As we move into the offseason, it is time to get serious about the ways to improve the Dallas Cowboys roster. Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys have not been major players in free agency in a number of years. We would define that by looking at the players and prices in which they get involved on the early days of free agency where the dollars are the highest and auctions can break out. This can get very expensive and very dangerous to make mistakes. A quick look at page 225 of the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Media Guide confirms that the big spending the Cowboys have done in the last 5 seasons has been mainly on their own players before they hit free agency:
Leonard Davis - 3/4/2007 signed a 7-year, $49m contract
Ken Hamlin - 3/24/2007 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract
Keith Brooking - 2/28/2009 signed a 3-year, $6m contract
Igor Olshansky - 3/6/2009 signed a 4-year, $18m contract
Gerald Sensabaugh - 3/9/2009 signed a 1-year, $1.75m contract
Kenyon Coleman - 7/30/2011 signed a 2-year, $3.75m contract
Abram Elam - 8/3/2011 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract
This demonstrates that Leonard Davis was the last of the big ticket items (with all due respect to the Igor Olshansky deal that was more of a "paper" contract that would never come close to the value in the headlines). Davis was obviously cut early, too, but he did see a large sum of his money.
So, five years since the last bold strike in free agency lends credence to the idea that Jerry Jones is not the free-wheeling spender he once was, or if he still is, he has been using most of his petty cash on the new stadium construction and re-signing his own players.
Nevertheless, this season, we see that the Cowboys appear eager to strike in free agency. With about $17m in cap space, and the ability to create much more room with restructures and future releases of players under contract, they have to deal with their own free agents (Anthony Spencer, Laurent Robinson, Mat McBriar), their rookie draft class, and then they can also dip into free agency for a bold strike or two.
Which leads us to this week's project. If you read my thoughts for very long, you will soon realize that I am one of many that believe the game of football is always won at the line of scrimmage. And while the Cowboys focus seems to often be on players on the perimeter of the game (WR, RB, DB) and building from the outside-in, I think you will see that many successful teams build from the inside-out.
So, when I am proposing ideas or looking at players in the draft or free agency, I will give some thought to your defensive back idea, but I will then attempt to twist your arm and look at the offensive line and the defensive line. And with the success of teams that stress that sort of building in the post-season having success this month (Houston, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore), perhaps that is something worth considering.
Which leads us to what is reportedly the apple of the Cowboys' eye right now, Carl Nicks, OG for the New Orleans Saints.
Carl Nicks - OG
5/14/85 (age 26)
Nicks is a very impressive force who has started from Week 4 in 2008 for the Saints. Since that time, he has been rated no lower than the Top 5 guards in the NFL. In fact, if you start grading him from 2009 to 2011, you will see that he is among the top 2 or 3 on any given ranking by personnel people around the league. He is flat-out quality and a mauler inside.
Unlike Leonard Davis, the last time the Cowboys dipped into the free agent pool, he is not going to be converted from tackle back to a guard, and he isn't 29 years old. He has only played guard and he is very good at it. He is also just entering his prime, and you can feel great about a major investment in him.
Looking back at his 2011, Nicks was an anchor in one of the most prolific offenses in football history and a chief reason why the Saints ran the ball with ease. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was on the field for an insane 1348 snaps this season (Doug Free led the Cowboys OL with 1080) and pass blocked on 844 occasions for Drew Brees. He gave up 2 sacks all season. In Week 3, Texans DE Antonio Smith worked around his shoulder for a sack in space where Nicks didn't move his feet enough against an impressive interior pass rusher. And in Week 14 at Tennessee, rookie Karl Klug finally worked past Nicks when Brees held the ball for 4.8 seconds. Other than that, there were almost no occasions where Brees was hit because of Carl Nicks.
As a run blocker, he is above-average and has great quickness to get to the Linebackers on the 2nd level. The Saints don't ask him to pull in space too much, but his angle blocking is apparent. This past weekend, against the 3-4 of San Francisco, you can see him fire up the field and lock down Patrick Willis on several inside run plays. In the pass game, he has his hands full with an elite matchup against Justin Smith of the 49ers, and won more than his share of battles. Smith has great strength and while he pushed Nicks around a bit, but not enough to cause too much trouble.
Maybe the most impressive attribute that Nicks has that is not talked about is the ability to switch off and deal with stunts and blitzes with no difficulty whatsoever. There were a few occasions where he dealt with multiple rushers trying to work a seam on either side of him, and there was no daylight as Nicks would block one and then get a piece of the other in the blink of an eye.
This will be a very expensive signing and it won't come with glamour and huge headlines in places where fantasy football and jersey sales are important. But, in the film room where a team has dealt with a below average offensive line for several years in a row, this would signal a major upgrade at a spot where the Cowboys could now afford to get by with average center play because the guards next to him would be able to cover that up. There will not be as many days where the Cowboys are trying to game plan around a weak OL. Instead, like Brees, Romo can stand back and comfortably look for a target. If the Cowboys started a Phil Costa or Bill Nagy at center next season, but had Carl Nicks to the left and Kyle Kosier to the right, they would be far better equipped to deal with the Giants or Eagles than they were this season.
Having watched him closely this week in several games, and noting the Bill Callahan-Nebraska connection, as well as the Cowboys' interest, I would absolutely endorse a signing of Nicks when free agency opens. It will be very expensive, as his team-mate in New Orleans, RG Jahri Evans signed a 7-year, $56.7m deal in May of 2010. That seems to be the rough estimate of Nicks' price, but it would also settle things for the Cowboys at a major position of need.
Then, if Tyron Smith moves to LT, and Free back to RT, Nicks will solidify things and offer you a major improvement inside. Also, keep in mind that Nicks has been present and accounted for each Sunday along the way. He appears to be a pretty special player and should be target #1 in this offseason.
The defense needs help all over, and there will still be some money and a full draft to address that, but I think this is a very worthy ambition for the Cowboys front office.