You have to admire the irony. Yet again, football's richest franchise has the least amount of money to spend on players. The Dallas Cowboys have been scratching and clawing merely to squeeze under the salary cap in time for the start of free agency on Tuesday, so don't expect any big splashes from Jerry Jones and Co.
No, if this team is going to somehow become something better than 8-8, it'll have to do so by drafting and grooming good players, rather than buying them.
Still, here's a preview of free agency from Dallas' perspective.
Once nearly $30 million over the projected cap, Dallas has managed to eliminate most of that deficit by restructuring deals belonging to Tony Romo, Orlando Scandrick and Sean Lee. It also helped that the cap rose sharply to $133 million.
There is, however, no wiggle room.
If DeMarcus Ware is indeed released, that'll free up $7.4 million. And Miles Austin's expected release will give them another $5.5 million, but that won't likely hit the books until June 1.
|Cowboys: Top cap hits for 2014|
|1. DeMarcus Ware||31||$16.0M|
|2. Brandon Carr||27||$12.2M|
|3. Tony Romo||33||$11.8M|
|4. Jason Witten||31||$8.4M|
|5. Miles Austin||29||$8.2M|
So the Cowboys, with some more basic restructures and a few small-time cuts, will have enough money to take swings at second- and third-tier players, likely during the second wave of free agency—just as they did with Justin Durant and Will Allen last year.
That's about it.
If they say goodbye to Ware, they could have enough money to re-sign Jason Hatcher or Anthony Spencer, and maybe even both. The two of them should be cheaper, since Hatcher will be 32 in July and Spencer is coming off microfracture surgery.
It's probably time for the Cowboys to start forgetting about players like those, but keeping at least one of those three very talented defensive linemen would probably be a smart decision.
They don't have any other key in-house free agents, aside from maybe veteran guard Brian Waters. But I wouldn't expect to see or hear from him until training camp.
What they need
They'll need some help along that defensive line, especially if they lose all three vets. Throw in that Jay Ratliff is gone, and there's a chance the entire starting defensive line from last preseason will be out of town by the end of March.
Nick Hayden and George Selvie are good players, and Jarius Wynn did enough to earn a new deal. Tyrone Crawford is 24 and still has potential. But that's it.
In addition to that, they need a strong guard who can pass protect and a safety who can come in and compete for a starting role.
Who they should chase
Rob Jackson (OLB, Redskins): Washington might not let him get away, but he's sort of been flying under the radar after a suspension and limited playing time behind Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan in 2013. He could come cheap and play sort of a hybrid edge-rusher/linebacker role in that 4-3.
Vance Walker (DT, Raiders): He's an underrated run-stopper who did a solid job on a one-year deal in Oakland last season. He'd help with depth up front and would probably end up with a starting job.
Husain Abdullah (S, Chiefs): A lot of big-name safeties on the market, so the 28-year-old could be under the radar after doing a solid job as a backup on a one-year contract in Kansas City.
John Jerry or Richie Incognito (G, Dolphins): Bear with me. Both are pariahs after the Jonathan Martin scandal, and both are flawed on the field, but they'll come cheap and might be extremely motivated. Incognito is a strong pass-blocker and Jerry could still have some upside.
What can wait for the draft
Pretty much everything will have to, aside from those potential low-risk investments, which will mainly help with depth. The Cowboys should sign a player or two whom they really like and can get for cheap—the type who can come in and make a push and maybe even surprise us. But that should be it. The rest of their work will be done in May.