Making a Splash in Free Agency

IRVING, TX -- Do the Cowboys need to make a big splash in free agency? Or is a big net and a series of "little splashes'' featuring free agents and draft picks the right way to go? kicks up the rumor mill with several tidbits you've already heard, and several you haven't!

In terms of using the big net, free agency has probably never been done better than when the Cowboys did it 16 years ago. It was a different time and a different place, but as the club eyes the 2006 free-agent crop, it remains worth noting: In 1990, during Plan B free agency, the Cowboys inked 16 NFL veterans who had been discarded by their previous clubs.

Among those 16 were running back Tommie Agee, who became an inspirational leader on title teams; linebacker Vinson Smith, who started on a Super Bowl team and was good enough to bring back for a second stint late in his career; safety James Washington, the native of Watts nicknamed "Drive-By'' who was instrumental to two Super Bowl victories; and tight end Jay Novacek, a real live Cowboy who won three Super Bowls and goes down as one of the greatest Dallas players ever.

And again, that was a collection of free agents their previous teams didn't even want!

Now to 2006. Times, and the system, have changed. The free-agent period begins March 3, and there are few "surprises'' and few "steals'' and no "secrets.'' There are contractual "now-you-see-him-now-you-don't'' tricks expected to be turned by Feb. 23, the last day teams can designate a franchise player.

A brief primer about that: If a club cannot arrive at a long-term contract with a player, it may "franchise-tag" him for a year. The club must pay him the average 2005 salary of the top five players at his position or 120 percent of the player's salary from the previous year, whichever is greater. He can still negotiate with other teams, but his original club may match the offer — or receive two first-round draft choices instead.

And then there is the April 29-30 draft, just two months away.

So let's march forward. A big splash for the Cowboys? Or a net-full of little splashes? To paraphrase Deion Sanders from that old pizza commercial, I say, "Both.'' I'll throw out some names here, to see if they stick:

OFFENSIVE LINE: I said then and say now: the Cowboys will be haunted by the decision to not go bigger-fish last year for Mike Wahl, who is younger and better (though more expensive) than fellow ex-Packer Marco Rivera. And look at Dallas' guard situation now: Rivera and Larry Allen, both just good enough to keep winning the job, both just old enough to always be on the verge of replacement. But do you cut Allen? Do you spend more money there on the primo FA, Seattle guard Steve Hutchinson? No, you just can't.

You can help yourself elsewhere, though. You can use a No. 1 pick on an offensive lineman, a tackle. And you can spend money on center LeCharles Bentley from New Orleans. He's 26, and, not to be too blood-thirsty here, but what do you think are the chances he wants to re-up with the troubled Saints? Oh, a speaking of trouble: how much do the Bills now dislike Mike Williams? The massive Texas product isn't even projected as a Buffalo starter. Dallas ought to do some research here.

WIDE RECEIVER: Start with a big swing for Terrell Owens (who may be Denver-bound). End with a plan to use a mid-round pick on somebody like (one Valley Ranch whisperer tells me) Auburn wide receiver Ben Obomanu. And in between, how about Reggie Wayne of the Colts (all the time fearing that he'll get Alvin Harpered if he leaves Indy, that is; exposed as a guy who is meant to be a No. 2)?

Wayne is 28, and special enough to be a possible Colts franchise player. Wayne, in the last two years, has 160 catches and 2,265 receiving yards. I know we'd need to run this idea by Keyshawn, but. ... Seriously, Dallas may get shut out in terms of chasing an in-his-prime WR in free agency. Which will be unfortunate. So I'd better come up with a wild-card here. Wonder if Issac Bruce is ready for a change of scenery from St. Louis?

QUARTERBACK: Behind Drew Bledsoe, Dallas has nothing but question marks. If San Diego deems starter Drew Brees healthy and retainable, backup Philip Rivers goes on the block. Dallas makes that inquiring phone call. Does Patrick Ramsey still want out of Washington? Ramsey represents a semi-proven upgrade over the Cowboys' existing backups, and also has an upside. And in the draft? I don't know if the Cowboys take one, but I have an educated guess which one they sort of like: Put me down for guessing that eventually, word will leak that the Cowboys give good grades to Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle, projected as the fourth best QB in this draft.

DEFENSE: One big fish, one medium fish, one not so big fish: Jets DE John Abraham has been a sometimes-headache in New York. If the Cowboys really decide to dump someone like Greg Ellis, replacing him with someone like Abraham makes grand sense. Abraham had 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year and is only 28. AND he has Parcells connections. Alas, he's been franchised. Again. So he's out -- unless his dissatisfaction with the Jets leads to trade talk. In which case, Dallas is absolutely involved in discussions.

Easier to do: remember Darren Howard? The Cowboys gave chase to him in trade last April/May. Now he's free -- and coming off a bad year. He'd be a decent consolation prize behind Abraham, ready to bounce back from a 3.5-sack season for the Saints. Yes, the Saints. Not to be too blood-thirsty again, but. ...

I'll give a quick mention to DBs Chris Hope of the Steelers and the Rams' Adam Archuleta (who might end up in Chicago instead of Dallas, so desperate for safety help that they almost pulled guys out of retirement last winter) and to Panthers linebacker Will Witherspoon (a budding star who might be beyond Carolina's price range but also might be too slight for Dallas) and spent more specific time on a smaller fish:

Forgive me if this name has slipped so far under the radar that he's been quietly gobbled up, but I was told to check on ex-Packer Cletidus Hunt. Now, he will earn no screaming headlines. But Hunt is 6-4, 310 pounds, is only 30, and put up some sack numbers as a defensive tackle. Now the bad news: He injured his shoulder and both knees last summer, tried to return to action in the final preseason game, and then got cut. Now, Green Bay folks would tell you he's a problem guy, too. And all things considered, his career might be done. But as small fish go -- he's so small now he was considered a "street free agent,'' as opposed to a coveted one -- he's worth casting a line. (Unless, again, he's been part of a transaction I can't locate.)

KICKER: Spending big bucks on a kicker has never been Jerry Jones' thing. Acknowledging that there is a kicker even on the team has never been Bill Parcells' thing (while in Dallas). But have they both seen enough of Cundiff-Suisham-Cortez-Suisham-Cundiff? Parcells chastised critics last summer by asking them who they think he should've hired to kick. Of course, nobody answered that Paul Edinger was available at one time. We'll see if anyone pursues potential availables like Mike Vanderjagt, Paul Edinger, Joe Nedney, Matt Bryant or's personal favorite, New England's Adam Vinatieri.

See, if you lose a game because Cundiff-Suisham-Cortez missed a kick, it's the boss' fault and heads oughta roll. If you lose a game because Vinatieri missed a kick, you shrug your shoulders and barely sweat it -- because at least you know the organization TRIED to take the position of kicker seriously.

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