Big Week Ahead

[ UPDATE:  During the writing of this article news broke that Barber, Williams, Davis, and Colombo have all been cut.  Some of the analysis may not reflect these changes. ]

Ding, dong… the lockout’s dead.  As NFL business begins this week, our Cowboys are in a dire financial situation thanks to the lowered salary cap.  All but dashed are dreams of signing the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins.  The goals have become much simpler; re-sign some needed players and find at least one decent safety.

Jerry Jones is going to have to get creative to facilitate just the essential transactions such as re-signing Doug Free, bringing back at least one or two defensive ends, and signing our rookies.  While the details are not clear, restructuring the contracts of start players like Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, and Miles Austin has become the advertised strategy.  This will throw a lot of dead money into future years, but the impact can be balanced out by the likely releasing of players such as Roy Williams, Terence Newman, and Leonard Davis within the next two years.

Also available to Dallas is the borrowing mechanism included in the new CBA, allowing teams to take money out of future seasons’ cap allowance to help them now.  $6.5 million dollars now certainly seems more valuable than roughly half that amount in each of the next two seasons, so it seems likely the Cowboys will take full advantage of the provision.  It’s a help, but keep in mind that that amount will cover only about 65-75% of what Doug Free alone stands to make this year.

We’ve yet to hear any definitive reports about which Dallas players will be released, but it should come soon as news has already started to break from other teams.  Marion Barber and Marc Colombo are the widely-assumed cap casualties, with other high-salary guys such as Williams, Newman, and Davis also being speculated.  Other players like Keith Brooking, Martellus Bennett, and Montrae Holland have also been considered for smaller but still needed help to our financial flexibility.

With this situation hanging over everything, here are what I deem to be the top priorities for the Cowboys over the next week or so.  At the end, I will also look at some potential surprising realities that we as fans should be prepared for as this team tries to survive this financial problem.

1.  Re-Sign Doug Free

There’s nothing original about this idea, but that’s because it’s so obvious.  Going into next season with Tyron Smith and Marc Colombo as your starting tackles would be a disaster.  After years of failures like Al Johnson, Jacob Rogers, and James Marten, Free finally emerged as a fourth-round steal.  To lose him now would be a huge setback in the evolution of this team, putting us in an even worse situation next year than we had previously.

Unfortunately, Dallas may not be able to control the situation.  Free is a young guy who’s shown he can play well at the position, and there a lot of teams out there with money to burn.  Now I think some of the media is overrating the spending teams like Tampa Bay will do just because they have to meet the salary minimum.  Do the Bucs really want to overpay for guys now and limit their ability to re-sign Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, and other young studs when the time comes?  It’s just a thought, but even with that there is still a huge threat of teams being able to lure Free away with a lucrative contract Dallas just can’t match.

2.  Sign a New Safety

I say “new” safety because I don’t think Sensabaugh should be brought back.  Not only has he been disappointing in his two years in Dallas, but now he’s talking about his free agent value in a way that tells me he’s overrated himself.  If I’m right that Barry Church may be getting called on to start this year, then I don’t think he and Sensabaugh make a good duo.

The big names are Michael Huff and Eric Weddle.  A cheaper option may be former Cowboy and Rob Ryan player Abram Elam.  Hopefully there will be enough money to sign either Huff or Weddle in tandem with Elam, but that might be asking too much.

3.  Re-Sign Marcus Spears

I know it seems strange to have this above signing Kosier, but there’s Montrae Holland-like guy waiting to fill in at defensive end.  I haven’t seen many discussing Spears as a high priority to re-sign, and frankly I don’t understand why.  If there’s not enough money to upgrade to Cullen Jenkins, then doesn’t holding on to Spears make sense?

He’s better than Stephen Bowen or Jason Hatcher.  He’s in his prime.  He was a starter on this defense when it was performing at its highest level.  If he can be brought back for a reasonable salary, along with re-signing either Bowen or Hatcher, it will give us stability and depth at the defensive end spot.

4.  Re-Sign Kyle Kosier

I think Kosier was as good as anyone on the line last year, which isn’t the highest praise but it certainly merits trying to keep him in town.  He won’t command top dollar due to his age, so these should be a signing we can afford.  A starting guard combo of Holland and Davis doesn’t do much for me.  Not only is Kosier a solid player, but he has the versatility to play center should something happen to Gurode.

5.  Re-Sign Stephen Bowen

It’s time to make a choice between Bowen and Hatcher, and I think Bowen has distinguished himself as a reliable and more well-rounded player.  He’s certainly a better primary backup as he would need to be able to stop the run should he replace the starters, and Hatcher has never proven he can do that consistently.  The fourth defensive end next year is going to be Sean Lissemore or some other very raw prospect, so the need for a trusted reserve player is vital.

The ability to execute those five moves and others may mean opening up money and creating another hole, so the priorities may shift or be replaced with new ones.  To avoid as many new problems as possible, Dallas will probably be counting on some young prospects to start more than they have in past seasons.  Here are some surprising decisions that could be made:

Keith Brooking being cut — When Jerry said Brooking would return it was a different time with different rules. Now it comes down to money, and we can save a little over one million letting him go.

Barry Church starting — Can we really afford to re-sign Sensabaugh and bring in another free agent, or bring in two new guys if Sensabaugh leaves? Seems like it could be difficult. I think we could easily see them make one signing and then promoting Church.

Stephen Bowen starting — Of the three DE free agents, Bowen would probably the best value. We’d all love for them to go after a Cullen Jenkins, but that seems unlikely now. They can re-sign Bowen and go thin on the DE depth knowing that Ratliff could move over if needed. Josh Brent can start at NT in that scenario.

Montrae Holland starting — They may have to let Kosier walk and trust Holland to take his place. Kosier will probably be worth at least $2-$3 million on the market, and that’s money we don’t have if we’re going to bring back Doug Free.

Hopefully you wouldn’t need to rely on all of these possibilities, but I think at least one of them will have to happen in light of the financial issues.  Our top priorities will demand sacrifices elsewhere, and these would seem to be the least damaging transitions.  Obviously some of them would not co-exist, such as re-signing Spears and starting Bowen, but these are just examples of what may have to happen at one spot to facilitate a deal elsewhere.