IRVING, Texas– Free-agency perfect.
Of course, there is no such thing, and unlike Dude Perfect, you don't get umpteen times to get it right. In the NFL, just one.
And if you don't, usually for a combination of salary cap and production reasons, you end up trading away a LeSean McCoy for a player who didn't even play last year or a Brandon Marshall for a sack of potatoes to cut your losses. Or you simply are cutting an Andre Johnson, as the Texans just might do, or have to encourage players to take pay cuts, as the Cardinals did with Larry Fitzgerald.
Got to be smart with your decisions, both from a talent evaluation and allocation of those precious salary-cap $$$$ standpoint.
So here we go, starting Saturday teams can start talking with available free agents, though nothing officially can be done until 3 p.m. Tuesday when NFL free agency officially begins, as does the trade season and the top 51 salaries counting against every teams' $143.28 million salary cap.
Feels like an Oklahoma land rush. On our mark.
And so go the Cowboys, toeing the starting line, trying to rebuild a roster that was good enough to go 12-4 in 2014, win a division title and at least one playoff game for only the second time since the 1996 season. Problem is, they have 15 unrestricted free agents – as of Friday – including some guy who just happened to win the NFL rushing title this past season by some 500 yards. They have one franchise-tagged player, arguably the most productive Cowboys receiver over a three-year span in franchise history. And they now have three restricted free agents after just signing third receiver Cole Beasley to a four-year, $13.6 million deal that includes $7 million in guarantees and a $4 million signing bonus.
They'd love to be perfect, as they nearly were last year, signing such players as Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, Anthony Spencer, eventually Rolando McClain, Brandon Weeden and C.J. Spillman to conservative look-see contracts, along with shedding some cap space by releasing Miles Austin and not trying to re-sign the aging Jason Hatcher.
Oh, they did release DeMarcus Ware, who did have 10 sacks for Denver, which would have been a team-leading total for the sack-deprived Cowboys last year, but then you'd have to ask yourself, would the $16 million cap hit have been worth just 10 sacks? Wonder if Denver thought the $13 million they paid him for just last season was worth 10 sacks and the three tackles and no sacks in the playoffs?
And think about this: How wise they were to not go all in on Melton's contract, signing him to a one-year deal with a team option, which they did not pick up, for a guy coming off ACL surgery who never regained his previous form and is unlikely to be re-signed to even a greatly reduced deal.
Great, but now can the Cowboys repeat?
Let's throw down an ideal scenario.
First, get Dez Bryant signed to a long-term deal. They don't seem to have any reservations about having Dez around for his many-productive years to come. They do, though, seem hesitant to give him a king's ransom, i.e. signing bonus, all at once. But look, getting him signed to a long-term contract would greatly reduce his current $12.823 million franchise-tag cap hit, maybe by as much as half.
That would mean more available cap space for, well, let's start here: DeMarco Murray, considered one of the league's top free agents this year.
But this is not to say, and we're talking ideally here, that they should pay Murray all the money in the world. Got to be careful with running backs, especially when they are hitting the age of 27, which Murray did in February. Plus, the market value for running backs has dropped like Wednesday night's seven inches of snow out my way. Just use this for an example: The franchise tag for a running back this year would have cost $10.9 million – the average salaries of the top five backs, and that includes No. 2 McCoy, who Philadelphia has decided is too expensive and will trade him to Buffalo, and No. 1 Adrian Peterson, who we're not sure what his fate will be Minnesota.
But guess what? When it comes to franchise tags, the running back tag ranks eighth out of the 11 positions, and it does make you scratch your head when you see teams release such rushers over the past month as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson and DeAngelo Williams.
The Cowboys have the cap space to pay Murray, but what they don't want to do is also pay down the line for an exorbitant decision today. (See Marion Barber)
So ideally, and again, all this will be determined by market value, a three-year deal for Murray for, say, oh, $16 million with far more than half guaranteed would be ideal. Or if package is important, then front load a five-year deal so that when he hits 30 you are not penalizing your cap if his production drastically drops off.
Now then, we need money for right tackle Doug Free, and I'd sure rather him than a cut-rate deal for Jermey Parnell. I think the coaches here would, too. Free is 31, the prime for an offensive lineman. From a money standpoint vs. current alternatives at the position (Darrion Weems), Free would be my next priority, allowing the Cowboys to keep together what is considered one of the best offensive lines. How 'bout a three-year deal?
Next, Rolando McClain. Yes, yes, I understand the reports saying he has tested positive for a banned substance a third time, a fineable offense, and meaning a next time would result in a four-game suspension. So maybe, in a weird way, that's a good thing. That should devalue his market price. Plus, he likes it here. Again, maybe a conservative deal, a two-year, look-see contract loaded with incentives to further prove himself. Hey, he only turns 26 in July, and just remember the violent nature he lent the Cowboys defense, not to mention that in basically 12 starts, some cut short by injury, he finished second on the team with 108 tackles, only two shy of the lead.
OK, understand the Cowboys did sign outside linebacker Keith Rivers on Wednesday. But that's just a one-year, minimum deal, a just-in-case insurance policy since Justin Durant and Bruce Carter are also unrestricted free agents.
Durant might want to test free agency, but can't imagine there is much of a market for a soon to be 30-year-old linebacker who has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve, having played a total of just 16 games. Should be a conservative deal, maybe two years, three if needed for cap purposes. He's a coach's favorite, and remember the last three games he finished this past season resulted in 10-tackle performances.
As for Carter, arguably the most athletic linebacker of the bunch, his team-leading five interceptions will draw market attention. But how much? The Cowboys understand he's a limited player, and that if not overloaded he'll make plays for you. Remember, three of his interceptions basically sealed victories in the end.
Now that would be something if you had a linebacking corps of Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, Anthony Hitchens, Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber. Again, being idealistic here.
Next, and this might become difficult because of the Beasley signing, Dwayne Harris, the do-it-all janitor of the team. He catches, he runs, he blocks, he returns and he leads the team in special teams tackles. Guarantee you some other team will value him as much as me, and just might price him out of the Cowboys' budget.
Hey, and I'm not forgetting defensive tackle Nick Hayden, a 16-game starter who might have been the most consistent guy on the D-line, leading that group with a career-high 52 tackles. Just 29. With no sacks, he might fly under the radar. You can only hope. Great hard-hat guy to have.
And with my money running out, if not already, and knowing DeMarcus Lawrence is a keeper and Mincey became one the second half of this past season, Spencer and/or George Selvie will come down to how much more can I spend at defensive end. Or, if one of those older free agent defensive ends is willing to play as a designated pass rusher – and get paid only for that, not starter's pay – then definitely consider.
Plus, there is the draft.
If more cap space is needed, then must convince corner Brandon Carr to cut his $8 million base. And I'd only restructure Tony Romo's contract – again – if that money pays for a real treat, and no, not a Ndamukong Suh. We're being realistic here. Bid for Suh and might as well just shred my ideal plan. He'd probably cost all the Cowboys got without addressing all their needs.
Well, what you think? And before you decide, remember these decisions are not just for this coming season. They are far-reaching. Think three to four years down the road while remembering the cap is $143.28 million, not infinity.
Also, remembering we're trying to be perfect here, dudes.