Dallas Cowboys Free Agency Primer: What to Expect, What to Watch

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 6, 2013

Dec 16, 2012; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) celebrates stopping the Jacksonville Jaguars on fourth down in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency gets underway on Tuesday, March 12 at 4 p.m. ET, and with the franchise-tag deadline out of the way we're beginning to get a strong feel for who will hit the open market when that time arrives. 

Don't expect the Dallas Cowboys to be major players in the wheeling and dealing that takes place throughout the second half of March, but you know Jerry Jones will find a way to lure at least a few guys to town.

Here's our free agency primer for "America's Team"...

Bank Statement

The Cowboys have already chopped about $25 million in cap money by restructuring contracts belonging to DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Brandon Carr, Jason Witten and Ryan Cook, but because Anthony Spencer and Tony Romo are slated to count $27.4 million against the cap and because they owe the NFL $5 million in sanction money, they're still about $4.5 million over the cap right now. 

Even if they extend Romo, sign Spencer long term and restructure Doug Free, Jay Ratliff, Orlando Scandrick, Nate Livings and Dan Connor, don't expect the 'Boys to have more than $5-10 million to spend on free agents this month. 

Family First

With Mike Jenkins and Kevin Ogletree probably gone, there aren't a ton of in-house free agents the Cowboys have to be concerned with. Kenyon Coleman turns 34 this offseason, so he might be near the end with Spencer likely returning. They're probably going to look to draft Felix Jones' replacement to back up DeMarco Murray.

John Phillips and Ernie Sims will come cheap if Dallas wants them to return as backups, but with James Hanna on board and with the switch to a 4-3 defense, neither will be a major priority. 

The one guy they might want to find money for is Victor Butler, who performed quite well as a backup in 2012 and might be able to contribute from multiple spots in the new D. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, someone else will likely value him more—and pay him more—on the open market.

What The Cowboys Need

Safety: With Gerald Sensabaugh gone and Barry Church no guarantee, safety has become the team's top need for now. 

Right tackle: Doug Free was one of the worst starting tackles in the NFL last season. It's time to move on. If Free sticks around, it has to be at a reduced rate and in either a swing role or as a guard. 

Right guard: Nate Livings is fine on the left side, and if Phil Costa can stay healthy they'll be good at center, but the entire line needs an upgrade to Costa's right, where Mackenzy Bernadeau performed horrendously in 2012. 

Defensive end: Spencer might only be on board for a year (if that), and the Cowboys don't know what they have in 2012 third-round pick Tyrone Crawford. With Ware now on the wrong side of 30 and Butler probably leaving, it's time to start thinking about the next wave of potential stud pass-rushers in Big D.

Defensive tackle: Ratliff and Jason Hatcher might be able to hold it down for now, but there's a decent chance Ratliff gets hurt again. With that being a concern, and with Josh Brent's future undetermined, they'll need reinforcements inside the trenches. 

Running back: Not a major need, but they might be looking to replace Jones, and they could use a better complementary weapon for the oft-injured Murray.

Wide receiver: With Ogletree probably on the way out, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley are the most experienced options after Austin and Dez Bryant. 

What They Can Afford

Safeties: Chris Clemons (Dolphins), LaRon Landry (Jets), Glover Quin (Texans)

Quin's a versatile veteran who is probably a stopgap. Landry has a knack for making plays, which is something the Cowboys are trying to emphasize this season. Clemons will cost the most, but he's also one of the most reliable options about to hit the market. 

Right tackles: Ryan Harris (Texans), Will Svitek (Falcons), King Dunlap (Eagles)

Dunlap would be a disaster, but he's a big body with experience on both sides. Harris started 34 games in four years in Denver and was a solid swing tackle on one of the best offensive lines in football in 2012. He's the next best option if they can't land someone like Andre Smith, Gosder Cherilus, Sebastian Vollmer or Phil Loadholt. Svitek could come cheap after missing 2012 due to injury. He was a pleasant surprise in a relief role the year prior. 

Right guards: Donald Thomas (Patriots), Geoff Schwartz (Vikings), Matt Slauson (Jets), Garrett Reynolds (Falcons)

Thomas has been linked to the Cowboys before. He hasn't been a regular starter in a while but performed well and opened up some nice holes in spot duty with New England in 2012. Slauson is a very good pass-protector, while Reynolds could fly under the radar after missing much of last season due to injury. If they swing and miss on all of those guys, Schwartz would at least be an option to compete with Bernadeau. 

Defensive ends: Darryl Tapp (Eagles), Trevor Scott (Patriots), William Hayes (Titans)

All three have proven that they can be solid rotational 4-3 defensive ends, so if Dallas is looking for support for Ware and Spencer, these options will exist in the right price range. 

Defensive tackles: Sammie Hill (Lions), Terrance Knighton (Jaguars)

Hill's only 26 and has some upside. He can get a solid push from the inside. Knighton is inconsistent but also young and very enticing. Both could have the ability to become starters on this team.

Running backs: Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), Danny Woodhead (Patriots)

Hillis would be a nice change-of-pace option, while Woodhead would be a unique weapon for Tony Romo. Still, they can't afford to overpay for a back at this point, regardless of how much that running game struggled in 2012.

Wide receivers: Mohamed Massaquoi (Browns), Ted Ginn, Jr. (49ers), Braylon Edwards (Jets)

Massaquoi started well before injuries derailed his 2012 campaign. Ginn might be overpaid because of his name and what the Niners did last year, but Edwards might be an interesting one-year signing. 

What They Can Wait For

I wouldn't touch backs or receivers with a 10-foot pole in free agency. The need for safety help is strong enough that they have to address that in both free agency and the draft, but I'd also wait for the draft to address the majority of those trench needs.

If I'm the Cowboys, I'm looking for a potential starting safety and starting offensive tackle in March. The rest can be dealt with in late April.


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