There are a lot of moving pieces for most NFL teams right now, and the Dallas Cowboys are no exception. Decisions have to be made about who to keep, who to cut, what free agents might be worth pursuing, and of course who to draft. The most popular pastime is mock drafts. National media gurus and everyday fans are throwing out their ideas about which players will be taken by what teams. But a lot has to be done before draft day.
I am going to look at some of the major decisions facing the team and give my estimate of what they will do about things. What is a bit different is that I am trying to cover pretty much all the major issues to resolve. I will flatly state that this is nothing more than a SWAG and will probably be wrong in several aspects. But we all like to pretend we are Jerry Jones (or maybe Stephen). So here is what I see.
The first matter of concern is Tony Romo and what to do about his contract. The team needs to redo it to reduce his $16.8 million cap hit, as well as work out an extension for him. Stephen Jones is talking about him being the quarterback for the next 4 to 5 years, and the team needs to get something figured out to meet the cap requirements for the start of free agency on March 12, when, I believe, the team has to meet certain cap limit restrictions (I think they have to have their top 51 contracts under the cap at that point). The team has started work on this.
Stephen Jones said the Dallas Cowboys have "informally" had talks with Tony Romo on a contract extension.— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) February 20, 2013
There is a chance Tony could elect to play out the last year of his contract and become a free agent, but I think the Cowboys will get something done with him. I would guess they will get a five year deal, with the first three guaranteed, and the numbers massaged to get the team about $10 million in cap room with this deal alone.
Romo is the big one, but there are several other contracts to deal with. I am taking a conservative approach to this. I think some players, like Dan Connor and Lawrence Vickers, that underperformed and don't have a great deal to offer for the future will be cut to free up some more cap space, and others, like Miles Austin and maybe DeMarcus Ware, will do a little restructuring. I don't look for any surprise cuts, such as Austin.
A special case is Doug Free. The decision to keep or cut him is not going to be based so much on dollars as on performance. Many people hope openly that he will be cut after a year where he often looked overwhelmed at right tackle. But I don't think the team will dump him. They might restructure him, but I think Bill Callahan believes Free can be fixed. I think he will go into training camp on the roster. That is not a guarantee he will survive the camp, but I think he will get one more shot to prove he is able to play his position.
Stephen Jones has stated that the cap is not a problem. And the team has started talks with Anthony Spencer. The indication is that the team wants to work out a deal with him, and I think that they will. But there is a cost for this. Essentially, the team will be all in for Spencer. No matter how much magic SJ can work, a deal for Spencer will eat up almost all the available cap money. The team will be done with free agency, except for signing some of their own low cost FA players. There are a few possible targets, like Danny McCray, Phil Costa (both restricted free agents), L.P. LaDouceur, Ernie Sims, and maybe Eric Frampton or Charlie Peprah as specialists or for depth. But there will be very little money to spread around here. That is the cost of keeping Spencer. I think the team will, and I am a bit concerned that from a long-range perspective, it is not necessarily the right decision. Despite my reservations, I think the team will go for him and figure something out.
That will leave the team with very little coming in FA, so I think they Cowboys will basically go into the draft with what they have now. Jerry Jones might want to trade back this year, since there is not much for the team to gain by trading up. The problem is that I don't see who else would have much to gain trading up, so I am expecting the Cowboys to have to go with their current six picks by default, not by choice. I think the team will pick up a combination of DE, OG and S in the first three rounds. The last three picks the team will probably include a RB (unless the team feels that RB is a higher priority, which SJ has hinted at), and the other two picks are going to be dictated by what kind of talent the team sees. They may get a project QB, but I would expect to see a Sam LB and depth on the lines as higher priority. But I think the first three picks are the ones that will be important this year, and any players who can contribute past that are pretty much bonus.
With whatever UDFAs the team will pick up, they will go into the minicamps and OTAs with certain objectives that have to be met. The biggest one: Setting the offensive line. I have referred to OCC's post on O line continuity before, and I think our resident statistical guru has defined the most important factor in determining what kind of year the Cowboys will have. This is more important than switching to the 4-3 defense, because I think Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli are a couple of the best teachers in the league, based on their history. They will be able to get the new scheme installed and the players able to get the job done. The defense will be fine, and I think the offense is going to depend on the offensive line (a song I think we have heard before). The team has to decide on the starters, and they have to be players that are healthy and that can become a cohesive unit. This is when the final decision will be made on Doug Free, as well as Phil Costa (assuming he is re-signed, which I think he will be), Mackenzy Bernadeau, Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, Ryan Cook and others. I think Tyron Smith is the only lineman that I would be wiling to bet money on still being with the team to start the season. Any other lineman could be cut, or could prove to the team that they are able to play. The final decision on the backups will be made in training camp, but I think the starters have to be determined by the start of camp, not the end. The first team will need to work together all the way through to get comfortable and be effective. If this can get done, I think Dallas should climb back into the playoffs. Another year of injuries and changing faces on the offensive line, and it will be a long season.
That is what I see gazing into the future. Nothing particularly sexy or exciting, or really all that original. More, shall I say, process oriented. This is just an attempt to fold the various steps into a coherent whole. Keep the important parts of the team in place, massage the cap while cursing John Mara, draft wisely, and let the coaches fix the issues that need addressing. I stand by my prediction until something happens to make it invalid.
I give it maybe 48 hours.