Fixing the Dallas Cowboys – Offense

Well, that sucked.

A Cowboys season that opened with uncertainty, flirted with disaster and then ascended to hopeful heights was, like so many other seasons, ultimately sucked into the black mire of another December swoon. I think most of the post-mortem/epitaph/requiem-type thoughts I have about the 2011 season are probably ones you’ve had yourself (unless you’re striker and think that Romo is the bête noir of the entire offense) and so I found it difficult to summon the energy for that type of piece.

What DID energize me was figuring out how to fix the damn thing. What you’re reading here is the first of a three-parter where I’ll lay out my plan for the 2012 to atone for the sins of Jerry’s past . My goal is to assemble a 53-man roster using realistic draft and free agency targets that fits under the likely 2012 cap figure and tees up the Cowboys for a 3-4 year run of contention. My main theses were as follows:

> The common refrain that ‘a team of superstars can’t win’ isn’t in and of itself true. What IS true is that the 9’s and 10’s on your roster get canceled out if you can’t keep the 2’s and 3’s off the field – otherwise things even out to (just to pick a number out of the air) 8-8. You can’t win in the NFL without a minimum talent level across the board and some quality depth – as injuries mount in a typical NFL season, the Cowboys’ chronic depth issues have been the number one contributor to December disaster.

> The Cowboys’ window of title contention lasts for as long as Romo is able to play at a Top 10 level – I give him through 2014 or MAYBE 2015. While I’ve railed against the flashy picks and big-ticket free agents that have led to disaster, I’m willing to take a few more risks in 2012 to give the Boys a functional contender and not waste a third of Romo’s likely remaining window.

> While there are no guarantees after Romo starts to decline, if you don’t have a QB you’re sunk in this league. My goal was to eliminate the glaring needs for the next couple of seasons such that in the 2013/2014 drafts you’re able to take your first shot at your QB of the future in whatever round he’s available without being totally handcuffed by need at another spot.

For my list of top draft targets I cribbed heavily from a series that Wes Bunting from the National Football Post has been doing with the great Rafael Vela over at CowboysNation.com which is well worth checking out. My salary cap work has mainly been informed from the contract database at rotoworld.com. I’m assuming that the 2012 cap will be $125.5 million (a modest increase from 2011’s $120.9 figure), increasing more substantially in the upcoming years as the ‘percentage of revenue’ agreement kicks in starting with 2013. I’m working on the assumption that the Cowboys are going into the 2012 offseason with $20.9MM in ‘dead money’ due to the Great Purge of 2011, and that the cuts I’ll make will add another $3MM or so to that figure. I’m presenting all 53 spots on the roster with some commentary on 2011’s results and their outlook for the contention window with the moves I’m suggesting, and laying out the position’s cap impact through that same period.

This first piece will deal with the offensive side of the ball, the second will tackle the defense and the third will tie it all together with the overall salary cap picture (including my Excel sheet if I can figure out how to post/share it properly) and thoughts on the next couple of seasons.

And here….we….GO.

QB

Returning:

Starter – Tony Romo

Though I’m sure we’ll hear calls from the more benighted quarters of Cowboys’ fandom this off-season for everyone from Peyton Manning to RGIII to pulling Troy out of the Fox broadcast booth, Romo’s our guy in 2012 and will be looking to build on a 2011 campaign that mixed some outrageous mistakes (mostly early) with Top-5 level QB play (just about everything after the bye week).

2012 Cap Figure: $10.9MM

2013 and Beyond: The final year of Romo’s deal in 2013 carries a $13.4 million cap hit – unless his level of play drops off dramatically next year he’s a sure bet for an extension out to 2016 or so that should drop that figure to a much more manageable $4 million figure.

3rd String – Stephen McGee

McGee got some time against the Eagles and didn’t seem to freak out or poop himself in fear, but also didn’t do much to spark the offense. You could roll with him as the #2 in case of dire emergency but I’d much prefer not to.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.7MM

2013 and Beyond: Unless you think McGee can be the QB of the Future I don’t think he’s likely to stay in Dallas beyond his rookie deal. I don’t think he can be the QB of the Future.

Incoming:

Backup – Shaun Hill/Drew Stanton (Lions)

Both the Lions’ backup QBs are free agents this year, and both have started games and acquitted themselves reasonably well when stepping in for an injured Stafford. I can’t imagine them both coming back to Detroit and I think it makes sense to make a play for one of them. Stanton’s the bigger prize just due to age (27 vs. Hill’s 32) and attendant starter potential, but by the same token is more likely to seek a job with at least a clearer path to starting. However, so many starters’ jobs are filled and with guys like Peyton (Indy ain’t keeping him) Vince, Colt and Matt Flynn on the market and a possibly strong draft class there aren’t going to be a ton of attractive openings. I think we’re able to grab one of these guys for about 3 years/$8.5/$4.0 TGM and feel like he’d give us a good chance of going 2-2 if Romo went down for a four-game stretch – which is all you can ask from a non-QBOTF backup and is well worth paying a bit of a premium for.

2012 Cap Figure (Estimated): $2.6MM

2013 and Beyond: 2 more years at a $3.1MM and $3.6MM cap figures, respectively – not a terrible insurance premium and a negligible cap hit should the QB of the Future emerge in the 2013 draft.

Departing:

Jon Kitna (no 2012 cap impact)

Position Outlook: With an elite starter and reasonably priced/skilled backup signed for 11% of your cap figure, the QB position looks good.

RB

Returning:

Starter – DeMarco Murray

DeMarco Murray was neck and neck with Laurent Robinson as the most pleasant surprise of 2011, exceeding all expectations for a rookie third rounder as he took on the starters’ role and immediately launched a six-week ass kicking fandango until hitting a speed bump against the Cardinals and breaking his ankle the following week. He should enter 2012 as the lead dog and his mix of speed, power, vision, shake and receiving ability could make him a Top-10 back in the league next year.

2012 Cap Figure: $.84MM

2013 and Beyond: With two more years on his deliciously priced rookie deal at $0.9MM and $1.1MM, Murray should be a backfield fixture barring injury - grab him in your keeper leagues. He’ll be young enough to be a viable re-sign after 2014, but the only teams since the ’99 Rams to win a Super Bowl with a starting back making Top-10 money at his position were the ’01 Ravens with a rookie-deal Jamal Lewis and the ’05 Steelers with an end-of-the-line Jerome Bettis. Running backs be fungible – always better to reload with youth or fill a hole with an affordable veteran. Given that and knowing Jerry, prepare to see Murray limping his way onto the star in 2019.

Backup – Felix Jones

Fragile Felix was predictably Pipp’d by Murray when he went down mid-season, and then made a valiant attempt to un-Pipp himself by reversing the Pipp on Murray after Murray’s broken ankle. Sadly, Felix seems to break about every 40 carries or so, which led to the ‘Boys signing Sammy Morris off the couch late in the year. He runs tougher inside than he gets credit for and has solid burst and wiggle, though he lacks the true breakaway speed and downfield receiving acumen that I hoped we’d be getting when he was drafted. In carefully measured doses, he should be a net positive next year.

2012 Cap Figure: $1.9MM

2013 and Beyond:

Scenario 1: Jones, tiring of the catcalls of "Fragile Fucking Felix!" cascading from the stands (OK, from my couch), unleashes a PED-fueled offseason workout frenzy that sees him rock up to an imposing 265 pounds. Morphing his unwanted nickname into a WWE-style moniker, he follows Ocho Cinco’s lead and legally changes his name to Triple F. Before the season opener, he climbs the railing at the 50 yard line and takes a big swig from a water bottle in preparation for Triple H’s patented water-cloud spit move. Unfortunately, his attempt to change his fate attracts the attention of Death, Final Destination-style, and so at the same moment he accidentally ingests a piece of pure sodium and blows his own head off.

Scenario 2: Felix’s famous fragility forces frugality – he signs a 2 year, $4 million deal somewhere. Possibly in Dallas, probably not.

Third Stringer – Phillip Tanner

Tanner ran hard in camp and in limited action – he could lose his job should the Cowboys draft a mid- or late-round guy or pick up a cheap free agent, but he’s fine as your third guy.

2012 Cap Figure: $.57MM

2013 and Beyond: If Tanner really shows well next year he’s got the chance to be signed as a cheap backup option when his deal is done after 2012, but it’s also possible he moves on down the road.

Fullback/F-Back – Tony Fiametta

Fiametta was one of several solid waiver-wire additions this season, and his stint as a healthy lead blocker coincided with Murray’s best games as a runner. Also able to catch a bit out of the backfield, Fiametta’s a swell guy to have around.

2012 Cap Figure: $.57MM

2013 and Beyond: With another strong year, Fiametta may find himself in line for a deal on the order of 3 years/$6.5MM/$1.5TGM. Of course, if running backs are fungible then fullbacks are reeeeaaaallllly fungible, so he’ll likely have to hold off challenges from late-round rookies and such to keep the job into the middle of the decade.

Position Outlook: With a solid amount of backfield talent commanding a scant 3.1% of your 2012 cap, this is one of the few spots where the ‘Boys are enjoying quality cheap labor. If they can at least synchronize Murray and Jones’ injuries next year then this position should be a strength.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Starter – Miles Austin

Austin was dogged by a recurring hamstring injury that originally popped up in training camp, but turned in a very solid 53-catch, 7-TD effort over about half a years’ worth of snaps. Possessed of good but not elite deep speed, solid route running and well above average physicality for his position, Austin is a Top 10-15 receiver when healthy.

2012 Cap Figure: $1.2MM, thanks to the unique no-signing bonus, 2010-front loaded extension he signed.

2013 and Beyond: At 27, Austin figures to have several productive years in front of him as long as he avoids any further Kardashian hookups. His cap figures beginning in 2013 are $6.7MM, $5.5MM and $6.9MM, so he figures to stay reasonably affordable until his escalation to an $11.4MM hit in 2016 even if Dez Bryant becomes the true #1 to Austin’s 1A next year.

Starter – Dez Bryant

Bryant was an enigma this season, mixing frequent flashes of insane athleticism with some mystifying disappearances in the second half of games. I could give a shit less about his off-season clashes with Paul Blart and Cousin Avi, but I’ve got a deep-seated fear that straight up mental limitations are keeping him to a limited set of routes/option adjustments that make him easier to defend as games wear on. By all accounts he works hard in practice and shows dedication, so hopefully he’s able to undergo a stereotypical third year wide receiver breakout and take his place among the league’s elite.

2012 Cap Figure: $2.4MM

2013 and Beyond: Dez has two more years on his rookie deal at $2.6MM and $2.8MM – if he makes the strides I’m hoping for next year he’ll be a no-brainer extension for Jerry as the #1 wideout through the rest of the decade.

Starter/Slot – Laurent Robinson (FREE AGENT/RE-SIGN)

Robinson was the jewel of this season’s waiver wire specials – possibly for the entire NFL. Frequent injuries made him an NFL itinerant during the first stage of his career (and a bum hammy actually got him cut by Dallas early in the season), but once he stuck on the Cowboys’ roster he played like a house on fire and logged 54 catches and an amazing 11 TDs as a frequent third or fourth option.

Hypothetical Contract: 4 years, $16.5MM, $7.0MM Total Guaranteed Money ($3.5MM Signing Bonus). I don’t think Robinson will come especially cheap after the season he put up, but a few factors should make him a reasonably-affordable re-sign for Dallas. First, there is an absolute glut of free-agent wideouts hitting the market including guys like Welker, DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Steve Smith (Giants) and others, all of whom have more established track records. Second, his injury history and the concern that he’s only done it in Dallas should keep teams from backing up the Brinks truck. I think he’s a very important re-sign as a matchup problem and insurance on Austin’s hammies and Dez’s development.

2012 Cap Figure: $2.6MM

2013 and Beyond: I’ve got him with three more hypothetical years at $3.9MM, $4.6MM and $5.4MM. The back part of this deal could look a touch pricey if the cap doesn’t escalate as anticipated, but cutting him in Year 3 or 4 wouldn’t cause too much cap havoc relative to the gain of keeping the armory stocked for the rest of Romo’s prime.

4th WR – Ryan Broyles (DRAFT PICK – ROUND 4 - OKLAHOMA)

Broyles spent a couple of seasons as one of CFB’s truly elite wideouts before tearing his knee in his senior campaign. Everything about Broyles’ makeup and character suggest that he’ll bust his ass in rehab to get back to 100% ASAP, and knee injuries don’t scare me as much for a wideout as they do with a back. The ‘buy low on an injured guy’ strategy is a hallmark of Jerry’s, and in this instance I think it could make good sense (and I always like this kind of risk better in the middle of the 4th round than the middle of the 2nd). There’s no need for him to play right away and he might be able to contribute on a limited basis a la Bruce Carter in his rookie year while providing a high-quality insurance policy for the ‘Boys Big Three wideouts in 2013 and beyond.

Hypothetical Contract: 4 years, $2.3MM, $.12MM Total Guaranteed Money ($.12MM Signing Bonus) – in line with David Arkin’s 4th-round contract from the 2011 draft.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.49MM

2013 and Beyond: I’ve got him with three more hypothetical years at $0.59MM apiece – young guys work cheap.

5th WR – Jesse Holley

Michael Irvin’s reality show survivor survived a second season as a Cowboy and even turned in a big moment with a 77-yard catch and run against the 49ers (punctuated by the dumbass decision to wave the ball around and get tackled at the one). Holley showed some good slot-WR speed and scattiness and actually caught all seven of the balls that came his way this season. This area of the roster is always vulnerable to turnover from late-round rookies and such, but given that I’m using the latter part of the draft to throw as many bodies at the secondary as I can I’m going to bring the Playmaker’s progeny back for another season.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.54MM

2013 and Beyond: Holley should be an exclusive-rights free agent in 2013 who will have to impress to keep his roster spot.

6th WR – Dwayne Harris

The Cowboys’ 6th round pick in 2011 was a late camp casualty (I believe he suffered an injury but am too lazy to look it up at the moment). He showed some good things in camp and I’m giving him the edge to hold off challengers for the final wideout slot. Regardless, the 6th WR won’t be making any more of a cap impact than what I’m projecting for Harris.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.54MM

2013 and Beyond: Another guy who better turn some heads to stay a Cowboy in ‘aught-Teen (or however the hell you’d say it).

Departing:

Kevin Ogletree (no 2012 cap impact)

Position Outlook: For a team that really makes its living as a downfield, deep-strike attack ,the Cowboys are doing well to run out a deep and talented WR corps in 2012 at only 6.2% of their total cap figure. They should be able to keep a strong corps together without breaking the bank for the next few seasons.

TIGHT ENDS/H-BACKS

Starter – Jason Witten

While Witten didn’t really live up to his normally lofty standards – particularly as a run blocker – he remains one of the game’s premier two-way tight ends at age 29. He had an impressive four-year run as the league’s best all-around tight end before having the title belt ripped away and carried to absurd heights by the Pats’ Rob Gronkowski. The window is still open on Witten, and most teams would be thrilled to have a guy with his skill set as their #1.

2012 Cap Figure: $4.66MM

2013 and Beyond: At 29 the miles are starting to add up for Witten, and it’s unlikely that he sees the end of a deal that’s slated to pay him $5.0MM, $5.1MM, $5.2MM and $5.3MM through 2016. He should be solid for at least the next couple of seasons, though, so the search for his successor need not take top priority in 2012.

Backup – John Phillips

Phillips isn’t going to wow you doing anyone thing, but he’s a decent all-around player as a second tight end. He won’t approach Martellus Bennett’s ability to maul you as a run blocker, but the fact that he’ll at least be within five yards of where he’s supposed to be on any given pass route helps take some of that sting away. He’ll be fine as a #2 on a team that figures to run a good bit of 3-wide in 2012.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.58MM

2013 and Beyond: He’ll be an exclusive-rights guy in 2013 and should be a round at a reasonable rate through at least that season.

3rd String – Evan Rodriguez (DRAFT PICK – ROUND FIVE - TEMPLE)

Rodriguez is a really intriguing guy that Temple used in a lot of the ways that the Cowboys seem to like to use their TE/H-Back role. He lined up on the end of the line and pulled some, as well as lead blocking from the backfield and catching the ball pretty well from either spot. There’s more about him from Wes Bunting here. I think he could make a ton of sense as a versatile weapon that could let Dallas do some shifting from an I to 2-TE look, block his ass off for Romo and the tailbacks and do some damage on short passes and screens while the defense is busy covering the track-star wideouts deep.

Hypothetical Contract: 3 years, $1.8MM, $.10MM Total Guaranteed Money ($.10MM Signing Bonus) – standard rookie 5th-round deal.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.50MM

2013 and Beyond: Two more years of sub-$700K head knocking – these guys really need a better union.

Departing:

Martellus Bennett – Good goddamn riddance. (no 2012 cap impact)

Position Outlook:

With Witten entering the latter part of his career and the loss of Martellus Bennett’s run blocking this unit won’t be elite at any one thing, but will hopefully contain the all-around versatility needed to keep the offense humming for an affordable 4.6% of the team’s 2012 cap space. Landing a difference-making successor to Witten in the next year or two is paramount if the ‘Boys want to run their same style of offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Starting Left Tackle – Tyron Smith

The only way for the Cowboys not to miss on an OL selection seems to be to draft a can’t-miss guy – fortunately , one was available when the Cowboys came up at #9 in last year’s draft and Jerry thankfully resisted any impulse to trade down and try to outsmart a bunch of guys smarter than him. Smith looked and played like a full-grown man from the outset in 2011, despite not being old enough to have a beer for the majority of the season. He graded out as profootballfocus.com’s 4th best overall offensive tackle – AS A 20-YEAR OLD – and showed equal chops as a run and pass-blocker. A few too many of his early-season ‘learning moments’ turned into sacks, but by mid-season he was keeping Romo clean and absolutely blasting dudes in the run game. He was drafted as the left tackle of the future, and after money thief Doug Free’s sub-standard 2011 campaign I’m starting the future lickety damn split. He’s the ‘Boys most physically talented tackle since a pre-car crash Erik Williams and could fulfill the Hall of Fame legacy that should have been Big E’s.

2012 Cap Figure: $2.90MM (I loves me some revised rookie salary structure)

2013 and Beyond: Smith is on the books for two more seasons at $3.40MM and $3.65MM, but short of careening through a guardrail or turning up on Sam Hurd’s client list Smith will sign a veeerrrrrrryyy lucrative extension before he hits the end of his deal.

Starting Right Tackle – Doug Free

No Cowboy pissed me off more than Doug Free in 2011. Bill Nagy and Phil Costa displayed more O-line ineptitude, but they are young and untalented players who should never have been starting in the first place. You had to expect Father Time to bitchslap guys like Keith Brooking, Bradie James and Terence Newman, and Alan Ball’s presence on an NFL roster has to be a mystery even to him. But Free showed solid promise as a youngster on the right side before turning in a very strong (if somewhat penalty-plagued) 2010 season on the money side of the line. However, no sooner did the money roll in than his play went to shit in 2011 – the penalties were back in full force, but this time they were accompanied by mediocre run blocking and a pass protection display that made me think Romo had violated Free’s sister in the off-season. Everyone at the Ranch has to be hoping that a return to the right side will bring a lift in Free’s play, but from where I’m sitting it looks like the possibility of losing out on the back end of his contract may be the only thing that gets him motivated.

2012 Cap Figure: $7.83MM

2013 and Beyond: The good news is that we’ve made it a pretty good way into this list before running into the first bad contract – and to be honest, it might not turn out to be all that bad. If Free can return to 85% of the player that he looked to be in 2009 and 2010 then his $8.83MM and $9.58MM cap figures won’t be TOO tough to swallow, even if he’s on the right side. Unless he rights the ship, however, it’s a good bet that he’s counting as dead money and looking for a new home before the end of that deal – and I will help the motherfucker pack.

Starting Left Guard- Montrae Holland (FREE AGENT/RE-SIGN)

Holland got fat during the lockout and got cut as part of the Great OL Purge of 2011 – the only problem was, the Cowboys didn’t have anything that remotely looked like an NFL player waiting in the wings. After a few weeks of watching Bill Nagy get blowed up, Jerry made like Commissioner Gordon and fired up the Fat Signal got on the phone and summoned Holland, who appeared slimmed-down and much more mobile than at any time in his career. Holland did a solid job for most of the year, with PFF grading him positively in run, pass and screen blocking. He’s a 31-year old free agent who isn’t likely to set the market on fire, and given the state of the Cowboys’ needs they should be able to make a deal that works for both parties to keep Holland in the fold.

Hypothetical Contract: 2 years, $5.75MM, $3.0MM Total Guaranteed Money ($2.0MM Signing Bonus) – slightly more than I’d like to pay, slightly less than Holland might find with some team but I think $3 million in total guaranteed money keeps him in the fold as a stopgap starter while we figure out if anyone from the Arkin/Nagy/Costa/Kowalski pu pu platter can actually play.

2012 Cap Figure: $2.53MM

2013 and Beyond: One more year at a $3.23MM cap figure with a less than $1MM cap hit if a youngster steps up and Holland is cut.

Starting Right Guard – Ben Grubbs [FREE AGENT SIGNING – BALTIMORE]

The Cowboys need help on the interior in a major way, and it ain’t all gonna come from the draft or kids already on the roster. I went back and forth about making the stellar David DeCastro from Stanford my pick with #14 in the first round, but ultimately felt like a pass rusher was a greater need and tougher to address later in the draft or through free agency. Grubbs has turned in several strong seasons with Baltimore, with PFF ranking him as their 12th-best guard in 2011 after bagging their #9 spot in 2010. At 27 he should have close to a half-decade of productivity left in him, but hopefully will be available at a non-outrageous price since Carl Nicks of New Orleans is the clear headliner of the free-agent guard class and figures to land the Steve Hutchinson/Leonard Davis money. Baltimore would no doubt like to have him back, but as a vet-laden squad that’s tight on the cap and that just handed out a mega-deal to fellow guard Marshal Yanda (with another in the wings for RB Ray Rice), I could see them being unable to match a strong offer to Grubbs.

This is also part of my larger theory that the Cowboys need to use free agency intelligently to fill O-line holes because OL tend to be more durable and because it’s the position the ‘Boys are least competent at drafting. Just don’t violently overpay for a guy like Leonard Davis or count on a worn-out Marco Rivera and you’ll be fine.

Hypothetical Contract: 5 years, $30.50MM, $16.0MM Total Guaranteed Money ($9.0MM Signing Bonus) – this is a bit larger than I’d typically prescribe for Jerry to go, but there are a few factors in play:

- Grubbs is close to elite at his position and young enough that he’s not staring imminent decline in the face

- He’s by all accounts a hard-working, high character guy that’s not likely to hit cruise control or turn into a lumbering oaf a la Leonard Davis

- You won’t be setting the top of the market with this deal, and you can get out after 2014 without it being a crippler if things go south

I think Grubbs will have a number of strong suitors including Baltimore, but I’d feel reasonably confident that this deal could get done at this amount and that it would be money well spent.

2012 Cap Figure: $4.55MM

2013 and Beyond: Signed through 2016 at $5.30MM, $6.55MM, $6.80MM and $7.05MM. I think he can give you value for the life of this deal, but if cut after 2014 you’d be looking at a $1.2MM dead money cap hit in 2015 and $2.4MM hit in 2016 on a cap that’s probably north of $165 million with the new TV deals in place.

Starting Center – Scott Mruckzowski [FREE AGENT SIGNING – SAN DIEGO]

While Grubbs is a reasonably familiar name, I doubt too many have ever heard of Scott ‘Scrabble’ Mruckzowski. He’s been the Chargers’ backup center for several years, and his time in the spotlight came in the 2009 center when Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick went down for most of the season. Mruck did strong work that year, coming in as PFF’s 8th-ranked center on a per-snap basis and grading out well in both run blocking and pass pro. He’s seen limited action since, but both he and Hardwick are hitting free agency at the same time and it’s doubtful both come back. He’s 29 and no one is going to confuse him with Nick Mangold, but I think he’s more than capable of giving the Cowboys 2-3 solid years at a reasonable price while they see if any of the kids can develop and explore other long-term options.

Hypothetical Contract: 3 years, $8.50MM, $4.25MM Total Guaranteed Money ($3.25MM Signing Bonus) – on the lower half of center contracts on an AAV standpoint, but reasonable for a guy who’s shown some capability but is hardly an established star. There is literally nowhere to go but up from 2011 Costa from a performance standpoint.

2012 Cap Figure: $1.85MM

2013 and Beyond: $2.8MM in 2013 and $3.83MM in 2014 – worth it if he’s playing around the league average at that point and disposable if not.

Backup/Swing Tackle: Anthony Collins [FREE AGENT – CINCINNATI]

Anthony Collins is another lesser-known PFF darling. He’s started a number of games at both tackle spots for Cincy over the last three seasons and graded positively each time, and the Bengals have a 10-4 record in his starts so he’s definitely not killing them when he’s in there. Last year the Bengals let another PFF favorite and part-time starter Evan Mathis slip out the door for cheap to the Eagles (where he logged a terrific 2011 season) and I’m hoping history can repeat itself here. A skinflint owner like Mike Brown isn’t going to hand big money to a swing tackle with his bookends set in Whitworth and Smith, and I’d love to sneak him past the rest of the league’s GMs as a value backup at both spots and on-site insurance if Free doesn’t get his poop in a group.

Hypothetical Contract: 3 years, $9.0MM, $4.50MM Total Guaranteed Money ($3.0MM Signing Bonus) – a little more than you’d like to ideally pay a backup tackle, but I’m sick and fucking tired of watching entire seasons lost to the fact that the ‘Boys have ZERO quality depth when a starter goes down, and that goes double at positions that have to keep the franchise QB alive. If someone in the league is in love with Collins and wants him as a starter we can’t compete, but I’m crossing my fingers.

2012 Cap Figure: $2.65MM

2013 and Beyond: $3.25MM in 2013 and $3.60MM in 2014 – I’m happy to pay that as insurance every year, and it’s a flat-out bargain if he steps into a starting role.

Backup Tackle: Jeremy Parnell

The Cowboys signed Parnell off the Saints’ practice squad this offseason. I have no clue if he can play but as I’ve already got my swing tackle and am focusing late round draft picks on the D he gets a second year to show what he’s got.

2012 Cap Figure: $.50MM

2013 and Beyond: He’s got one more year on his rookie deal at $0.58MM in 2013 – whether he sees that or gets churned is up to him.

Backup Guard – Kevin Zeitler [DRAFT PICK – ROUND THREE – WISCONSIN)

Zeitler is a guy that Wes Bunting seems to like at Guard, and I certainly liked what I’ve seen from the Badger run game the last couple of seasons. He may not be quite as mobile as the Cowboys would prefer, but with their short-yardage woes of the last several years I don’t mind someone who can fight you in a phone booth at one guard spot. The good news is that this is a deep guard draft, so Zeitler or somebody like Lucas Nix from Pittsburgh or Amini Silatolu from Midwestern State should be available in the third. There's the off chance that a run on guards snaps up all this quality before the mid-3rd round, but after a season where three guys threw for 5000+ yards and a fourth probably had the best all-around QB season in history, DBs and pass rushers will be flying off the board like never before.

Hypothetical Contract: 4 years, $2.75MM, $0.30MM Total Guaranteed Money ($0.30MM Signing Bonus) – standard third-round NFL contract.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.65MM

2013 and Beyond: $0.65MM, $0.71MM and $0.76MM out to 2015 – see why hitting on mid-round guys is so important?

Backup Guard – David Arkin/Bill Nagy/Derrick Dockery

All of these guys showed some sort of flash in either training camp or the regular season, but none came remotely close to proving that they can start in the league. I’m letting them have a pre-season cage match for a single roster spot.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.59MM (This is Arkin’s figure with his rookie 4th round deal as I suspect he’ll be the one to stick)

2013 and Beyond: $0.59MM for 2013 and 2014 as well, which is a tasty deal if a guy proves he can play.

Backup Center – Kevin Kowalski/Phil Costa

Costa was routinely abused throughout the season – his wild-snap fiasco against the Redskins was his most public shaming, but the ease with which he got tossed aside by even mediocre DT’s put a season-long crimp in the Cowboys’ run game and pass pro schemes. Here's a tip - if a D-lineman is tossing you aside with one arm, and that D-lineman's name isn't Reggie White, then you probably aren't long for the League. Kowalski seemed to show better as an undrafted rookie in limited playing time, but if you don’t smell anything burning it’s because neither of them lit the world on fire. I make them fight it out for the last reserve spot on the OL, with the edge probably going to Kowalski because he can play a bit of guard as well.

2012 Cap Figure: $0.49MM

2013 and Beyond: As far as I can tell neither is signed beyond 2012 but I think either would be an exclusive-rights guy for 2013 if he proves that he’s worth keeping around.

Departing:

Kyle Kosier (no 2012 cap impact); losers of the backup positional battles (no/negligible 2012 cap impact)

Positional Outlook:

A year after the Great OL Purge, things are looking reasonable along the OL – a likely superstar LT, a rebuilt interior with a 3rd-round talent waiting to step in for the line’s only guy over 30 and a hopefully-motivated right tackle with an affordable insurance policy/replacement in the wings. At 19.5% of the team’s total cap figure, this position is probably pretty close to its proper resource allocation.

Overall Offensive Outlook

The good news is that I think this plan sets the Cowboys up with a Top 10 offense for the contention window I’m working with – good quarterback who excels in attacking downfield, a solid and steady OL that’s not crippled by age or non-NFL performers, an elite set of downfield passing weapons and a plus run game for 55% of your post-dead money cap figure in 2012. The bad news is that the offense was never really the problem anyway – next up, we cut the dead wood out of the D.

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