MOBILE, Ala. – If I'm being completely honest, this trip to the Senior Bowl feels like a bit of a letdown.
It's not that there aren't talented players here, and it's not that the Cowboys aren't scouting them. The team's full front office has been at Ladd-Peebles Stadium all week, and their draft process is well underway.
I guess it's just that, given the disappointing nature of the 2017 season, we're all ready to turn the page. We want answers. What will the coaching staff look like in 2018? Who among the Cowboys' free agents will sign on for another contract, and who's headed elsewhere? How will this team manage its salary cap, and will there be cap casualties -- such as Dez Bryant, for instance? What are their true needs, and how can they go about addressing those in the draft?
To paraphrase Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones, there's a lot of work to do. And of course, the Cowboys are doing it. It's just that the long process of the offseason -- staff meetings, evaluations, contract negotiations and draft discussions -- tend to happen at a glacial pace. As a product of the social media age, I wanted to show up in Mobile, less than a month after the end of the season, and have answers to my questions. But the truth is, it's going to take a lot longer than three weeks for this team to figure out its future moving forward.
Case in point: With as many as eight positions to fill on the coaching staff, the Cowboys have yet to hold their staff-wide personnel evaluations, which typically follow the end of the season. With so many new voices joining the staff, it makes sense to give them a voice in how to move forward. So to that end, it's a good guess that there will be quite a bit more to talk about the next time we check in with the front office -- during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
For now, there are a few things I think we can glean from this trip to the Senior Bowl:
1. Self-Evaluation --As I mentioned above, there's bound to be a healthy amount of self-scouting involved this offseason. That type of stuff happens every year, regardless, and especially for a team that didn't make the playoffs. If you'll recall, the Cowboys have done plenty of productive tinkering in recent years -- whether that's moving Sean Lee from middle linebacker to the weak side, or switching La'el Collins to right tackle.
Now, combine that with sizable turnover among the coaching staff. The Cowboys have already confirmed the hirings of offensive line coach Paul Alexander and wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard is also signing on to coach the secondary, as well as fill the passing game coordinator role. There are still vacancies to fill for the linebackers and tight ends.
New voices mean new ideas, and I've got to view that as a good thing for a staff that has looked largely the same these past four years. There's already speculation that the addition of Richard -- who coached talents like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor -- could mean big things for the Cowboys' scheme and personnel in the secondary.
That all feels a bit premature, but it feels like a good bet that the Cowboys are going to head into 2018 with a few new notions about their current roster.
2. The Blueprint --I wouldn't exactly call it news, because the Cowboys have operated by the same philosophy for several years now. But it's always useful to get an affirmation from Stephen Jones about the Cowboys' game plan for 2018:
"Right now we're fortunate to have some really solid football players, great football players. Our goals are to keep our players. And when you start to look at DeMarcus Lawrence and you look at Zack Martin and then you look at a guy like Anthony Hitchens and David Irving, that's a handful to keep your own -- much less go shopping for something else. We just really need to focus on this draft, do well in the draft, and then work the edges and work the opportunities we may see come our way that would improve our football team."
That should sound pretty familiar, as it's a similar plan we've seen these last five years. How exactly the Cowboys will follow it can be parsed together fairly logically.
3. The Priorities --It's not that there isn't cap space; there is. But as was detailed above, the vast majority of that space is going to be needed for guys that are already part of this roster. Jones said Wednesday that he'd love to sign Lawrence long-term before the franchise tag is ever needed, but that sounds like wishful thinking. In a world where Olivier Vernon commanded $52.5 million guaranteed for 29 career sacks, I've got to imagine Lawrence would be awfully eager to see the open market with his 25 career sacks.
That won't happen, though. It's an easy guess that Lawrence is franchised -- for the time being, at least -- and kept away from free agency at the cost of roughly $17 million.
The opposite can be said for David Irving, as Jones admitted that he'd like to see the mercurial defensive tackle prove himself over a full season, after a suspension and a concussion severely limited his availability in 2017. The Cowboys have until March to place a tender on him, likely either first- or second-round. If that enables them to keep him at a team-friendly price, fantastic. If another NFL club wants to secure his services at the cost of a pricy draft pick, I wouldn't be shocked if the Cowboys let it happen.
Then of course there's Martin. I can't imagine a scenario where the Cowboys allow the best young guard in football to work elsewhere, but it's also hard to say when his extension comes. The fifth-year option on Martin's contract keeps him in Dallas through 2018, but it'd certainly help the Cowboys' finances if they could extend him, spreading his cap hit over many years instead of one. It's hard to say when it happens, but it's something the Cowboys will undoubtedly keep in mind with every monetary decision they make.
After that, things get murky. The Cowboys would no doubt like to keep Anthony Hitchens in the fold -- but they wanted to keep Barry Church and Brandon Carr in the fold, as well. A lot of what happens in March and April will be dictated on free agency money -- for a club that has been reluctant to spend it.
I'm not telling you that you have to like it, but that's how it is. If you're looking for splash signings in free agency, look elsewhere. That's not the priority here.
4. Help Wanted --Of course, the real reason to come to the Senior Bowl is to evaluate this draft class, and that gives plenty of cause for optimism. This year isn't quite as intriguing as year's past, and I think I finally figured out why after thinking about it.
Much like 2016, when Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott were here, this year's Senior Bowl is a quarterback-heavy affair. The difference is that the Cowboys aren't in the market for a quarterback this year, which leaves me having to get creative.
It doesn't look like there's a surefire, can't miss, All-Pro prospect at this game -- ala Zack Martin or Aaron Donald just a few years ago.
But this year is reminder that there's plenty of value in the NFL Draft, which is why the Cowboys place so much emphasis on it. With all the angst about the Cowboys' wide receiver production in 2017, there are half a dozen wideouts in Mobile who look poised to help them, whether that's Oklahoma State's James Washington, Penn State's DaeSean Hamilton or Colorado State's Michael Gallup. There are at least a few guards here who could be plugged into the starting left guard spot, headlined by Texas El-Paso's Will Hernandez. There's at least a few linebackers here the Cowboys could use to address their depth in the later rounds of the draft.
And that's just the Senior Bowl, which doesn't include the absurd 106 underclassmen who will be a part of this draft cycle.
As always, there's plenty of ways to help your team if you draft the right way. Consider how much the Saints' 2017 draft class helped them on the way to the playoffs -- or the obvious example of the Cowboys the year before that. It's not the sexiest strategy in the world, but it's understandable why this team prefers it.
5. Watch the Curve --Having said all of that, I don't profess to know everything. Things have a way of changing in a hurry in the NFL.
Even with the way it's all laid out for the Cowboys right now, I'm bracing myself for some surprises in 2018. Pick your area of intrigue, and you can highlight some possibilities.
I've stated several times to this point that I think Dez Bryant will be a Cowboy in 2018, but it's hard to ignore the vague language that both Jerry and Stephen Jones used this week in Mobile -- saying only that he's under contract and that they "expect" he'll be around. It's awfully hard to ignore the cap ramifications surrounding Dez's deal, which makes it hard to deny the possibility that something happens.
Similar things can be said for several other spots, whether that's the unknown futures of guys like David Irving or even the yet-to-be-reinstated Randy Gregory. But after a bitterly disappointing season, I'm not going to be surprised if there are bold strokes taken to help the Cowboys where they want to be.[embeddedad0]
Obviously, by this point I'm speculating pretty severely. It's hard to do anything else when we're still so early in the process. And that's where I'm left at the conclusion of a lackluster Senior Bowl.
It's like trying to pack for a vacation that's still several weeks away. We're getting an idea of what the Cowboys plan to do, but it's going to be quite the wait to see how they do it.