This spring and summer will be all about uncertainty for the Cowboys. They won't know what sort of rules they're playing by until an agreement with the players union is reached, and that won't happen until the summer at the earliest. But whenever they do get around to constructing their team in earnest, their first dilemma will be on what to do with their own potential free agents.
We don't even know quite who that will be, since we don't know how much service time will make players what sorts of free agents. But one would expect that anyone who has three or fewer years of experience and is on a roster will still essentially be that team's property, and since four-year players have been free agents before, it's unlikely to reverse direction. Therefore, let's took at the guys with four or more years of experience for these purposes, listed in order of priority.
No. 1. Doug Free -- 4 years of experience -- He was the biggest pleasant surprise among the week one starters and maybe on the entire team, so the timing of his potential free agency is unfortunate for the Cowboys. He'll most likely be one of the most sought after offensive linemen on the market if he indeed becomes a free agent. He's a near necessity to retain, though, as he represents all of the youth and upside currently on the line.
No. 2. Kyle Kosier -- 6+ years -- Kosier will definitely be eligible to become a free agent, which means the Cowboys could be in a real pickle. Their right tackle has had it. Their right guard doesn't seem to want it badly enough, and their center is overrated and overpaid. They have no developmental players to speak of coming behind those guys. Sam Young is far too unproven to be handed a key role. The two guys they should feel the best about on a line that needs drastic overhauls could be free agents. Kosier will be cheaper than Free, but having to pay out two free agent deals to keep your left side and then having to add your right side one way or another isn't going to be fun.
No. 3. Stephen Bowen -- 5 years -- Bowen showed pretty well in Marcus Spears' absence, as, like Free, he received an opportunity to play heavy minutes at just the right time. He only managed two sacks this season, after nabbing three in limited nickel duty in 2009, but he plays with good technique and creates pressure. Can he defend the run well enough to be a full fledged starter on a good defense? I'm not as sure about that.
No. 4. Marcus Spears -- 6 years -- Toss in Jason Hatcher (five years of experience), and you have one defensive end position that is way up in the air. Spears will probably be the most expensive, and he plays the run the best, but for a mid-first round pick he's extremely workmanlike. He does occupy blockers, but that's about the extent of things. Eight sacks in 88 games and precious few other big plays make it hard to get excited about paying him a lot of money. Igor Olshansky is signed for two more years, but his counterpart seems likely to change.
No. 5. Gerald Sensabaugh -- 6 years -- If the offensive line is the worst unit on the team (and it is), the defensive backfield - and the safety spot in particular - is second. Sensabaugh was the better of the two starters, but he's a guy with whom you get by, not a gifted coverage guy or run stopper. The Cowboys could be in a pickle here as well, since both the free agent market and the draft are safety poor. And they have to know that they need to find a replacement for Alan Ball at the other safety spot.
The Cowboys struggled in two major areas this season - the offensive line and pass defense. While changes clearly should be a priority, some of the wrong guys in these spots are potential free agents. Locking up Free should probably be Jerry Jones' first task, as his issues do go downhill from there. But if that means giving him a free agent caliber deal in a new, restrictive environment, it could leave the Cowboys with limited financial options in reconstructing a faltering roster.
The other roster call that Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett and their scouts will be making - and this may become a necessity just to keep the rest of the gang together - is who among Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Terence Newman to simply cut. At least a few of them will join the free agent ranks, but Dallas will still be paying them some salary, including about $15 million of guaranteed money still owed to the over-the-hill Colombo and Davis.