The Dallas Cowboys will enter the 2013 offseason with an aggressive mindset towards free agency. And with a little flexibility and an open mind, Dallas could make a splash in free agency.
The NFL salary cap is only expected to increase by $1 million next season, leaving each franchise $121 million to work with. However, the Cowboys will take a $5 million hit thanks to a penalty imposed by the NFL last offseason, leaving Dallas with $116 million to build their 53-man roster around.
As of now, the Cowboys have $3.7 million available in cap space, but that number is likely to increase when 16 contracts come off the books this offseason. If Dallas decided to part ways with free agents to be Anthony Spencer, Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins it would free up $11 million in space. The Cowboys will also gain an additional $10 million after shedding multiple dead weight contracts—these come from player buyouts and are essentially dead money for the year.
If Dallas decided to let their entire free agent class walk, it would have around $24 million to use in free agency and to sign their 2013 draft class.
More than likely, some of these free agents will re-sign, but the Cowboys have some huge holes that must be filled with any remaining space.
The offensive line is the most urgent area of need, but other spots like third-string receiver and backup running back could use a boost. Here are a few players that should be targeted this offseason, along with the key players the Cowboys must re-up.
The offensive line is easily the Cowboys' largest area of need. Tony Romo is frequently under fire, and the group's run blocking is almost non-existent—Dallas features the third-worst rushing attack in the league, averaging only 83.1 points a game.
Each of the Cowboys' five starting linemen are under contract for next season, but something must be done to upgrade the unit.
The most sensible thing to do would be to cut the walking disaster that is Doug Free. The Cowboys' right tackle will account for $23.35 million against the cap over the next two years. He has underperformed and releasing him to create extra cap space would be a sensible move.
Jake Long: Miami Dolphins, Tackle
This is a bit of a long-shot; elite tackles rarely ever reach the free agent market. But if the Cowboys could sway the former No. 1 overall pick to Dallas it would be a monumental boost to an under-performing offensive line.
He's not the same player he was earlier in his career, and he would command a huge open-market salary, but if Dallas can make a play at the four-time Pro-Bowler, it should.
Jermon Bushrod: New Orleans Saints, Tackle
Bushrod would be another major upgrade over Free at tackle. He made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and has yet to discuss an extension with the Saints.
Bushrod is looking for long-term stability, and if the Cowboys cut Free, they could provide it. Bushrod would likely command around the same salary range that Free received, four years, $32 million.
He is a very steady performer on the outside and continues to improve late into his twenties.
Andy Levitre: Buffalo Bills, Guard
Levitre hasn't missed a game in his four years in the NFL, and has been a valuable asset to the Bills' offensive attack.
He'd provide the same level of consistency in Dallas.
He's a versatile guy, and his durability would be huge for the Cowboys, who seem to have a different injured lineman every other week.
Felix Jones is a free agent, and more than likely isn't coming back.
His exit leaves a hole behind DeMarco Murray at the backup running back spot. While Lance Dunbar has looked promising in limited action, the Cowboys need more experienced depth at the position, especially when you consider Murray’s injury history.
Jackie Battle, San Diego Chargers
Battle is nothing short of a bowling ball at running back, which is exactly the sort of player the Cowboys have missed on the goal line.
He's golden in the red zone and his power running style would complement Murray well. Ryan Matthews has a lock on the starting spot in San Diego, so if Dallas offered Battle the same range of salary Jones is currently earning, they could lure Battle to Dallas.
Dallas fans should be familiar with this name; he terrorized the Cowboys for years in New York. However, his running style and goal-line power would be a welcome addition for the Cowboys right about now.
He'd come cheap too. Jacobs has yet to see a snap in a 49ers uniform, and will just be seeking an opportunity to play in the league in 2013.
Heading into the season, the third wide receiver spot was a question mark for Dallas. 10 games in and it's still a bit of an enigma, but Kevin Ogletree has done a solid job overall.
However, the fourth-year man is a free agent to be, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Cowboys let him go and look toward free agency to provide more stability at the position.
Danny Amendola, St. Louis Rams
A Texas native, Amendola just finds a way to get open. He's the perfect guy to slide into the slot and could easily boost the Cowboys passing attack, providing Romo with a consistent target over the middle of the field other than Jason Witten.
Amendola is making $1.97 million this season, but will likely receive a raise in the offseason after what has been a strong 2012 campaign.
However, he would be well worth the money for Dallas. Putting Amendola on the field with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Witten would be deadly.
Without a reasonably economical signing of an impact player like Amendola, it makes more sense for Dallas to bring back Ogletree, who is already familiar with the offensive system, than an overpriced player of similar talent.
The defense hasn't been mentioned much in this article, and that's for good reason. It’s set up for long-term success with youth and long contracts.
The defensive line is anchored by Jay Ratliff and will be in good hands with up-and-comers the likes of Sean Lissemore and Tyrone Crawford.
The linebacker core is the biggest strength of the team thanks to a pair of young, talented middle linebackers—Sean Lee and Bruce Carter—and DeMarcus Ware, who is one of, if not the best pass rusher in football.
The secondary is also in great shape with corners Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick locked up for years, and the safety spot is solid under Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh.
However, two key pieces are missing from this group. Linebacker Anthony Spencer and defensive end Victor Butler. Both are free agents at the end of the season, and each should be signed long-term by Dallas.
The Butler signing should be relativity painless. He won't break the bank and, if he's signed long-term, he will be solid on the defensive front for years. His high motor and solid pass rushing skills will see to that.
Spencer's contract situation isn't quite so simple. He was franchised by the Cowboys for the 2012 season and will be seeking a long-term deal this offseason.
Dallas should give it to him.
Ware gets the sacks and the glory on the defense, but Spencer's contributions are almost as valuable. He rushes the passer, but more importantly, excels in pass coverage, which allows Ware to rush play after play without responsibilities beyond the line of scrimmage.
Spencer may not put up Ware-level numbers, but he's a cornerstone piece of the Dallas defense. His athleticism allows him to roam from sideline-to-sideline. He’s great at covering running backs and tight ends. Plus, he has 26 career sacks to his credit.
He's just an invaluable member of the defense that Dallas can't afford to lose.
It will be costly, taking up precious cap space, but the defense can't live up to its full potential without somebody like Spencer roaming the field.