The Cowboys have had since April and the amateur draft to contemplate how they'll move once the NFL lockout is lifted, and this week, amid the sudden start of training camp and the (hopefully quick) process of signing their draft picks, Jerry Jones and his team will begin the process of trying to keep some of their own free agents, cutting a couple of their veterans with bloated contracts, reshuffling some of their most expensive deals, and attempting to fill a big hole or two with external free agents.
According to John Clayton, teams can actually begin to sign undrafted free agents tonight, and then tomorrow they can begin to sign their draft picks and negotiate with free agents from other teams. Assuming (and it's one of the safest assumptions ever) players do vote to approve the negotiated agreement and recertify their union, those deals can become official Friday. With camp also beginning this week, the key free agents will likely have their destination settled before Friday, and most of the rest will be signed very quickly as well.
As has been well publicized, the Cowboys are well over the new salary cap (which is in the $120 million range) - somewhere a little north of $18 million, most likely. They have several ways to free up money, as Todd Archer outlines, but each of those have a price:
- They can borrow $3 million from the 2012 salary cap
- Renegotiating Tony Romo's, Miles Austin's and DeMarcus Ware's contracts can clear $17.5 million for 2011
- Cutting Terence Newman ($8 million), Leonard Davis ($6 million), Marion Barber ($4.75 million) and Marc Colombo ($3.4 million) would clear up a total of $21.2 million. They could also try to convince any of these players to renegotiate their deals to make them more team friendly but keep the player around. That could also happen with Roy Williams.
As Archer notes, making all of those moves would create well over $20 million in dead money for 2012, so the Cowboys have to be careful about how they approach those moves. That means that the most likely approach will be a mixture of the above options.
Marion Barber seems very likely to be released. Unless there is a Tashard Choice trade in the works, the Cowboys have three other usable backs (Felix Jones and draft pick DeMarco Murray), and he's not going to be worth anything close to his salary. Colombo's future probably hinges on whether the Cowboys can bring back Doug Free. If they can, a) he's going to take up a ton of cap space, some of which cutting Colombo's deal can clear up, and b) his role becomes the backup mentor to Free and Tyron Smith. In that case, he likely has his deal torn up and re-signs at a lower amount or is just let go. If Free goes elsewhere, they're desperate for a right tackle and may have to resort to hoping his legs can hold out better in 2012 than 2011.
Davis seems like a prime candidate to go, but there would be a lot of dead money left in 2012, and one of the Cowboys' bigger priorities, presumably, will be to hang onto left guard Kyle Kosier a little longer. Unless they want to move Sam Young inside or like Phil Costa more than realized (rookie David Arkin is not an option), Davis' replacement also would need to be lined up.
Newman is the toughest call because, despite the fact that he's about to turn 33, he may still have something left in the tank. On the other hand, $8 million is a lot of money. For me, smart money has to be on the Cowboys attempting to keep Newman in Dallas but with terms for favorable to 2011.
There are those who still think that the Cowboys are a prime landing spot for the highest profile free agent on the market, Nnamdi Asomugha, given his past relationship with Rob Ryan, the team's poor play at corner in 2010, and the fact that, in a vacuum, they might actually be able to clear up enough cap space (whether they could still field a team around him is another question). Considering that Dallas likely needs to keep or add - just among starters - two offensive linemen, two safeties and a defensive end, and more if they start cutting guys, makes Asomugha seem really far fetched.
So, let's say that Dallas manages to keep Free and Kosier and either hangs onto Davis or finds a replacement using some of the cap space cleared by cutting him, keeps Newman - and therefore their cornerback group - one way or another, and lets go of Barber. That would all be ideal scenario stuff, I'd think. The defensive end and safety spots would become the focal points for Friday.
Gerald Sensabaugh appears likely headed for a reunion with Wade Phillips in Houston, after he told ESPN 103.3 that he expected a long term deal with a much higher yearly salary than he's played for the past two seasons. The dream scenario would probably be that there is enough money to finally bring in a coverage safety like Eric Weddle, Michael Huff or even one of the secondary options like Ryan's former starter Abram Elam. That would make Barry Church and bargain bin types the likely options at the other safety.
The Cowboys had the chance for an extended look at Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen after Marcus Spears' injury at midseason. They saw ... what they were actually missing in Spears, particularly against the run. With Sean Lissemore more of a natural on the other side backing up Igor Olshansky, the team essentially has to keep or replace a starter and a backup on Spears' side. Bowen could well be enticing swing player for Ryan's defense, but keeping Spears and Bowen or their equivalents could be too expensive.
No one, not even Jerry Jones, can have a great idea of how this week will go, but 30 organizations have had the better part of 2011 to plan this week. It will be fast and frantic, and seven of the Cowboys' starting positions are likely to be sorted out in just a few days, just as they sign their draft picks, add a full roster of rookie free agents, and begin their training camp. What a week.