston will have a very difficult time keeping Williams unless he really wants to go out of his way to stay. And I would imagine that the man who just had his 27th birthday is going to enjoy being the belle of the ball in the NFL 2012 Free Agency season.
Williams has been a dominant defensive end in Houston for several years. Among the very best pass rushers in the league at times and a real double-team target. It is clear that when you look for that perfect pass-rushing bookend to DeMarcus Ware, I can see how many would assume that Williams would solve everything that ails a team.
But, there are several reasons why I don't think this is a fit at all, assuming the Cowboys really do believe in the 3-4 defensive scheme that they are running - and if they don't really believe in it, then we might have bigger issues.
1) - Mario Williams is in a position where he can demand just about any contract he wants. In March of 2010, the Chicago Bears signed then-30 year old Julius Peppers to a 6-year, $91.5 million deal. Peppers was thought to be an elite 4-3 defensive end with dominant pass rushing ability and anyone who studied him knew he was a game changing DE. Which is exactly what Williams was from 2007-2010 when they played in the 4-3 defense and he had nearly as many sacks as anyone in the game not named Ware or Jared Allen. Williams was hurt in week 5 last year and missed the rest of the season, when he tore a chest muscle on his 5th sack in 5 games. Fully healed, he would hit free agency at the age of 27, and Houston cannot franchise him without spending over $22 million dollars on 2012 alone. This is because the franchise number is either the average of the top 5 players at a position or 120% of a player's last season's salary, whichever is greater. Williams would get the latter, and since his number last year was over $18m, he is almost assured to not be brought back by a team that is A) cash strapped with the salary cap and B) not sure they need him after playing spectacular defense in their new 3-4 defense without him in 2011. So, all in all, understand that Williams could see a contract that takes him well over the $100 million barrier, with at least a check that gets him a million dollars a game for 6 or 7 seasons.
All of those points would generally not scare off the Cowboys, given the belief that Jerry Jones is always ready to wheel and deal for the right guy, but here is the even bigger issue for Dallas when it comes to Mario.
2) - Mario Williams likely does not fit into the Cowboys scheme. If you are running a 3-4, as Pat Kirwan told us last week in the Super Bowl, the entire point to the scheme is to have some element of fear about linebackers intent on each play for the opposition. If they know Ware is rushing every play and not a threat to ever drop into coverage, then you are running a 4-3 defense because the OL is simply going to treat him as a 4-3 DE. That means that the other LB (Spencer) is going to be dropping with the Tight End on most occasions and there is no element of confusion in pass protection at all. In Houston, the Texans tried to experiment with Mario as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, too, despite the fact that he weighs over 290 (Ware is 265). But, you guessed it, the Texans did not drop him into coverage hardly at all. He was a DE playing OLB, and rushing the passer. So, if you played Ware on one side and Williams on the other, then you are trying to play what amounts to 5 defensive linemen. Nobody would ever be dropping into the flats and offenses would bleed you to death with quick passes and only a chance of 6-man secondaries against 5 receivers. There is not a coach alive that thinks this is a sound strategy in today's NFL. Basically, what I am saying is that Ware and Williams are birds of a feather. You cannot have both and still have a sound 3-4.
Then the counter might be, "Bob, can't we just switch back to a 4-3, then?"
Sure. But then, I need to change all sorts of things that I have already done to this defense. I will need to release a bunch of DEs like Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman, as they don't fit my new scheme. I need to find linebackers. Spencer is gone, Bradie James and Keith Brooking don't run well enough anymore, and I am not sure what Bruce Carter can do, but I do know he was drafted with the 3-4 in mind. Chicago has a great 4-3 front, but it works because they have two exceptional linebackers who can do wonderful things from the "Mic" and the "Will" positions. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been running sideline to sideline for years at All-Pro levels in that scheme. I think Sean Lee could handle Briggs' role on a reasonable level, but I am not sure who my 260-pound beast like Urlacher would be in the middle. So, to accommodate Mario Williams, I need to open up several new holes that might make this counterproductive on top of a $100 million deal for your new 4-3 end opposite Ware. Oh, and I am not sure my coaching staff believes in a 4-3 at all.
I love the player and I realize this off-season should be about finding guys who can get to the QB. But, in this case, one should understand that if the Cowboys have up to $20 million or so in cap space, spending it all on a guy who may not even fit your scheme or your plans doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
He will be able to go anywhere he wants - most likely to a 4-3 that wants to make him the focus of their entire defense - and be paid as well as any defender in the league. His timing is perfect, but not for Dallas.