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Cowboys 2016 Offseason Priorities: First Up - Deciding Which Free Agents To Keep

The Dallas Cowboys have 20 players who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents. One of the front office's biggest priorities needs to be evaluating those guys and deciding which ones they want to have on the roster in 2016.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluation of talent in the National Football League is something that takes place on a constant basis. The players at the top of the roster, people like Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, are the ones that teams do everything in their power to avoid letting get away. There is also a tier at the bottom, the JAGs, who are a dime a dozen. They are the ones who are continually fighting to stay in the league, and when a team does part ways with that player they sign another one to fill his slot. Finally, there are the guys in the middle.

It is that collection of talent in the middle tier that goes a long way toward determining the success of the franchise. With the way the NFL draft is structured teams that are the "have nots" of the league get first crack at the best talent. You need to look no further than the Cleveland Browns and their plethora of first-round quarterbacks to figure out that there is more to football success than having the first shot at the top talent each season. Top-name talent does not assure success, as Cowboys fans have learned many times over.

Naturally those on the bottom rung of the ladder are (hopefully) not on the field enough that they have a dramatic impact on the team's performance.

That leaves those players who are stuck in the middle. Teams, both winners and losers, are built in the middle. This is where organizations like the Patriots always seem to cash in. Yes they have Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but they consistently outperform other teams in having the upper echelon of the blue-collar players who go out every week and get the job done. The Pats do an excellent job of evaluating these players and culling out those who do not fulfill the expectations for their jobs.

This is the challenge that now faces the Dallas staff. It is time for the team to decide who from the current roster needs to be culled from the herd and who the need to retain. Over the next few weeks the team will be looking long and hard at those who are free agents and they will have to make some tough calls.

Each of these players will be subjected to a performance review the outcome of which will determine his future employment by Mr. Jones. With some exceptions, each should be considered as being one of those guys in the middle.

Player Position Status
Morris Claiborne CB Unrestricted
Greg Hardy DE Unrestricted
Mackenzy Bernadeau G/C Unrestricted
Jeremy Mincey DE Unrestricted
Rolando McClain LB Unrestricted
Kyle Wilber LB Unrestricted
James Hanna TE Unrestricted
Matt Cassel QB Unrestricted
Lance Dunbar RB Unrestricted
Jack Crawford DE Unrestricted
Nick Hayden DT Unrestricted
Danny McCray S Unrestricted
Charles Brown OT Unrestricted
Josh Thomas CB Unrestricted
Robert Turbin RB Unrestricted
Tyler Clutts FB Unrestricted
Rodney Smith WR Unrestricted
Casey Walker DT Unrestricted
Ron Leary G Restricted
Jeff Heath S Restricted

There are a few guys they would probably like to return, players like Mackenzy Bernadeau who can man any of the interior line positions and do so at an affordable rate. There are also those that  were brought in to fill a void such as Josh Thomas who may not get an offer. Those are the easier ones.

Tougher decisions will have to be made on players like Danny McCray and Jeff Heath. Do they do enough on special teams to merit retaining them over someone else who might contribute more in the secondary? That is a tough question. What about a player like Kyle Wilber? Wilber has no true "home" in the Cowboys defense but he has played his heart out for the team in several different roles. Does this outweigh someone who can fill one position and play it well?

Those questions and others like them will have to be answered soon. The structure of the middle of the Dallas roster will have to be decided before the team can consider how active it will be in free agency and what options they want to have open when the draft kicks off a few months from now. It is an attractive offer for fans to set back and speculate on the roster moves that the team could or should make to bring in new talent, but the first priority needs to be taking a look inside their own camp.

Who do you see as likely to return?

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