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Free Agency Predictions: Get a Jet

With the start of free agency just hours away, here are my predictions for the Cowboys.



The first point I'll make is that Dallas has too many needs to fill in one session. By my count, the team has at least eight needs in its starting ranks and ten if backups are taken into consideration. On defense, if the 3-4 is implemented, Dallas will need a nose tackle, a defensive end, and inside linebacker, and outside linebacker, a right cornerback and a free safety. On offense, the teams needs a right tackle and a speed receiver. Dallas also needs a backup blocking tight end and a running back to spell Julius Jones.



With $15 million to spend, Dallas can realistically target three or perhaps four players. I think the Cowboys' priorities will be as follows:



Defense

1. NT Jason Ferguson, Jets. Nose tackle is the key to a 3-4 scheme. Ferguson is relatively young (at 30, he is two years younger than Pat Williams, the other top-tier NT). He has played for Parcells before.

2. NT Pat Williams, Bills. He would be plan B if Ferguson re-signs with the Jets. The problem for Dallas is that Williams might actually cost more than Ferguson, even though he is older.



3. CB Ken Lucas, Seahawks. Lucas is one of four corners the Cowboys figure to pursue. He's young and is coming off a career year. While all free agent corners will be expensive, Lucas most likely will be the cheapest.

4. CB Gary Baxter, Ravens. Another four year vet who won't break the bank. Baxter has maintained for weeks that he would like to return to Baltimore, so he's downgraded on this list.

5. CB Fred Smoot, Redskins. Smoot would be an excellent fit, and has had a better career to this point than Lucas and Baxter. But he is apparently asking for a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $14 million, which may be too rich for Jerry Jones' blood.

6. CB Samari Rolle, Titans. A top-flight cover corner with off-the-field issues. Rolle was arrested on a domestic abuse charge recently, and his character will need a thorough review. Rolle is also the oldest CB on this list.



7. ILB Ed Hartwell, Ravens. He's young, effective and durable. And he's about to step out of Ray Lewis' shadow. The Cowboys' problem is that Hartwell is not a secret to NFL personnel directors and as a result will likely be too expensive.

8. ILB Kendrell Bell, Steelers. The Cowboys had a chance to draft Bell a few years ago, but passed on him to take Quincy Carter. Bell had a monster rookie year for Pittsburgh, but has suffered recurring ankle injuries the past two seasons. He's more athletic than Hartwell, but his ankle will have to be checked out. Bell's medical past could be a blessing in disguise for Dallas if he is indeed healthy, since it could drive his price down.



Offense

9. OL Mike Wahle, Packers. Wahle was finally cut Tuesday afternoon by Green Bay. The Cowboys will certainly be interested, but Wahle could get the most expensive free-agent contract this year.

10. OT Kareem McKenzie, Jets. The best true right tackle on the market. McKenzie won't come cheaply but he won't cost as much as Wahle.



Prediction

The Cowboys will strike quickly, avoid bidding wars and land a couple more former Parcells players in Ferguson and McKenzie. Lucas will fill the black hole at right corner. The team will also try to avoid older players as much as possible. If their initial deals are not prohibitive, the Cowboys may pursue one of the ILBs. But their cap money will only go so far, and teams that spend extravagantly in free agency rarely get a full return on their investments.



-- Rafael Vela