The Cowboys have too many holes to fill with significant free agency investments and early draft picks. They need to aggressively address their priorities and bargain shop or count on young players to step up in the other need spots.
The priorities are clear: cornerback and the interior offensive line.
There is only one undoubtedly elite player just entering his prime at those positions available in free agency. That’s why Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who is expected to leave the Saints and happened to play for new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Callahan at Nebraska, should be the Cowboys’ top target.
The best corners in free agency – Atlanta’s Brent Grimes, Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan and San Francisco’s Carlos Rogers – are in their late 20s or beyond. The Cowboys are dealing with the downside of paying big money to a cornerback at that stage of his career with Terence Newman. That’s a hole they need to fill via the draft.
Owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who made Leonard Davis one of the richest guards in NFL history only to cut him a few seasons later, has said he wants to stop the trend of paying top dollar for offensive linemen in free agency. Nicks is worth being an exception, especially given the Cowboys’ glaring need. He’s a dominant player who is only 26 years old, so the Cowboys would be purchasing his entire prime.
What would Nicks cost? Just look at what the Saints pay their other Pro Bowl guard to get an idea. Jahri Evans has a seven-year, $56.7 million deal.
That would eat up a major chunk of the estimated $17 million the Cowboys are expected to have under the salary cap after they take care of housekeeping issues such as cutting Newman. If the Cowboys re-sign receiver Laurent Robinson, it likely would mean Nicks would be the lone surefire starter they sign in free agency.
So the Cowboys better find a cornerback in the draft. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to reach for one in the first round.
It’d be ideal if Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, the kind of big, physical cornerback the Cowboys want, is available with the 14th overall pick. He’d probably be worth trading up a few spots.
But a lot of bad picks are made when teams get locked into one position in the first round. If another player is clearly the best player on the board when the Cowboys are on the clock, get that guy, even if it’s Stanford guard David DeCastro and Nicks is already signed. If that happens, the Cowboys’ interior line suddenly goes from a glaring weakness to a major strength, no matter who beats out Phil Costa for the starting center job.
There should be quality corners, such South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore and Virginia’s Chase Minnifield, available in the second round.
Safety, defensive end and outside linebacker are other need positions for the Cowboys. If the Cowboys find long-term solutions at those spots over the next year, it’ll probably be young players already on the roster: Barry Church, Sean Lissemore and Victor Butler, although Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw is also a first-round possibility. The Cowboys would be wise to create as much competition at those spots as possible with low-risk, short-term free agents and/or mid- or late-round draft picks.
But the Cowboys can’t afford to fail to address their two biggest needs, a process that should start with a 6-foot-5, 343-pound solution.