If one word could sum up the 2012 Dallas Cowboys more that any other, I'd have to use "Almost." Dez Bryant almost kept his finger from going out of bounds. The team almost overcame the mountain of injuries. The defense almost had 11 unrecognizable players starting. Dan Bailey's game-winning kick almost went in to beat the Ravens. Tony Romo almost shed his choking stigma. The Dallas Cowboys almost made the playoffs against all odds.
The 2012 Dallas Cowboys are now finished, forever engraved in history. The 2013 Cowboys are now in the process of shaping up. With each question that was answered with the ending of the season, a brand new batch of questions arise. Let's take a look at the biggest questions and the directions the answers take the 2013 Cowboys into building their roster.
Q1: What do the Cowboys do at right tackle? I feel like this is the most important question of the offseason and it is the toughest answer. Do the Cowboys think Doug Free can return to 2010 form and hold down the right side of the offensive line? If yes, Free would suddenly turn arguably the largest weakness on the team into a strength. If Free cannot return to form, can the Cowboys afford to cut him? The many numbers floating around the internet are somewhere between $4-5 million dollars if Free is designated a June 1st cut. After getting through what to do with Free, do you replace him with Jermey Parnell (or another player on the roster)? Personally, I think Parnell has a bright future playing right tackle and backing up Tyron Smith on the blind side but the coaches may not agree.
My answer: I don't see how Doug Free can return next year. I hate to give up on him because he seems like a great teammate and a right kind of guy but his production is hurting the team and physically hurting Tony Romo. Jermey Parnell is making strides towards at least being average which is leagues better than Free was most of this year. A high draft pick isn't out of the question.
Q2: Does Brian Price, or anyone on the team, fix our problems at defensive tackle? Price, former second round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joined the Cowboys and is now reunited with his defensive line coach from Chicago. With Jay Ratliff's and Josh Brent's playing days in Dallas likely over, a new disruptor in the middle of the defense is needed to apply pressure in the "Dallas-2." If not Price, then who? Does Jason Hatcher slim down to the strongside defensive end position that will be vacated by Anthony Spencer or does he beef up and replace Ratliff and Brent?
My answer: Having Brian Price on the team should not keep the Cowboys from drafting a defensive tackle high in the draft or spending what little money that will be available in free agency. I would have Jason Hatcher beef up to play defensive tackle along with Sean Lissemore, Rob Callaway, and maybe Marcus Spears (but his days in Dallas are likely over). I would like to have our two best pass rushers together in DeMarcus Ware and Hatcher on the same side rushing the quarterback with a big bodied tackle collapsing the pocket on the other side.
Q3: How much does Tony Romo have left in the tank? Tony Romo has really been a trooper here in Dallas. It honestly feels just like yesterday that he took over for Drew Bledsoe and led the Cowboys to the playoffs. I can't believe his career is coming to an end soon. But just how soon is it? I think Romo has at least three more seasons of his high quality play left in him, maybe more if he avoids the wear and tear so many others have fallen victim to. With all that Tony has been through here, does he even want to be a Dallas Cowboy? His lasting "legacy" would be how he continued to fall short on the biggest stages under the highest pressure, whether his fault or not, at the premier position on the premier team in the premier sport. When he only has one more chance to cash in and travel to whatever team may want him, would he take the chance to go somewhere else where he'd be more appreciated? Would he go to a team looking not to replace him every year, a team that would give him an offensive line to protect him, a team out of the spotlight and out from under the microscope? It may sound crazy thinking of Tony Romo leaving, and I don't think he will, but he shouldn't be taken for granted and 100% expected of him to sign an extension.
My answer: I try to lock Tony Romo down for a five year contract that makes it easy to cut him after year three. If it can be front-loaded while still giving some cap room for these early years. He has an elite receiver and tightend, with a budding runningback. Romo just needs protection and that would greatly increase his shelf-life.
Q4: How far along are the young, backup offensive linemen? We already discussed Parnell, but what about former 4th round pick David Arkin or the heralded undrafted free agent with a 3rd round grade Ronald Leary? At this point, Arkin looks like he isn't strong enough to be a contributer at guard, while Leary just spent his first season on the practice squad. Is Leary the answer at right guard to replace Mackenzy Bernadeau? With the offensive line being in shambles for years, can someone finally step up and turn this into less of a liability and more of a strength?
My answer: Just like Brian Price at defensive tackle, I wouldn't let David Arkin or Ronald Leary keep me from drafting or signing quality offensive linemen. At best, Leary's knee problems make his future longevity unpredictable. At worst, he and Arkin couldn't even crack the lineup to one of the poorest offensive lines in the league. I'm a firm believer in building in the trenches after you get a franchise quarterback and Jason Garrett looks like that's his plan for the offseason too.
Q5: Can Matt Johnson be the desperately needed playmaker at safety? Barry Church looked like a pretty solid safety before his awful injury so we aren't sure what his playing status will be like. Gerald Sensabaugh, on the other hand, just looked awful. Either way, nobody knows how they will fit into the new defensive scheme. Matt Johnson was a big time playmaker at a small school. Can his hamstrings hold together and bring that playmaking ability to the Cowboys' defense? Will this other infamous Cowboys' liability be turned into a strength?
My answer: Matt Johnson needs another year of seasoning to break the starting lineup. I think Barry Church will make a full recovery (call me optimistic) with his injury occurring early in the season. I also think Gerald Sensabaugh played his final down as a Dallas Cowboy. A deal similar to Dan Connor's will likely bring in a free agent (one cheap season with a second season having a high dollar amount to pay him like a starter because he is or make it easy to cut him because he isn't starting) like the Giant's Kenny Phillips. I don't think Dallas has safety as a high priority in the draft but it's early and anything can happen.
There are a couple more questions that are just as critical but I find these the most important for building the initial roster before free agency and the draft. The next edition will have more questions and hopefully better answers.