The smoke has cleared on the NFL season and now we reset all records back to 0-0 and begin again. While it is true that the first game is 8 months away, every team in the league is spending time right now on the vital decisions that will shape their roster and hopes of 2013. Those decisions include a great deal of working and re-working the salary cap situations on each team, analyzing and targeting free agents - both your own and others - and more than anything, preparing for the biggest resource of talent acquisition at the most reasonable prices in our sport, the NFL Draft.
Teams that do their finest work in February generally make things much easier for themselves in November. And remember that in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys signed an exceedingly troubling number of street free agents and inserted many of them directly into their lineup. Charlie Peprah, Ernie Sims, Vince Agnew, Sterling Moore, and Brady Poppinga were all players who were completely unemployed in pro football who were all signed and put on the field by the Cowboys because of their lack of depth. All teams have injuries, but when you are putting street free agents into your lineup, that speaks loudly that you have not fortified your roster with capable backups who are ready for an opportunity. The object of the offseason is to find players who can be proper backups and play when called upon. Then, you have practice squad call-ups replace injured players, not veterans who are out of work being pulled in during November. It is both cost-effective and football smart, to only draw from your own organization for your needs that arise. Then, you don't have to cram a playbook into their head and teach them your system. You also don't have to pay veteran minimums and bypass your own talent.
Further, the 2012 draft which had so much promise in April, proved to be disappointing from an immediate basis during the year as the Cowboys received nothing from Matt Johnson (4th round), Danny Coale (5th round), and Caleb McSurdy (7th round). Kyle Wilber (4th) played just 16 snaps, James Hanna (6th) played 109, and Tyrone Crawford (3rd) 303. Basically, they found no significant plugs for their holes save for Mo Claiborne who played 909 snaps and looked the part of a regular for years to come.
Before the draft, we always hope for multiple regulars, but the Cowboys were amongst the worst in the league in 2012 from a basis of total snaps from their rookie draft class - despite so many veteran injuries. That is something they will hope to change in 2013.
Meanwhile, the cap situation for the Cowboys is a real issue. Due to some high dollar deals to veterans (Romo, Witten, Carr, Ware, Austin), some pending deals that will need to be written up (Dez, Tyron, Lee), and the occasional NFL cap penalty, the Cowboys have very little room with which to maneuver this year.
This means that although you are certainly sending me emails asking about Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Canty and their relative use to the Cowboys problems, it seems rather difficult to fully consider that given their inability to get a deal done with Anthony Spencer because that might keep them from being able to keep Sean Lee or Dez Bryant down the road.
Now, I am a big believer that the Cowboys must keep Spencer. I thought that last year and laid out the idea of franchising him last February. Since he went out and had a fantastic year, I think it would set this thing back a bit to lose him. But given there cap situation, there are many believe that he will be gone.
Here are the Cowboys Unrestricted Free Agents: Spencer, Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman, Eric Frampton, Felix Jones, LP Ladouceur, Brian Moorman, Michael Coe, John Phillips, Poppinga, Kevin Ogletree, Peprah, Derrick Dockery, Michael Jenkins, and Sims.
Only Spencer, Butler, Jones, Phillips, Ogletree, Jenkins, and Sims played more than 300 snaps.
Of those, I would not lose sleep on any of them besides Spencer if the prices are more than minimal. They have all had plenty of years and opportunity to demonstrate what they are all about and have not made me feel like I must keep them. Jenkins has obviously had moments as has Felix, but the price is going to have to be really right.
As for releasing veterans, this is where you have to be careful. Why? Because you start cutting players then you have to replace them if they play significant roles on the squad. And if you have limited cap space, we are right back where we started.
Dan Connor saves you $3m if you cut him. Marcus Spears saves about $600k. Gerald Sensabaugh about the same, but you need him to play safety, I think. Ratliff doesn't save much to cut and you need him, too. Scandrick is on a decent number and Livings is locked in.
Lawrence Vickers saves you $1.2m to cut and of course, Doug Free saves you $7m if you cut him after June 1. But, then, you need a tackle which I assume they figure is Jeremy Parnell full-time. The problem with that is that Parnell may be a real issue having you thinking about taking a tackle in the draft - which you must do high - maybe in the 1st round.
So, to me, Connor, Free, Spears, and Vickers are all gone. Carr gets restructured and Romo might as well if you decide to redo his deal, but I don't think that will save you a ton unless you stretch out his deal so far that you delay the inevitable cap crush for down the road - something they have already done too many times.
From there, I think you have to try to keep Spencer for the following reason: If my free agency is almost non existent due to cap issues then I have just two premium chips to play this offseason - 1st and 2nd round picks.
Now, if I am spending my 1st round pick on a tackle to replace Free and a 2nd round pick on a defensive lineman to replace Spencer, how much better is my team? I still have major issues at DT, G, C, and Safety. I still have no backup for RB, no depth at WR, and I am not real sure who my 3rd LB is going to be. Basically, I have just plugged 2 holes I just opened up, and not really fixed any of the problems I had all year!
In the words of Bono, I am merely running to stand still.
The difference between Free and Spencer is obvious - one is coming off a fantastic year and the other is playing so badly that the Cowboys are releasing him after thinking they were locking up a nice piece just 2 seasons back. The Free contract looks bad now, but at the time it seemed like a reasonable price for a nice tackle. It is tough to blame the Cowboys for Free, if we are to be fair on that one move.
So, the Spencer franchise tag is $10.6m (120% of last year's tag). And, although it seems very difficult, I think I have to do it even if it eats up most of my remaining resources. Of course, I would prefer a reasonable extension for him with a small number in 2013, but that ship sailed when he had the year he just had. Then, I take the best OL/DL in Round 1 and do it again in Round 2. I have plenty of ideas, but my main target right now is an inside defensive tackle who can penetrate and make a difference as we look for another Warren Sapp/Tommy Harris type.
Then, on the OL, I am thinking guard or tackle, but I can't miss on either of these picks. I might roll with a guard and give Parnell a look, but I have to get a tackle ready quick as well. Now, I have Spencer, Ware, Hatcher, Ratliff, Crawford, Lissemore, and my top DT pick as my front 4. Or, I keep Spencer at SOLB and put Carter and Lee in space and feel great about that, too.
This cap situation combined with the roster seems like quite a mess. They are in this spot because they made too many mistakes along the way in the last several years.
My rookie class is going to be bolstered with some of last years rookies finally being available.
But, make no mistake, this is going to be a spring where they need to accomplish a lot with very little. Consider it a bit of a Hail Mary offseason. Maybe this is the year Jerry can make that happen.
Ah, optimism helps in times like these.