Hey Steve, how bout them Cowboys ?
The 2013 NFL salary cap limit appears to be set at $121.1 million. For the Dallas Cowboys, who are already faced with numerous financial constraints heading into 2013, looking for every penny of this cap figure will be a challenge in and of itself.
But that's life in the NFL and the current economic landscape of the league is still fueled by the obsession with parity, a level playing field and being fiscally responsible. Jerry Jones has always operated to his own drum when it comes to player acquisition and free agency and he usually gets what he wants due to his resources.
Look no further than last year's spending spree on Brandon Carr and in prior years on players such as Deion Sanders. The Cowboys on a historical basis usually have no problem rewarding players with lucrative contracts, especially their own free agents.
As an example, Jones has committed significant money to players like Orlando Scandrick, Doug Free, Miles Austin and Gerald Sensabaugh to name a few. But have the results always matched the contract? In some cases, yes, but when the results do not match, and it starts to effect future flexibility, certain decision-making can be limited.
The Cowboys' current salary cap situation, before any restructuring or maneuvering, stands at $139,622,172. If my math is correct, then that means the Cowboys are currently over the cap by $18 million.
So with a lot of work to do and a busy offseason upon us, let's look at how the salary cap breakdown really affects this roster.
The discussion of what to do with Tony Romo's contract situation has been a seemingly hot topic since the season ended. While many can't shake the image of his three interception game against the Redskins, the reality is that he will be in Dallas for the foreseeable future. And that is the reality.
But with a 2013 cap figure of $16.8 million, the Cowboys need to extend his contract right now in order to have any shot at financial flexibility as it relates to the rest of the roster. The Cowboys still view signing Romo as the key to their future and are still seeking an extension.
Kyle Orton is still under contract for a few more seasons, he carries a 2013 cap figure of just over $2 million and would be more than serviceable if pressed into duty. The Cowboys appear set at this position despite the growing concern of Romo's ability in the clutch.
Adding a player in free agency is highly unlikely but the draft could be an option should there be a falling talent that happens to catch the eye of management. Ultimately, I anticipate the Cowboys going the undrafted free agency route in this case.
With the imminent departure of Felix Jones, the health concerns of DeMarco Murray and very little else in the mix, the Cowboys will have to commit resources to the running back position in 2013. Murray is still playing on his rookie contract and will count for just over $800,000 on the cap and Phillip Tanner carries a cap figure of $555,500.
So while this position doesn't pose as a drain financially, there is room for improvement that could be filled in the draft and free agency. Free-agent running backs such as Chris Ivory and Peyton Hillis would be ideal and economically viable options. The addition of Gary Brown as the new running backs coach could make Hillis more attractive considering the duo were both in Cleveland at one point.
The draft should also be a source for replenishing the depth at this position and players such as Stepfan Taylor, Jonathan Franklin and Ray Graham could be ideal mid-round targets. The Cowboys need to allocate resources to this area and most likely will.
Ah, yes, the area of this franchise that keeps most of us up at night and on the brink of entering the Betty Ford Clinic. The offensive line continues to be a work in progress and an area of historical neglect that has led to some questionable decisions for this team.
But while this continues to be an area of concern, one player in particular, Doug Free, could be one of the keys to the offseason. With a blustering cap figure of $10,020,000 million coupled with a below-average year, he either needs to provide Dallas with a major restructuring or be shown the door as a post-June 1 cut.
There are some considerable resources poured into this area with last year's additions of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, but that's what good protection will cost. The question is whether or not the protection is good enough.
Tyron Smith, who has a bright future in Dallas and still being paid from his rookie contract, will continue to anchor this line but an upgrade to this unit is necessary. Cutting Free would be a good start but then replacing him becomes more paramount. Jeremy Parnell is in the mix at reasonable dollars but there is nothing behind him.
Bringing in a free agent such as Branden Albert would be costly, but what about Jermon Bushrod to replace Free? Most likely the Cowboys might go the bargain route in free agency, but the draft absolutely needs to produce some depth in 2013. The interior of this line will be the target.
Prospects such as Barrett Jones, Jonathan Cooper, Chance Warmack and Justin Pugh would be ideal.
Jason Witten is worth every penny that his contract calls for, but he'd probably be the first player in line to restructure if needed. That's a product of his leadership skills and his commitment to the team concept. Witten carries an $8 million cap figure, John Phillips is a free agent and James Hanna is entering the second year of his rookie contract as a sixth-round pick.
Witten definitely holds the lion's share of the resources in this area, but it's time for Hanna to emerge as another threat in this offense and take the load off of Witten. With the cap situation being as tight as it is and many needs to fill, it doesn't appear that the Cowboys will go the free-agency route.
It would be nice to add a player like Delanie Walker, Brandon Myers or Ben Watson but unless some major flexibility arises, the likely scenario looks more like Witten in his current role, developing James Hanna and the possible return of John Phillips as depth at a low cost.
The draft could be an alternative, but there are just too many needs on this team right now with higher priority.
Miles Austin is in a similar position to Doug Free in terms of creating financial flexibility in 2013. With Dez Bryant enjoying a breakout year and being on the cusp of greatness, the Cowboys have to weigh Austin's cap figure of $8,302,000 to a much bigger picture.
Cutting him may not be the answer because you can never have enough weapons on offense, but restructuring his deal is a must. Austin's original contract was the crux of the Cowboys' salary cap penalty situation from last season but he still remains a talented player.
Dez Bryant carries a cap figure at just under $3 million and the Cowboys need to start thinking about locking him up long term. Players such as Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasely represent young and inexpensive depth that the Cowboys need to develop.
There is no room in free agency for players like Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe or Mike Wallace, but maybe a Julian Edelman or Donnie Avery entice the Cowboys to add to the mix. This will all depend on how many dollars become available and what influence Jason Garrett has in this process.
I still see free agency as a remote possibility at best but it is remote. The Cowboys could always target a Marquis Goodwin from Texas in the draft or consider other mid-to-late-round prospects. Remember, Jerry Jones likes skill positions and Garrett's specialty is offense (I think), so this could get interesting.
The defensive line really carries with it major implications for a variety of reasons. The move to a 4-3 defense immediately puts this position under a microscope in terms of having enough talent and the Cowboys' biggest free-agent decision, which is Anthony Spencer, has even bigger implications.
Re-signing Spencer remains a hopeful proposition in Dallas, but if he were to return then it would be as a 4-3 defensive end playing opposite of DeMarcus Ware. Those would be really solid bookends, but Spencer's cost would be quite significant coming off a year where, at times, he was the best defensive player on the field for Dallas.
Spencer is another key to the entire offseason for the Cowboys. Letting him walk and going with the current group of defensive linemen would almost automatically cement the need for another impact defensive end in the first round of the draft.
Another option would be to allocate Spencer's money to a free agent such as Chicago's Henry Melton and reunite him with Rod Marinelli. He is younger than Spencer and would fill a huge need at defensive tackle. The Cowboys must consider the futures of Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent as well in their decision-making process.
This could mean Dallas pursues less profile free agents such as Terrance Knighton, Israel Idonije or even Chris Canty. Regardless of these facts, the defensive line will most likely be addressed in the draft with at least two picks.
The Cowboys possess a pair of young, stud linebackers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The downside is that when both of these players are not on the field, the ripple effect is felt throughout the defense. Sean Lee should be due for an extension in the near future, Carter is probably not too far behind and DeMarcus Ware is usually an annual target for restructuring.
2013 will probably be the same in terms of Ware, but he will also be moving to defensive end. Should Spencer return, and move to defensive end as planned, the Cowboys would have some openings for both contributors and depth. Young players such as Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber would be given an opportunity to shine and would be inexpensive.
But the Cowboys should and probably will highly consider a veteran to add to the mix. They could re-sign Ernie Sims at a decent price or pursue free agents such as Bryan Thomas, Erik Walden, Nick Barnett, Manny Lawson or Jonathan Casillas.
In order for this to happen, the Cowboys must make a decision on a player like Dan Connor who carries a $4,350,000 cap figure. He's a capable backup and decent depth option, but does the shift to a 4-3 make sense for his skill set?
The Cowboys have some decisions to make here in relation to the shift in philosophy. Speed and being able to pursue sideline-to-sideline are key to this defense for the linebacker position. Coverage ability and dropping into deeper coverages also have to be considered.
This is a perfect opportunity for the Cowboys to improve this position in the draft more so than free agency and that's what they will do.
With the trio of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick under contract for significant money, cornerback will not be an area of major concern or additional resources in 2013. Of course depth is always an issue and you can never have enough cornerbacks, but players like Sterling Moore will have to step up and serve as depth.
It would be ignorant to think injuries will not occur, but the strategy at cornerback will probably be a wait-and-see approach in terms of both free agency and the draft. The Cowboys will probably keep their eyes on the second and third tiers of veterans such as a Bradley Fletcher, Jacob Lacey, Chris Owens, D.J. Moore or Zachary Bowman.
As far as the draft, this is where the notion of watching for falling talent comes into play. The Cowboys might not be specifically looking for a cornerback but one might fall into their laps. It's up to them to identify and recognize the opportunity.
This is an area where the Cowboys must get creative due to the need at the position. Gerald Sensabaugh and a healthy Barry Church are slated as the starters as of right now but depth became a concern and it continues to be one due to health reasons.
Church will be coming back from Achilles surgery and Matt Johnson will in essence be a redshirt rookie. Johnson is the wild card in the safety equation and will get a chance to compete for a significant role. Danny McCray is a restricted free agent and will probably return for depth and his special teams prowess.
Sensabaugh and Church are signed long term but are not breaking the bank. Again, with cap room very tight, it will be interesting to see what the Cowboys do in free agency but I have to believe they will look at the veteran pool in a bargain variety.
One option would be to bring back Charlie Peprah, who was signed as a free agent during the season for depth. Other free-agent targets could be Corey Lynch, Chris Clemons, Jamarca Sanford, Louis Delmas and Patrick Chung. Any of those candidates could be cap-friendly while also adding competition to the mix.
The draft seems like the better option in terms of this position and there are prospects such as Eric Reid, Duke Williams, Zeke Motta, T.J. McDonald and Jonathan Cyprien who could be potential targets. The Cowboys need to identify and develop another young safety and this appears to be the logical route.
The only decision here centers around the free agency of L.P. Ladouceur. His abilities as a long-snapper go unnoticed and unappreciated but he represents a significant signing as long as the cap allows so. The key here has to do with allocating resources the most efficient way. For now, expect the Cowboys to do just enough to bring him back.
Kicker Dan Bailey has been very efficient, his contract status and his job are both secure and he is a low-cost bargain. The Cowboys have Chris Jones as a punting option and will probably add a few punters into the mix for competition purposes. There are always veterans ready for duty should the need arise.
The key to the entire offseason is at the mercy of the cap management situation the Cowboys currently face. It will take creativity, tactful planning and hard work to not only manage the level of the cap but to also allow the Cowboys to prosper as a team.
Things should get interesting rather quickly. Start crunching those numbers, Jerry!!