Make the Right Call  

 

Dallas Cowboys' offseason has been defined by tough decisions

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Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.

The former, a second-team All-Pro last season; the latter, the first rookie O-lineman to earn first-team All-Pro honors since 1947. Both were draft picks that many initially questioned -- in 2013, Dallas passed on safety Eric Reid and traded down to take Frederick; last May, the team took Martin over Johnny Manziel (a move many Cowboys fans didn't like at the time, even though they won't admit it now) -- but both, in short order, turned out to be the right call by Jerry and Stephen Jones.

Dallas made a few more controversial calls this offseason. Letting DeMarco Murray exit stage left was an interesting free agency decision -- did Dallas choose wisely regarding the game's reigning rushing king? How about some other debatable transactions this offseason?

Elliot Harrison examines some of the busiest NFL teams this offseason and attempts to answer whether the moves they've made will pay off in the 2015 campaign.

The Cowboys are the fifth team featured in our "Make the Right Call" series, following the Jets, Bears, Patriots and Eagles. If the 'Boys are to compete with that last squad in the NFC East, they'd better hope some of these transactions work out. Speaking of, Philadelphia is a good place to start, as the Cowboys' major subtraction turned out to be the Eagles' major addition.

So let's dive in. And as always, feel free to share your take with me: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Ground shift in the NFC East

It's one thing to lose the league's leading rusher -- and a popular locker room presence -- to free agency. It's a whole 'nother set of dominoes when that player goes to a division rival. And it's even more impactful when that rival is the toughest competition in your division.

This, of course, is how things played out with DeMarco Murray, who hopped from Big D to Philly.

Initially, Dallas brass floated a four-year deal worth slightly more than $16 million. Later on, the Joneses reportedly sweetened the pot a bit, but once the Eagles, Jags and whoever else pushed the money to another stratosphere, Dallas peaced out. Here's why:

1) The Cowboys were up against it in terms of available cap funds. Yes, they could have found a way to re-sign Murray -- possibly by restructuring Tony Romo's deal -- but it would have left very little wiggle room.
2) It was going to take a substantial amount of guaranteed money for a running back coming off one of the heavier workloads in NFL history.
3) The applicable research on running backs who log 400-touch campaigns? It says they take a nosedive the following season -- or at least fall off to the point where they're not worth $8 million per year.

That last figure is what Murray ultimately received from Philadelphia: a five-year contract worth $40 million with more than $20 million guaranteed. Losing DeMarco hurts, no doubt. Yet, with a young offensive line boasting three Pro Bowlers, Dallas felt comfortable putting someone else in the backfield. Having an explosive passing game only greased the skids for an 1,800-yard rusher to rush north. This was a shrewd business move.

Tag, Dez is it

Working out long-term deals for both Murray and Dez Bryant -- while continuing to improve the defense, this offseason and next -- just wasn't financially feasible. And given the limited shelf life of running backs in today's NFL (especially after 400-touch seasons), and the track record of each player (Bryant's been a top-flight star for several years, while Murray just provided his first uber-productive campaign), Dallas made the understandable decision to concentrate its efforts on the wide receiver.

Dallas slapped the franchise tag on Bryant in March, guaranteeing him a $12.823 million salary in 2015, with hopes of getting a long-term extension done. At the moment, it seems unlikely that'll happen before the season begins, but we shall see.

Free of charge?

Another decision that tightened Dallas' purse strings before Murray hit the open market: re-signing Doug Free just prior to free agency. Inking the big right tackle to a three-year, $15 million contract, the Joneses clearly wanted to keep the best O-line in football intact. Yes, Free is 31, but offensive tackles can play well into their 30s (unlike most running backs).

It should be noted that if the team drafts a kid to share the rushing load -- is Melvin Gordon wishful thinking? -- having Free on the right side of the line will be conducive to his success. On the subject of new running backs carrying the load ...

Run DMC or just DMC?

OK, so not everybody was pumped up like Arnold circa 1977 about the Darren McFadden signing. Many people imagined the Cowboys could acquire Adrian Peterson, but it appears that isn't in the cards. Still, several of my colleagues in the bidness think the McFadden move was a wise one. And I agree. McFadden, of course, has struggled with various injuries through the years. Not ideal. But consequently, with McFadden having logged just 1,038 carries in seven NFL seasons, you could make the case that he has more tread on his tires than most other running backs in their late 20s. He still shows flashes of speed. And most importantly, Dallas didn't break the bank, signing the back to a very affordable two-year deal.

The downside? Run DMC hasn't exactly rocked the house in the yards-per-carry department, failing to even hit the below-mediocre threshold of 3.5 in each of the past three seasons. It will be interesting to see if he can recapture his 2010-11 magic.

Hard(l)y worth the effort?

While the McFadden deal surprised a few folks, the Greg Hardy signing riled up a legion of fans and Dallas citizens alike. From solely a football standpoint, the move made sense. The Joneses sorely needed a boost in the pass rush, and Hardy was the best pure talent on the market. But as a native of the area, I can tell you with certainty that many people did not care to see Hardy in a Cowboys uniform, given some of the allegations that emerged from a domestic violence incident.

And now, Hardy has been suspended for the first 10 games of the season for conduct detrimental to the league. While the Cowboys sensed a substantial suspension could be forthcoming -- and structured his one-year contract with this in mind -- they're now looking at not getting anything from the pass rusher until late November. There's still a chance that the suspension could be reduced a bit, but given the hit the Cowboys are taking in the court of public opinion, will such a limited engagement end up being worth it? Stay tuned.

Talking linebackers

Around The NFL's Roster Reset

Justin Durant was the most reliable player on the Dallas defense through the first half of the season. ... Then he tore his biceps in late October, landed on injured reserve and eventually left for Atlanta in free agency. That's a hit, but coupling the re-signing of Rolando McClain with the return of Sean Lee, the Cowboys should be good to go at linebacker.

Lee is outstanding, perhaps even an All-Pro performer when healthy, while McClain enjoyed a fine comeback season in 2014. Anthony Hitchens proved he could at least hold down the fort as a rookie last season. He's a young player with upside who should get better in his sophomore campaign. While Durant is certainly better than two of the three, his inability to stay healthy had to be a huge factor in the Joneses' decision to let him walk. With Lee's history of injuries, it's hard to invest in another LB with health questions.

Blonde Rambo

A few eyebrows raised when Dallas paid Cole Beasley $13.6 million over four years. To me, this was a prudent move. Beasley has become one of the most reliable inside wideouts in the game -- many NFL fans may not know this (as Beasley isn't quite a household name), but Cowboys fans do. The former SMU Mustang really came on late last season, catching 26 balls over his last seven games (including postseason). He consistently made plays and moved the sticks.

Did the Cowboys make the right calls?

As much as fans lament the departure of Murray, the answer here is yes. The Cowboys faced certain economic limitations, and when it came down to Murray and Bryant, the correct choice was to go with the player who most likely will be in his prime for a longer duration. And with the 2015 NFL Draft being deep at running back, the Joneses knew they could get a younger player with less wear and tear on his body.

While losing a fantastic running back like Murray doesn't help, Dallas did retain two key offensive players in Free and Beasley. (If the Cowboys aren't going to run the ball quite as much sans Murray, then Romo will probably throw more bubble screens, slants and the like to Beasley. The short passing game is basically an extended handoff.) And re-signing McClain definitely helped stabilize the defense.

Much like the Patriots, the Cowboys made a number of canny decisions that will allow them to play for the future while definitely not redshirting 2015.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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