The 2016 NFL Combine gets going next week, and we are less than three weeks away from the start of free agency. Since news is going to start picking up shortly, I thought it was a good time to begin our annual review of the San Francisco 49ers upcoming opponents.
We will be providing three breakdowns. This first one will review the previous season for each team. It will also include a list of each team's free agents, and a look at some potential needs heading into free agency and the draft. The second one will come in April, providing a look at where teams are at following free agency, and what the draft means for each team. The third set will come in July, providing a recap of the offseason and a look ahead to training camp for each team.
We start this off with the Dallas Cowboys. It was an ugly year for Dallas, thanks primarily to Tony Romo's injuries. The Cowboys quarterback continually improves how important he is to the team's success. Injuries cost Tony Romo 12 games, and it is kind of fitting Dallas went 4-12. They were 3-1 in Romo starts, and 1-11 in games started by Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore. I don't think they would have won all those games if Romo was healthy, but they would have been a strong contender in the NFC East.
One of the positive developments for the Cowboys offense was Darren McFadden. The one-time Oakland Raiders running back has dealt with injuries throughout his career. Through the first six seasons of his career, McFadden never played more than 13 games. The last two years he has played in all 16 games, but this past year he finally emerged again as a solid back. He surpassed 1,000 yards for the second time in his career, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The Cowboys are expected to add some young talent to the depth chart, but they have to be happy with what they got out of McFadden.
The other big development was undrafted rookie La'el Collins. He went undrafted after he was scheduled to speak with the police about a shooting of a pregnant woman with whom he had previously been involved. He was not a suspect at the time, and would seemingly be in the clear at this point (barring unknown future evidence). He emerged as a strong presence on the Cowboys offensive line.
On the defensive side of the ball, the big story the Cowboys brought on themselves was Greg Hardy. The pass rusher signed with the Cowboys following his domestic violence suspension in Carolina. He showed some signs of his pass rushing talent, but he seemed to be more of a problem than he was worth. He was late to and missed meetings. He got into it with coaches, subsequently being called a leader by Jerry Jones. He now hits free agency, and all signs are that he will not be back in Dallas after a season that can charitably be described as tumultuous.
The Cowboys had a solid run defense, ranking No. 12, according to Football Outsiders. But their pass defense struggled. Rookie Byron Jones showed some signs, but linebacker Rolando McClain seemed to regress a bit in his coverage work.
Unrestricted free agents: OL Mackenzy Bernadeau, OT Charles Brown, QB Matt Cassel, CB Morris Claiborne, DL Jack Crawford, FB Tyler Clutts, RB Lance Dunbar, TE James Hanna, DE Greg Hardy, DT Nick Hayden, ILB Rolando McClain, S Danny McCray, DE Jeremy Mincey, WR Rodney Smith, CB Josh Thomas, RB Robert Turbin, DL Casey Walker, LB Kyle Wilber
Restricted free agents: S Jeff Heath, OG Ronald Leary
The big names seem to be on defense. Greg Hardy, Nick Hayden, and Rolando McClain would appear to be the biggest free agents on the roster. Morris Claiborne would have been but it appears has slid down the depth chart. The Cowboys drafted Randy Gregory in the second round of last year's draft. The defensive end did not put together a lot of production as a rookie, but will potentially be viewed as the guy who will replace Hardy. Fooch's update: Shortly before publishing, Gregory was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
There are two distinct areas of concern. The first is the future of the quarterback position. Tony Romo will be back this year, but the team needs to start figuring out the future. The second issue is the pass rush. As we saw with the 49ers, you can never have too many pass rushers. I could see the Cowboys adding a pass rusher in the first three rounds of the draft. The third issue is at running back. Darren McFadden looked good last year in a starting role, but his injury history means the Cowboys cannot count on him to be the rock on which they build the ground game. Look for them to add a running back in the draft.
Dallas holds the fourth overall pick, which puts them in position to do a lot of work in the draft. The Cowboys currently have approximately $14 million in cap space. They could clear some space by lowering the cap figures of offensive tackle Tyrone Smith and/or defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford. The most likely cap casualty candidate would appear to be cornerback Brandon Carr. He has a $13.8 million cap figure, and has slid down the depth chart. Our friends at Blogging The Boys think it makes some sense to add a name in a free agency, which could come along with Carr's departure.
There has been some chatter, both joking and serious about the Cowboys adding Johnny Manziel. Jerry Jones reportedly wanted him bad in the draft, but was able to be restrained. The Browns have not released Manziel yet, but every indication is that it will happen at some point. I don't think Manziel is on an NFL roster come training camp, but I suppose we can never count out Jerry Jones!