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Pre-Draft Predictions For The Cowboys

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Doug Free is a huge cap hit and more dead money than the Cowboys can afford, so Dallas has a lot riding on the 2013 NFL draft. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Doug Free is a huge cap hit and more dead money than the Cowboys can afford, so Dallas has a lot riding on the 2013 NFL draft. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Let’s be clear about the Cowboys’ offseason: it’s all riding on the 2013 NFL Draft.

With free agency marred by perpetual salary cap limitations, the offseason has been little more than a series of re-negotiations for older players — Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware — all in the name of creating financial relief. Tony Romo’s grand slam contract — $119.5 million over seven years with $55 million guaranteed — did shave $5 million off the 2013 books, and Dallas is now roughly $4.5 million under the cap, according to the latest figures.

But thanks to the lockout and new collective bargaining agreement, rookie wages have been smothered. The terms call for NFL newcomers to receive an annually adjusted minimum salary — $480,000 in 2013 — leaving signing bonuses as the primary X-factor in buying a standout rookie’s career loyalty.

The monetary advantages make the premium on a good draft class even higher. But it never hurts to have some extra cash and flexibility, so could we see anything before then?

Doubtful, unless it involves big men and blockers.

RT Doug Free’s lofty, $10.2 million cap hit and troubled 2012 season have rendered his status tenuous at best. The Cowboys could spread the dead money out if they release Free after June 1. But if they’re reluctant to do so, given the overall lack of depth in the trenches, acquiring a proven tackle could at least incentivize Free to restructure his deal. Cutting him still seems the more feasible option.

And there are alternatives: former Chiefs OT Eric Winston is rumored to be on the Cowboys’ radar — Winston is reported to want $3 to $4 million in annual salary — and the Falcons just released veteran Tyson Clabo. No. 3 OT Jermey Parnell, who counts $1.35 million against the cap, could also be released if the Cowboys sign a tackle, then decide to go with experience over youth with their reserves.

The contract of FB Lawrence Vickers is among the few deals of offensive rotation players to remain untouched. Vickers also struggled in 2013, and releasing him would save $1.3 million in cap space and pave the way for drafting a running back.

But again, given the new rookie wage rules, it’s more about capitalizing on the picks than thickening the cash flow. Given the prevalence of quarterback-needy teams heading into the 2013 draft — Cleveland, Jacksonville, Arizona, Tennessee and Miami — there’s some assurance that the Cowboys’ No. 18 pick can still address a thin position: offensive line, safety or running back. But if those teams go elsewhere, look for Jerry Jones to spice up the draft order with a last-minute trade.

In Dallas, blandness and serenity of operation can only go unchecked for so long.