Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Morris Claiborne and DeMarco Murray ensure that the Cowboys’ glamor positions have enough skill to compete for championships. But where they run into they trouble is in the trenches. That’s where the team’s deficiencies begin, and they won't be able to contend for championships until these issues are alleviated.
Some of these holes can be filled through the draft. However, it will take smart, cap-savvy moves in free agency to sew up the problem areas.
Actually, it will take an almost miraculous amount of roster moves to make any real splash in the free agent market. As it stands now, the Cowboys are over the 2013 projected cap total of $121 million by $20 million with only 44 players under contract.
That means Dallas will be forced to rework contracts of players highly paid players like Brandon Carr, who is slotted to count $16.3 million against the cap. The Cowboys will also be forced to cut highly paid, under-performing players like Doug Free and Dan Connor to help fill the team’s needs.
Even if Dallas manages to clear a significant amount of space it will be forced to make tough decisions as to add one or two high-level free agents or to bring back one of their own in Anthony Spencer.
It will take a lot of maneuvering, but here are the seven top targets the Cowboys should pursue this offseason. They may not be able to sign many of them, but adding one or two of these impact players would give a huge boost to Dallas’ 2013 campaign.
The only reason Clady is last on this list is that he's a longshot to reach the open market, franchise left tackles almost never do. The Broncos would be silly to let Clady walk, leaving Peyton Manning's blind side unprotected.
If he chooses not to re-sign with Denver, the Cowboys must make chasing him a priority.
He's one of the best left tackles in football, and has been the calm in the storm of turbulent quarterback changes the Broncos have experienced the past few seasons.
Clady would allow Tyron Smith to slide back to the right side—the position he played at USC—solidifying both edges of the line.
Signing Clady would be an expensive venture—he already turned down a $50 million offer from Denver—and would utilize the majority of the Cowboys’ offseason cap space.
But with Clady, the Cowboys would feature one of the steadiest o-lines in football, finally providing Tony Romo the stability in the pocket he's always lacked.
The Cowboys have had trouble establishing pressure from their defensive line this season.
Jay Ratliff hasn't played on the Pro Bowl-level the Cowboys are accustomed to, as he's battled injuries much of this 2012 campaign. The rest of the group hasn't made much of an impact either, as Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and Kenyon Coleman have each had their bouts with injuries and inconsistent play.
Connor Barwin would go a long way in bringing a dose of consistency to this defensive line.
He gets a lot of pressure off the end—he had 11.5 sacks in 2011—something the Cowboys have lacked from their defensive ends this season.
Barwin is also steady against the run and would complement Ratliff well, just as he has with J.J. Watt in Houston.
It would require cutting a veteran like Spears or Coleman, but Barwin would bring an element the Cowboys have lacked the past few seasons.
This can't be a very exciting potential signing for Dallas fans, but Benson would be an affordable and solid complement to DeMarco Murray.
Benson, who is out for the season with a foot injury, is no longer the explosive player that was drafted fourth overall out of the University of Texas. But he is a reliably physical runner, an element the Cowboys have lacked this season.
Before this year Benson had rushed for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. He did so with a downhill running style that current backup Felix Jones just doesn’t have.
That ability to pound the ball in gaps for short yardage gains would serve the Cowboys well on the goal-line, a place Dallas just hasn’t been able to run this season.
Benson won't be particularly expensive either, coming off his injury plagued 2012 campaign.
At 305 pounds Randy Starks doesn't look all that fleet on his feet, but the Dolphins’ defense tackle is one of the most athletic defensive linemen in football.
He's played multiple positions on the line for the Dolphins, including defensive end and nose tackle, helping to provide depth at every position.
After a game against the Bengals, which included an interception and a sack, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Plain and simple, Starks is an impact player against the pass and the run.
The Dolphins will make a push to keep him, but with two highly paid d-linemen already on their roster, Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake, Miami might have a tough time finding the cap space to keep him.
He'd be expensive for Dallas, but if you shift Ratliff over to end and pair him with Starks, it would form one of the most explosive defensive lines in football.
One of the more flexible offensive linemen in the league, Levitre has been a mainstay on the Bills' offensive line, starting every game of his career thus far.
He's capable of playing either guard position effectively, can slide outside to both tackle spots and could even start at center in a pinch.
The Cowboys did sign both Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings to multi-year contracts this past offseason, but neither has been particularly impressive. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Cowboys cut both Bernadeau and Doug Free to make way for more consistent o-line play.
If they decided to do so, Levitre would be a perfect fit in the Cowboys’ offensive reclamation project.
He's an All-Pro level left guard and would provide insurance if another lineman went down with injury.
Bushrod is an absolute mauler at left tackle for the New Orleans Saints.
He's does an excellent job keeping Drew Brees' nose clean, allowing only 6.5 sacks in the last two seasons combined. His excellent play earned him a Pro Bowl berth in 2011, and while he's had a slight drop off in 2012, Bushrod is still quite effective.
The Saints didn’t offer him an extension last offseason, so there is a chance he reaches free agency.
If he does Bushrod would likely command a contract in the range of Doug Free's four-year, $32 million deal.
The Cowboys could swing that if they choose to part ways with an under-performing Free, who’s allowed 6.5 sacks and has had 13 penalties called on him thus far in 2012.
Pairing Bushrod with Tyron Smith would give the Cowboys one of the best tackle combinations in football for years to come.
At 6'8", 320-pounds Sebastian Vollmer is quite the imposing presence at right tackle, and his play equals his stature.
Vollmer, when healthy, has been one of the best right tackles in the NFL since he was drafted in by the Patriots in 2009.
Besides his 2011 season, when Vollmer battled a back injury, Vollmer has allowed just 3.5 sacks in almost three full years. He's kept Tom Brady on his feet, and has locked down the right side of New England’s o-line.
The Patriots don't often extend players for huge amounts of money, especially when they've dealt with injuries, so there is a great chance Vollmer reaches the open market.
If he does, the Cowboys should cut Free right away and go after Vollmer. He would be more affordable then the left tackles available in free agency, while allowing Smith to continue his growth on the left side.
Vollmer is one of the best tackles in the league and would alleviate a lot of the Cowboys issues through the air and on the ground.