The Dallas Cowboys, like all teams in the NFL, have their share of holes—but there's fewer than some seem to think. Between every hole should be something solid that represents some degree of strength or confidence. Perhaps foundation is the right word.
Dallas definitely has some foundation going on, but keeping it in place will soon be a financial challenge for a team that presently sits right beneath the salary cap.
After the mega-extension for quarterback Tony Romo earlier this offseason, it's been easy to forget that the Cowboys will have other future financial obligations very soon. Now, soon doesn't exactly mean this summer, this year or even next.
However, the clock is ticking.
As starting right tackle Doug Free has agreed to drastically reduce his previously scheduled $7 million salary for 2013, Dallas may have taken the first step towards planning for its financial future.
It's been learned that spending heavily in free agency generally doesn't translate into championship contention. The Cowboys learned this last year, especially with the signing of free-agent offensive guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. Furthermore, the signing of cornerback Brandon Carr did next to nothing to differentiate the Cowboys from last season and the one before.
Yes, it's best to build through the draft and also to focus on guys who have been playing on your team for a few years. This philosophy hasn't generally been employed very well by the Cowboys despite having tried to lock up some of their own players long-term in recent years.
Free is a perfect example. His 2011 contract extension was the right idea, but he was simply the wrong player. I would suggest that wide receiver Miles Austin is another example of a player that showed ability, but certainly not long enough to rake in a guaranteed $18 million back in 2010.
But here's four players that will be in position to break the bank known as owner and general manager Jerry Jones not too far down the road. These players are ranked in the order of how quickly they'll be considered for lucrative extensions.
All contract data courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Receiving the franchise tag for the second straight year, former outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is actually changing positions in 2013. He moves from his career-long gig as outside linebacker in the Dallas 3-4 scheme to defensive end in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's new 4-3 alignment.
Spencer is franchised as a linebacker despite the fact that he's now a defensive lineman—his agent Jordan Woy is well aware of this. The point here is this: Linebackers are cheaper to franchise than defensive linemen.
Due to the explosive cost of franchising Spencer a third straight year, he'll either get a long-term extension this season or he'll be traded—I expect the former.
While I don't believe that giving a guy who's close to 30 an extension that includes a position change is a great idea, I do understand that we're talking about the Cowboys.
Spencer has one season in which he's broken double-digits in sacks. Is this enough to warrant such an investment?
The answer to that question is coming soon, but I strongly advise Dallas to get a look at Spencer on the line before writing a check that could keep the present cap situation rather limited.
Former Penn State linebacker Sean Lee should have among the easier learning curves when adapting to Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. The Nittany Lions employed a similar philosophy when Lee was there and he's also played in some similar fronts while with the Cowboys. Lee offered details to Todd Archer of ESPN just after the hiring of Kiffin following the 2012 regular season:
I don’t think it’s as big a move as people think. We’ve played 4-3 in different situations, even with Coach Phillips and the way the defensive line lined up. There were aspects of the 4-3 there. Now there’s obviously going to be a learning curve and it’s going to be tough and it’s going to take some work, but I think we have the guys that are athletic enough and versatile enough to be able to transition to this 4-3.
If there is one thing holding Lee back, it's the injury bug. Dating back to Penn State, Lee struggled with a torn ACL in 2008 but still managed to finish strong in 2009 and ended up a second-round selection in 2010 that definitely had a first-round grade outside of injury concerns.
In three seasons as a pro, Lee has amassed 134 tackles. Should he stay healthy in 2013, he has the ability to match that total.
Big if, to say the least. Lee has yet to play in 16 regular-season games during any season as a pro.
If the injury bug is finally killed, Lee will immediately command strong consideration for an extension. In fact, this could happen during the coming season given the fact that Lee is an unrestricted free agent following 2013.
You have to keep your cornerstone players—Lee is certainly one of those. His importance to the Dallas defense, moving forward, can be likened to that of retired middle linebackers Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher of Chicago Bears fame.
Bruce Carter hasn't really made the waves that he will as a fixture in the Dallas defensive front.
Like Lee, injuries have limited Carter's impact on the field—not having both down the stretch last year went a long ways towards dooming the Cowboys' playoff chances.
While at North Carolina, Carter was a devastating football player. For as much as Lee has the knack for making big plays, Carter is even faster and more athletic. In his second year in 2012, Carter had clearly just turned the corner as a starting playmaker before getting injured.
Carter has been recently compared to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star linebacker Derrick Brooks. Carter acknowledged to NFL.com contributor Chris Wesseling that he's been studying lots of film of the retired 2002 NFL Player of the Year who played in the Pro Bowl 11 times:
Everybody's just been hitting me with it—Derrick Brooks, Derrick Brooks. That's a good thing. He was always around the ball. He was always flying around. He was a playmaker. He was always in the right position at the right time. That's something I want to do.
Carter is a beast waiting to happen. He blocked an unbelievable eight kicks while with the Tar Heels, and I fully expect Kiffin to utilize Carter in ways he just wasn't in the now-scrapped 3-4 debacle.
Signed for the coming season and the one following, I would expect Dallas to figure out a way to get Carter signed long-term sometime in early 2014—but like Lee, he has to show he can stay healthy through the regular season.
Having traded up to select Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant in the 2010 NFL draft, the Cowboys have held all the leverage regarding the contract status of a player that was a little slower developing than the franchise might have hoped.
Bryant came into the league known to be rather immature, a status he has also displayed since becoming a pro.
Last year looked to be a turning point, however.
During the second half of 2012, Bryant not only showed more maturity than he had previously, but also exploded on the field in ways pretty much everyone knew he could. Bryant's 50 catches for 879 yards in the final eight games last year was about as good as it can get—10 of those catches went for touchdowns as he finished the season with 12.
Bryant is scheduled to earn $1.5 million in 2013 before his contract year the following season.
It's a more than safe bet that if Bryant really pushes 2,000 yards receiving or 20 touchdowns, as has been discussed, he will not be playing for his scheduled $1.7 million salary during the final year of his rookie contract in 2014.
Yes, the leverage has changed and almost completely. Bryant has gone from a super-talented pass-catcher that was more of a liability to an eminent Pro Bowl player.
Barring injury or some kind of serious setback, the Cowboys really only have a matter of months to get Bryant taken care of long-term or risk the possibility of a hold out next season.