By Matthew Postins
Free agency in the NFL begins next week. That means the Dallas Cowboys, along with the rest of the NFL, will be looking for some veteran talent to add to their roster. Of course, the Cowboys could be in better shape. They likely won’t have much in the way of money to spend, unless they cut additional players or re-work additional contracts, and that isn’t out of the questions. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team would be “efficient” spenders in free agency.
So this list isn’t about the top defensive free agents on the market. It’s about the five best fits for the Cowboys on the free agent market. Some will cost more than others. But these five players are attractive targets, and not just because some of them can be had for cheap.
Henry Melton, DT, Chicago
Melton’s agent, Jordan Woy, told ESPNDallas.com in February there would be interest from Melton about joining the Cowboys. Melton is from Fort Worth and went to the University of Texas. Plus, he played for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, so he understands the Cover 2 defense and the pair have a good relationship. The Cowboys could leverage that. At 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, he fits the profile of a good three-technique tackle and he recorded nearly all of his 15.5 quarterback sacks in Marinelli’s scheme. There are questions, though, chiefly about Melton’s knee, which needed ACL surgery early last season. He’ll likely be recovered by training camp and at age 27 he’s a good fit age-wise. But the knee is something that must be factored into a contract. The injury could help the Cowboys, in terms of negotiation. Bill Polian, the former Colts general manager who now works for ESPN, told the Chicago Tribune that Melton’s injury will likely keep him from getting top dollar on the market. But, he also said that, when healthy, Melton was a terrific three-technique. Most NFL experts list Melton as the No. 1 defensive tackle in free agency, in spite of the injury.
Clinton McDonald, DT, Seattle
This is a player I profiled earlier this offseason. Right now he’s considered a Top 10 tackle on the open market, but he comes with much less cash than Melton, even though McDonald just won a Super Bowl ring with Seattle. He emerged as a threat this past season, managing 5.5 sacks for the Seahawks. The Cowboys don’t play a similar system, but two things stand out. First, Seattle’s system is aggressive and built on making big plays, something the Cowboys need more of. Second, McDonald fits the body type for the under tackle position – 6-foot-2, 297 pounds. Unlike Melton, McDonald won’t require a big contract. Plus, his age – just 27 – means he still has good years ahead of him. He’s only been a rotational player in Seattle, but the Cowboys need pieces right now.
Corey Wootton, DE, Chicago
Like Melton, Wootton played for Marinelli in Chicago. Unlike Melton Wootton didn’t develop into a star. But that could work to the Cowboys’ advantage. He has been productive in the past (he had 10.5 sacks in his last two seasons in Chicago, including a career-high 7 sacks in 2012 under Marinelli). But he’s coming off labrum surgery and isn’t expected to be ready to work out until July. At 6-foot-6, 270 pounds he’s big enough to play either end position. Like Melton, he understands Marinelli’s scheme. He’s not likely to cost much more than the veteran minimum, so he fits in the Cowboys’ budget. He’s a bit of a risk with the injury, but the Cowboys need bodies his base salary won’t be guaranteed until he makes the roster.
Erin Henderson, LB, Minnesota
The Vikings cut Henderson for cap space last month. Jettisoning him saves the team $2.1 million. Henderson was a fairly productive player for the Vikings in his final three seasons, netting at least 44 tackles. What he is, at 244 pounds, is a good scheme fit for the Cover 2 defense. At age 28 he’s also less of an injury risk than the Cowboys’ current versatile backup linebacker, Ernie Sims. He knows the Cover 2 well, as his former head coach, Leslie Frazier, is a Cover 2 disciple by way of Lovie Smith. Henderson likely won’t cost the Cowboys a great deal of money. But their biggest competition might be Tampa Bay, where Smith is the head coach and Frazier is now the defensive coordinator. But as injury prone as Sean Lee has become, the Cowboys need depth if they’re not going to retain Sims.
Ryan Clark, FS, Pittsburgh
Yes, the Cowboys already have a pretty good free safety in Barry Church. But Clark, at age 34, is a pro at the safety position and could make a perfect signing to be the transitional strong safety until the Cowboys get that position squared away. Heck, his coverage skills could be an asset, as both J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath were burned quite often last season. Clark was a productive tackler for the Steelers in his final three seasons, registering at least 100 total tackles each season. The Steelers let him go, opting instead to re-sign Will Allen, familiar to Cowboys fans after he started opposite Church the first month of last season. Clark is a quality veteran player who can add leadership and production to a safety position that didn’t get much outside of Church last season. Right now Clark is delivering commentary for ESPN but he’s open to coming back to football. A two-year deal might do the trick.