The sides reportedly are this close on a new collective bargaining agreement, and virtually everyone involved in the NFL in some capacity and everyone who covers the league seems to think a deal is imminent, sooner rather than later. How soon is anybody's guess, but optimism is high.
Be prepared: when the lockout is lifted, all hell is going to break loose. It is widely believed that the owners will have a 72-hour window in which to re-sign their own free agents. Three days? In a normal offseason, that process takes weeks, if not months. Then teams will scramble to sign veteran free agents and undrafted rookies (and don't think for a minute there will be a wave of drawn-out negotiations — those conversations will consist of, "Hi, this is the GM of Team X, we like you and here's what we're offering — take it or leave it"). Last on the urgency list will be the drafted rookies, because those are players for whom teams don't have to outbid each other.
Specifically for the Cowboys, what are the first orders of business once the team returns to Valley Ranch and tries to squeeze an entire offseason into a few weeks?
1. Evaluate health
That might sound like a cop-out answer, but this year more than in any other in recent memory, that will be vital. It's quite possible that while the media spotlight understandably centers on head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo and linebacker DeMarcus Ware — each of whom must perform at a high level for the Cowboys to enjoy a successful 2011 season — it is quite possible that nobody in the entire organization will be more important than Mike Woicik, who returns this year for his second stint as the Cowboys' head strength and conditioning coach after stints in New Orleans and New England.
The days of fat guys showing up for training camp with the intent of practicing their way back into shape are long gone, but while many players have been training, and even taking part in the player-organized workouts, that is not the same as undergoing real NFL practices. The league is allowing teams to invite more players — probably somewhere around 90 — to camp, which is vital this year, because there will be more strained hamstrings, twisted ankles and sore knees than in a usual offseason. Yes, most players work out year-round, but without OTAs and mini-camps, even the players who work out the hardest on their own are behind.
2. Sign Doug Free
If teams do, in fact, get a chance to re-sign their own players without other teams being allowed to try to swoop in and start poaching players from other rosters, getting Free's signature on the dotted line is paramount. His 2010 season started with many calling him nothing more than a temporary, stop-gap fill-in, but ended with many calling him the team's best offensive lineman. Yes, first-round draft pick Tyron Smith is an über-athletic player for the position, but he is not ready to take over as a starting left tackle. Free more than held his own in his first year as a starter. Stephen Jones has said Free is the team's top priority, which is a good thing — he should be.
3. Sign Gerald Sensabaugh
Whether this one happens remains to be seen, as there is ample speculation that Sensabaugh will go elsewhere in pursuit of big money and considerable doubt that the Cowboys want to spend that kind of cash on a safety. If Sensabaugh demands big bucks — like $5 million or more per season (he made just over $1.8 million in 2010) — chances are good that the Cowboys will let him walk. The team was generally pleased with 2010 rookies Barry Church and Danny McCray, but with 2010 free safety Alan Ball moving back to cornerback and the threat of Sensabaugh leaving, the team likely will be active in its pursuit of a veteran free agent. Dallas didn't make a move at the position in a draft that was woefully weak at the safety positions, in part because team officials reportedly have interest in a number of free agents, including Quintin Mikell (Philadelphia), Roman Harper (New Orleans), Dawan Landry (Baltimore), Eric Weddle (San Diego) and former Cowboy Abram Elam (New York Jets).
4. Sign at least one veteran defensive end
Four defensive ends — Igor Olshansky, Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher — got the bulk of the snaps last season, and all except Olshansky were playing on one-year contracts. So Spears, Bowen and Hatcher all are free agents now, and with Dallas expected to be over the salary cap when the lockout is lifted, it is expected that at least one, or maybe two, of the three free agents will be encouraged to take a massive paycut or seek employment elsewhere. Spears has the marquee name, but even though defensive ends don't rush the passer nearly as much in a 3-4 defense like the one Dallas runs than in a 4-3, eight sacks in six seasons is not enough for a former first-round draft pick. The guess here is that Bowen or Hatcher will be signed and end up starting across from Olshansky. Bowen appears to be the most likely to be retained, although the team would like to keep two of the three, and would be thrilled if Bowen and Hatcher agree to cap-friendly deals. Spears actually was the least expensive of the three last year — he made a little over $1.2 million in 2010, while Hatcher and Bowen played under one-year contracts that paid each a little over $1.75 million — but all three can expect a considerable raise in 2011. It's just very unlikely all three will be earning their paychecks in Dallas.
5. Make a decision on Roy Williams
Even before the bizarre incident in which Williams mailed an engagement ring and marriage proposal, there was ample reason to wonder if he'll be back in Dallas. The enigmatic wideout has the combination of size and speed and talent that teams covet, but his performance has been inconsistent. On a team that also includes Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, Williams clearly is at best the No. 3 wide receiver, which is below expectations for a player whose contract calls for him to earn an additional $20.4 million over the next three seasons. If the Cowboys — whose payroll is somewhere between $15-20 million over the salary cap that is predicted by many to be somewhere in the range of $120 million — have any dreams of adding former Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, they will need to dump a lot of expensive players, one of whom surely would be Williams. But even if they cling to some level of fiscal sanity and sidestep Asomugha, Williams would face questions about his contract and his future on a daily basis until a move is made or until owner Jerry Jones comes out and announces Williams will be around for the 2011 season. Sixth-round draft pick Dwayne is a talented, versatile receiver who can play a number of different positions within the offense, and the team still has Kevin Ogletree, Jesse Holley, Manuel Johnson and former track star Teddy Williams. If none can do the job, the team still could save money on a number of veteran free agents. This is not to say Williams should go, but the team will need to make a decision as soon as possible.
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