Based on reports, the Dallas Cowboys have been flirting with free-agent right tackle Eric Winston for well over a week, which means there's a good chance we'll have to wait for the NFL draft to unfold before we get a feel for who might start for the 'Boys at right tackle in 2013.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones admitted on a Dallas radio station on Tuesday that Winston is still a candidate for that job, even though from my perspective it seems that the two parties won't come to an agreement until the Cowboys have received their draft results.
Makes sense, but it's another sign that Dallas isn't quite ready to give up on Doug Free.
The Cowboys have to know that Winston's value will increase after the draft, when those who weren't able to land the tackle(s) they desired will become more desperate and more willing to pay someone like Winston the $3-4 million per year that he desires.
Dallas isn't desperate now, though. Or at least not desperate enough to fork over that kind of cash when they're still inevitably going to be on the hook for the remaining $6 million worth of Free's signing bonus if or when they release the much-maligned veteran.
The Cowboys can spread that cash out if they cut Free on June 1, but Winston and fellow veteran free-agent right tackle Andre Smith aren't expected to still be on the market at that point. That's why it makes a lot more sense for the team to shoot for a tackle in the draft and then make this decision. Too much rides on it financially.
In the best-case scenario, somebody like Lane Johnson drops to the Cowboys in the No. 18 spot—they draft him, they cut Free to save $4 million against the 2013 cap on June 1 and they don't have to pay a premium for Winston or Smith.
In the worst-case scenario, they don't land a starting-caliber right tackle in the draft. As a result, they can't afford Winston and Smith when teams that also missed on starting-caliber right tackles come knocking, and are stuck once again with Free and Jermey Parnell manning the right side of the line.
I don't think the gap between the two scenarios is enough for them to rationalize gambling on Winston now in order to ensure that the worst-case scenario can't unfold. And I think that's because they're holding on to a belief that Free can still play.
Stephen Jones told 105.3 FM in Dallas on Tuesday:
We certainly haven't dismissed Doug. We really felt like when we went to rotating him and Jermey Parnell that he really picked up his game in terms of the competition, not to mention the fact that I think he got some clarity as to what [offensive line coach] Bill Callahan was after.
Jones has a point. Here, for example, is Pro Football Focus' breakdown of Free's ratings by week last season. I've circled the part of the year in which Parnell was stealing about one third of his snaps at right tackle.
The question is whether or not that was too little, too late after Free was terrible for much of 2011 and 2012. Did a light come on for that final month? And if it did, will it only stay on if he continues to share some of his snaps with Parnell?
The Cowboys have become famous for hanging on too long to players like this, and they've also become famous recently for neglecting to address a lackluster offensive line. Free fooled them with a breakout 2010 campaign, and he might have done so again with a decent finish to 2012.
Will they hang on again? If so, there's a good chance they'll regret it. Considering, though, that they're short on cap space and can only control so much during the draft, their hands are at least somewhat tied.
If they do get fooled again, the shame will lie squarely on the Joneses, just as a former president from Texas put it so eloquently.
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