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Helman: What Exactly Are The Cowboys' Biggest Needs For 2016?
IRVING, Texas – If there’s a lull in the never-ending news cycle of the NFL, this is probably it.
The Super Bowl is over, but we’ve got a month-long wait for the start of the new league year. We still have a two-week wait for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where we’ll get a look at this year’s draft prospects and have a chance to talk to Cowboys brass about the upcoming spring.
In the meantime, we’re left with a lot of questions and an agonizing wait for answers.
Which got me thinking. We’ve already done so much talking about what the Cowboys need to do with their lofty draft status. We don’t even know what the league’s 2016 salary cap will be, but we also must consider what the Cowboys might do with what figures to be their healthiest cap situation in several years.
Simply put, we don’t know enough to come up with detailed answers to these questions. It’s impossible to predict what roster cuts, free agent signings, trades and draft selections lied ahead of us in early February.
But what I can do is target the problem spots facing this roster as it looks to right the ship from a disappointing season. After a 4-12 finish, there’s no shortage of worries worth looking at.
1. Defensive End
This is a stat I’ve repeated ad nauseam since the season ended, but it bears repeating: as it stands right now, only one Dallas defensive end under contract for 2016 has ever recorded an NFL sack.
Sure, DeMarcus Lawrence enjoyed a breakout season and led the team in quarterback takedowns. He’s a solid building block for your pass rush, and Randy Gregory’s athleticism and upside are still plenty exciting despite a disappointing rookie campaign. But for a scheme that seeks to send waves of pass rushers after the quarterback, it’s hard to feel good about the guys behind those two – Ryan Russell and Efe Obada, for the time being.
Greg Hardy, Jack Crawford and Jeremy Mincey have all made meaningful contributions to this defense in the past, and they’re all about to be free agents. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see one or more of them re-sign with the Cowboys in the spring, and it also wouldn’t surprise me to see all three of them move on.
This much is clear: this roster is painfully thin on edge rushers, and I think the Cowboys would do well to address the situation in both free agency and the NFL draft.
Given the way last season played out, plenty of people are going to hate that I’m not listing signal-caller at No. 1.
It’s a valid criticism. The Cowboys turned into a shell of a team without Tony Romo under center to guide the offense. More so than any other reason, the lack of a competent backup quarterback led to that abysmal 4-12 record.
At the same time, Romo is still around and still capable of playing at a high level. Even if he undergoes surgery to put a plate on his injured collarbone, he’ll be ready to go in time for the offseason program. He has said several time that his back, a source of much consternation these last three years, is as healthy as ever.
I think that all counts for something. For all the debate about his health, I think it’s realistic to think that Tony Romo has two-to-three largely healthy seasons left in the tank. Obviously, some kind of insurance policy is required. Once again, I expect the Cowboys to address this in free agency as well as the draft – but perhaps not as high as the No. 4 overall pick.
Again, I have some reservations about placing this as low as No. 3 on my list. The future of this team’s cornerbacks is surrounded by uncertainty.
Morris Claiborne, the former No. 6 overall pick, is heading toward free agency after a disappointing four years. Orlando Scandrick, the team’s top corner, is on the mend from a major knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2015. The Cowboys’ most productive corners at the end of the season, Deji Olatoye and Terrance Mithcell, spent most of the year on practice squads. The team also spent a first-round pick on Byron Jones last spring, but there’s widespread speculation that his future lies at safety.
And then there’s Brandon Carr. The veteran corner has never missed a career game, and he’s under contract for at least one more year. But as we all know by now, his massive contract is always going to create speculation about his future.
Fans and media alike tried to cut Carr, or at least reduce his massive salary, last spring – only for the Cowboys to keep him around. This year he’s set to count a whopping $13.8 million against the salary cap. The front office could seek to save some money by releasing him or attempting to re-work his deal.
The problem with that is obvious, though: if you lose Carr, you’re down another body in an already-suspect position group. Are the savings worth it if you lose a capable starter?
As it stands right now, the Cowboys have the personnel to field a decent cornerback group, but not an inspiring one. Whatever the future holds for Carr, this position needs talent.
4. Middle Linebacker
Sean Lee is a Pro Bowler on the weak side of the formation, and the Cowboys boast several versatile role players in Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar and Damien Wilson.
With Rolando McClain heading to free agency, what they don’t have is a truly imposing force in the middle. You know all about his inconsistency and his four-game suspension for substance abuse, but there’s no denying that McClain is a difference maker when he brings his A-game.
What the Cowboys decide to do about McClain is one of the most fascinating offseason storylines around this team. He’s talented enough to consider re-signing, but he’s unreliable enough that anyone pursuing his services will surely want to protect themselves. He’s one misstep away from another suspension, and he’s shown a penchant for up-and-down play.
If the Cowboys bring him back, it’s a problem solved. But do they feel comfortable with their personnel if they don’t? Are there any adequate replacements somewhere in free agency? Otherwise, it looms as an awfully large question mark heading into the draft.
5. Running Back
This is the unforgiving nature of the NFL, in a nutshell.
Darren McFadden just finished what was arguably the best season of his career. He silenced the doubters by appearing in all 16 games, setting a career high for carries and racking up 1,089 yards. At 28 years old, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and proved the Cowboys were right to take a chance on him last offseason.
The Cowboys’ response to such a fantastic performance? Find a replacement in the next few months.
Sure, McFadden has another year left on his contract, and he’s done more than enough to warrant a role on next year’s team. Behind him, though, the running back depth is awfully bleak.
Lance Dunbar is about to hit free agency – and more importantly, he’s recovering from tears to both his MCL and ACL back in early October. Robert Turbin was solid in a reserve role, but he too is set to hit the open market.
As it stands right now, Rod Smith – with two career carries – is the only other Cowboys running back under contract.
McFadden is a fantastic start, but he’s not enough. If they feel like spending money, the Cowboys could seek to add help in free agency. Dunbar would be cheap to bring back, and there are highly-prized backs like Lamar Miller and Doug Martin preparing to hit the market.
It’s also incredibly easy to imagine a big-time draft prospect, such as Ohio State standout Ezekiel Elliott, blowing through open running lanes provided by the Dallas offensive line.
Again, it’s hard to speculate too much until things start actually happening. There’s a three-month stretch of moves to be made here once the offseason really gets going.
By the time the Cowboys actually report to offseason practices, though, these are the questions that need to be answered.Read