Football.com - everything football

Sizing Up The Cowboys' Plans

By



The status of RT Doug Free might be biggest concern on the Cowboys offseason agenda, but it's certainly not the only one. Photo by Larry French/Getty Images.
The status of RT Doug Free might be biggest concern on the Cowboys offseason agenda, but it's certainly not the only one. Photo by Larry French/Getty Images.

The Dallas Cowboys front office has been subtly tipping its draft intentions throughout free agency, using slow, deglamorized spates of restructured contracts and low-key signings as clues. With the 2013 NFL Draft fast approaching, fans can finally do what fans do best: sit back, conclusively connect the dots and debate whether the team’s agenda actually reflects its needs.

The bigger picture has been clarified. At a fundamental level and in varying degrees of urgency, Dallas needs an athletic offensive lineman who can anchor the right side, a defensive tackle who can dominate the run, a safety with deep-pattern cover skills and a bashing, third down-like running back.

The beauty of this list is that minus the first item, it’s fodder for argument. While the Cowboys have committed to Ryan Cook, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings via renegotiated contracts, they’ve been vague about plans for embattled RT Doug Free. With his $10.2 million price tag, Free’s name has surfaced in way too many negative headlines and discussions for his status to remain unchanged. He could be released after June 1 to allocate dead money over another year or relegated to a backup role. 

Either way, it’s messy. If Free remains a Cowboy by acquiescing a pay cut, his reputation has been smeared by offseason speculation. Regardless of where he plays next year, Free will face enormous pressure, and his coach’s finger will be perpetually hovering over the “eject” button.

As for the draft, numerous teams — Cleveland, Arizona, Miami, Tennessee and Buffalo — have questions surrounding their starting quarterbacks. With very few quarterbacks in this year’s class projected to be first-rounders, those clubs may address their biggest positional concern indirectly by swooping up a lineman.

The working theory is that the top offensive guards, mainly Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, will be consequences of this circumstance before Dallas can get to them. Furthermore, negotiations with former Chiefs OT Eric Winston, a top blocker poised to be the prize signing of 2013, seem to have hit the skids.

DT Sheldon Richardson out of Missouri and DT Sylvester Williams from North Carolina are feasible options for Dallas’ No. 18 pick as they represent a position with major concerns. Jay Ratliff will be 32 by September, and has been hobbled by injuries. Jason Hatcher will be 31, and has had minimal reps on the line’s interior.

As for channeling management’s thinking, franchising Anthony Spencer to lock him in as the second defensive end — Hatcher’s old position — implies Dallas has confidence in Hatcher as an inside lineman. Signing veteran Will Allen suggests the Cowboys aren’t hanging their draft day hats on Texas S Kenny Vaccaro. Re-signing Ernie Sims and acquiring Justin Durant ensures healthy competition and production at strongside linebacker.

Put it all together, and your major liabilities are down to Doug Free, both health and experience at defensive tackle and running back depth. That’s a list that can be fully checked off by May. Persuade Free to take less money rather than testing the market as an aging player coming off a terrible season, and try to coach him back to his 2010 form. Make a play for a higher selection, and lock down some talent at defensive tackle or running back.

Whatever their prevailing strategy might be, the Cowboys need to think short-term. They’ve committed, both in word and deed, to these players. They need immediate redemption; they need to win with this group.

Dallas football has achieved enormous, unprecedented brand equity and entertainment value under Jerry Jones. But if those accomplishments continue to be plagued by pricy yet misguided transactions and the shattered confidence of fans, what’s the point?