Spagnola: Plugging Holes While Keeping Options Open With Powder Dry

IRVING, Texas – So let's pull back the curtain just a wee bit for a peek inside Valley Ranch on Thursday, with NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith in the house doing an interview for Dallas Cowboys TV when the door opens and in steps Jason Garrett.

The two former teammates exchange pleasantries, handshakes, hugs, and then there was this:

Emmitt: Congratulations, you got my boy coming in, you got a P-Cola product coming in.

Garrett: How about that?

Emmitt: I'm getting excited.

Garrett: Must be something in the water down there.

Emmitt: Exactly!

Garrett: They must know how to run.

Emmitt: They do, do that.

Garrett (laughing): Need to bring you out of retirement.

Emmitt: No, no no . . . thank you though for the offer.

And with that, you got a pretty good idea how the head coach and the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back felt about the Cowboys' recent signing of free-agent running back Alfred Morris, who yes, is from Emmitt's hometown of Pensacola, Fla. Different high schools, though -- Emmitt from Escambia and Morris from Pine Forest. Different colleges, too, though same state, Emmitt from University of Florida and Morris from Florida Atlantic (same as Lucky Whitehead).

Aside from their parochial association, Emmitt, who has been hard on the Cowboys running game following DeMarco Murray's departure, was high on the signing of the four-year-veteran, hard-charging former Redskins running back, and as excited as he was when the Cowboys signed another P-Cola product, defensive end George Selvie in 2013 during camp.

Needless to say the head coach, too, is high on the guy who has rushed for the most yards over the past four years in the NFL than all but Adrian Peterson, meaning more than, Murray, too.

Garrett: "He's just a good football player, and anybody who's had a chance to go against him as much as we have and seen him as much as we have, we just have a real healthy respect for him."

No kidding, and you should any time a guy rushes 152 times for 710 yards, seven touchdowns and three 100-yard performances against you in just eight games.

But let's be real here: The Cowboys didn't sign the second coming of Emmitt Smith. Nor did they sign an offensive savior of any sort, so let's not start putting two and two together and getting eight. Do not assume he's the starting running back. The Cowboys aren't. In fact at this week's owners meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., they went out of their way to proclaim Darren McFadden the lead dog among the currently-signed running backs. There was no equivocation.

Secondly, we were what, 22 days into free agency before Morris signed with the Cowboys, so there likely was not an avalanche of interest to sign the 27-year-old running back the Redskins, after acquiring Matt Jones last year, must have figured did not fit into what they offensively are trying to do.

And the Cowboys didn't exactly break the bank to sign Morris, a two-year, $3.5 million deal, with a $1 million signing bonus and guaranteed first-year base of $800,000. That means his 2016 cap hit is $1.3 million. If he's worth the second year he'll receive a $500,000 roster bonus and a $1.2 million base salary. The key is the guarantee, and it's not all that much, meaning this could end up being a one-year deal.

Similar to McFadden's very conservative two-year deal he signed with the Cowboys last year: two years, $3 million with a $200,000 signing bonus, two $500,000 roster bonuses and the $300,000 incentive bonus he earned in 2015, payable for this year. His base this year will be $1.25 million, with a cap hit of $2.15 million.

More than anything, these guys have been signed to sort of prove-it contracts, what you want for role players, and very similar to the conservative one-year deal the Cowboys re-signed Lance Dunbar to, the four-year veteran who is trying to come back from last year's season-ending reconstructive knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and patellar tendon. Dunbar signed for an $800,000 base, $100,000 signing bonus and per-game incentive of $21,875, of which five are considered likely to be earned since he played in four games last year, upping his 2016 cap hit to $1.25 million.

For their current top three backs then, that's a combined salary-cap hit of $4.70 million this year.

So as you can see, the Cowboys do not have an arm and a leg invested in guaranteed money at the running back position. That right there leaves the door wide open come April 28-30, the NFL seven-round draft. They can do what they want now at the running back position without any financial regrets.

They can choose not to take a running back and likely would be fine now with the status quo: McFadden the starter, Morris the change-of-pace, bullish guy and Dunbar, assuming health, the offensive toy, much in the role of those first 3½ games he played last year.

They can select a running back as high as the fourth pick or the 34th pick – a guy who would grade out as a Day One starter – and either keep four backs or three, meaning cutting one of the current crop without any salary-cap remorse. So don't simply assume because the Cowboys signed Morris the possibility of drafting a running back at No. 4 is off the board – that is assuming such a move ever has been on the board. Any and all still is possible.

Or the Cowboys can wait into the later rounds for some fresh legs if a suitable opportunity presents itself, unlike last year when the running back draft just didn't break their way after Randy Gregory fell into their laps in the second round.

Essentially, and once again, the Cowboys have covered themselves through free agency at a position of need. Same as they've done at defensive tackle with Cedric Thornton and at cornerback by re-signing Morris Claiborne and at linebacker by re-signing Rolando McClain and Kyle Wilber and at backup tight end by re-signing James Hanna.

That leaves just two headaches, but only one major one: Backup quarterback. But there is a problem there, and usually is at a position where demand is always higher than supply. Look at what's left out there, those guys who probably don't think they have a chance of signing somewhere they can compete for a starting job. Yuk. And the Cowboys would like a veteran to *compete *with Kellen Moore for the veteran backup spot, not bequeath him the job, or at least leave the door open for a potential drafted quarterback to impress enough to win the job. And what's reasonably left probably isn't worth guaranteed money.

Plus, for those already pulling their hair out, remember, with the number of quarterbacks expected to be drafted, as many as four in the first round, some quarterbacks currently on rosters will get jettisoned in due time, adding to the humble supply. And guys out of jobs in June won't get too financially choosy.

Defensive end is the other position of some concern, especially since Gregory will be serving that season-opening four-game suspension and DeMarcus Lawrence is coming off surgery to repair that ruptured disk in his back. Sure they signed restricted free agent Ben Mayowa, a youngster they're betting is on the rise, but certainly did not pay him sure-starter money by any means. The Still-Looking sign is out there.

But hey, they don't have to play a game for more than five months, and they've kept their salary-cap powder dry, refraining from placing all their available salary-cap eggs in one basket. Plus, the draft still is a month from Monday.

So go the Cowboys -- just keep plugging along, one pothole at a time.


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