Thursday, August 28, 2014
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NFC East free agency roundup, Cowboys edition

Over the last two days, we've profiled the Giants' moves in free agency (which is already outdated after they went on a bit of a spending spree), as well as the Redskins. Today, we profile the embarrassing mess that is the Dallas Cowboys.

NFC East free agency roundup, Cowboys edition

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones (left) and head coach Jason Garrett. (Gus Ruelas/AP)
Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones (left) and head coach Jason Garrett. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

Over the last two days, we've profiled the Giants' moves in free agency (which is already outdated after they went on a bit of a spending spree), as well as the Redskins. Today, we profile the embarrassing mess that is the Dallas Cowboys.

Players gained

• Terrell McClain, DT, Texans: Only 25 years old and already on his 4th NFL team, 29 career tackles, 1 career sack.

• Jeremy Mincey, DE, Broncos: One good season in 2011 (8 sacks, 4 FF), 12 sacks and 2 FF in his other 6 years in the league. 

Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns: Because the Cowboys are the Cowboys, when they signed Brandon Weeden, social media outlets were full of "Lol's," but really, it's not a bad signing at all. He cost almost nothing, he has starting experience in a terrible situation, and could be an interesting reclamation project.

Players re-signed

None. In fact, the Cowboys are the only team in the NFL so far who have not yet re-signed any of their own unrestricted free agents. They did re-sign kicker Dan Bailey and punter Chris Jones, who were restricted free agents. 

Players lost

• DeMarcus Ware, DE, Broncos: Ware is a lock for the Hall of Fame and is probably the best pass rusher of the last decade. He's beginning to age and has had recent nagging injuries, but there's a strong belief that he still has plenty in the tank. Because the Cowboys have mismanaged their cap for years, they had little other recourse other than to cut him.

• Jason Hatcher, DT, Redskins: Hatcher was a beast last season, compiling 11 sacks from his interior DT spot, the most by an interior rusher in the NFL. But again, because Jerry Jones and Co couldn't afford him due to incompetent cap management, Hatcher left for division rival Washington.

Phil Costa, C, Colts: The Cowboys had to cut their backup center for cap relief.. 

Other noteworthy developments

Anthony Spencer, DE: Reportedly has a visit scheduled with the Giants.

Henry Melton, DT, Bears: Reportedly visited with the Cowboys Monday. Melton was a good player in 2011 and 2012, but he might not be the best guy. Also, according to some who follow the Bears closely, Melton did not play well in 3 games in 2013 before tearing his ACL. Plenty of red flags, which could actually benefit the Cowboys, seeing as they can't afford good players who don't come with a lot of risk.

Jared Allen, DE, Vikings: Reportedly visited with the Cowboys Monday. Insane numbers. 101 sacks his last 7 seasons (14.4 per season), but he'll be 32 in April. It's a bit of a mystery why a better market hasn't developed for Allen, who would be a good fit for a Super Bowl contender looking for a pass rushing boost. For the Cowboys, however, signing a guy like Allen would signal they they remain under the delusion that they can win now. They can't.

• Additional current players who remain unsigned: WR Miles Austin (released), C Ryan Cook, DE Edgar Jones, QB Jon Kitna, S Danny McCray, LB Ernie Sims, OG Brian Waters, RB George Winn, DE Jarius Wynn.

Overall thoughts

The Raiders are a very interesting team to look at in comparison to the Cowboys. They mismanaged their cap (and to a far worse degree than the Cowboys, their roster) for years before they were ultimately forced to blow it up and start over again. Unfortunately, simply “starting over” isn’t really all that easy. It took their GM (Reggie McKenzie) two years to do the equivalent of a roster disembowelment, which he has successfully accomplished, if “success” is a word you would use for basically turning your roster into something worse than an expansion team. But they cleaned out the mess, and they had the opportunity to start fresh with over $60 million under the cap as free agency approached.

The Raiders don’t have a QB. They don’t have a defense. They don’t have an offensive line. They don’t have good skill position players. They don’t have squat. Here are their projected starters, if the season began today, via Ourlads.com:

Doesn’t get much worse than that, right? Right. OK. We’ll come back to the Raiders in a second.

Let’s look at the 2011 Cowboys. They were coming off a dreadful season in which Romo got hurt, but there was a good nucleus in place.

  • Tony Romo was 31 and in his prime.
  • DeMarcus Ware was 29 and the best pass rusher in the NFL.
  • Jay Ratliff was a dominating force at NT.
  • Jason Witten was 29, and in his prime.
  • Miles Austin was 27 and coming off consecutive 1000 yard seasons.
  • Felix Jones was still thought to be an emerging talent. He just "needed to be used more."
  • Dez Bryant was troubled, but Dallas fans were certainly optimistic about his clear talent.
  • Sean Lee was primed to take over as a starter, and looked ready.
  • Tyron Smith was a highly regarded rookie OT.

Their OL as a whole stunk, but the above core had promise. They were really just a few savvy moves and some depth away from being dangerous.

Three years have gone by since then, and the Cowboys have been the perfect picture of mediocrity, going 8-8, 8-8, and 8-8, losing in an "NFC East Championship Game" three consecutive years to all three of its NFC East rivals.

And their core now looks like this:

  • Tony Romo is 34 (all ages will be as of the start of the season), and his back could be a recurring issue for the rest of his career.
  • DeMarcus Ware is in Denver.
  • Jason Witten is 32 and hasn’t had a reception of over 40 yards since 2011.
  • Jay Ratliff is done.
  • Miles Austin is done.
  • Felix Jones is done.
  • Sean Lee has shown he is a talent, but has proven he can’t make it through a season in one piece.
  • Demarco Murray is a nice RB when he’s healthy, but he too has serious durability issues.
  • Dez Bryant appears to be a great WR, and Tyron Smith a very good LT.
  • OL is better, but they’re certainly not world beaters.
  • No depth. Anywhere.

Put simply, this team's core is older and not as good as the one that was fielded in 2011. They were not players in free agency last year because they couldn’t be, and they probably won’t be able to sign good, young players without character flags this year either despite having plenty of holes on their roster. And not because they’re taking the Steelers’ or Packers’ approach of skipping free agency because that’s what they believe in -- They won’t be serious players because they can’t.

The Raiders got to the point where they had no choice but to pack it in and start over from scratch. The Cowboys of course can continue to “kick the can down the road," by restructuring contracts and putting off cap hits until future years a little while longer because of the NFL's salary cap increases. But that approach has already begun to bite them, as evidenced by the losses of Ware and Hatcher. Of course, if indeed they do decide that they're going to continue to go all out for 2014, they’ll have to do so with an over-the-hill core group of players that was perfectly average when they were in their primes.

If Dallas is happy to hang onto hope that this team is worth keeping intact for the next few years, while still being in worse cap shape than the rest of the NFL, they're delusional. The way I see it, If I were a GM given the chance to take over the Cowboys or the laughingstock Raiders with their sub-expansion level roster, I'd choose the Raiders in a heartbeat. They are already two years ahead of the Cowboys.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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