Not-So-Free Agents

In recent years, the offseason has been one of the most fun times of the year for Cowboys fans...

In recent years, the offseason has been one of the most fun times of the year for Cowboys fans – partly because of the team's willingness to overspend in the fantasy football world of player acquisition, and partly because of the December swoons that have become almost expected in recent years. When owner Jerry Jones and general manager Jerry Jones get together, offseason player acquisition often seems to rely on a list of criteria that somehow doesn't include things like research and logic.

When it comes to personnel decisions, the Cowboys are anything but bashful. The criteria might change from one year to the next – get younger and faster one year, and then go out and try to squeeze a year or two out of a nearly-over-the-hill pro the next – but whatever the plan is, the Cowboys are aggressive in their efforts to execute it. Because of that, predicting where the team will go in free agency is little more than the proverbial shot in the dark. Considering every "expert insider" out there has the team going after different targets, speculation is just that – speculation.

Two factors weigh heavily on the team's offseason plans: money under the salary cap – of which the team doesn't have a lot – and the team's decision to continue to try to make a Super Bowl run now, rather than gut the team of expensive veterans and start building with younger, cheaper players.

Most "capologists" seem to think Dallas will have just a few (5-7) million under the cap … and that's before the team signs star linebacker DeMarcus Ware to what likely will be the richest contract ever given to a defensive player in the history of the NFL. Locking him up long-term will cost the team a fortune, and will eat away at the available money the team has to spend. Some players will be cut to create a little more financial flexibility, but the team will not go on a spending spree that reshapes the team. So scratch the marquee names off the Dallas wish list, and look instead for the lower- and mid-level free agents as potential additions.

But it's clear that Jones has no interest in dismantling his collection of high-priced veterans to improve the team's financial flexibility – and thereby reduce the chances for another run to the top of the standings in the near future. There are several veterans he could jettison who would cost the team a short-term financial hit but also would free up some money for a ore aggressive approach in free agency: as of mid-January, the team still has (safety) Roy Williams, Zach Thomas, Brad Johnson and of course, Terrell Owens. Dumping those four alone would give the team enormous financial flexibility – even with the cap hits involved – but ditching the talent and experience those four have would signal a shift in team philosophy, as well.

Jones isn't about to open the new stadium with a "building for the future" message to the media and fans. He doesn't see the team's new home as merely the next place where the team will play – he sees it as a shrine to his team and its place in the hierarchy of football and sports. He'll pay close attention – and maybe be in attendance – when the Yankees move into their new mega-stadium in New York, and he's going to want the Cowboys' first season in their new home to be just as huge. Jones is not a ribbon-cutting guy … he's a fireworks and jet-flyover showman. To make an entire season into a celebration event, you don't cut guys like Owens, who draw headlines and sell jerseys, in order to promote someone like Miles Austin or Isaiah Stanback into more of a leading role, even if the team's coaches think those players might be ready for to play a bigger part in the team's fortunes going forward.

For at least one more year, the upcoming season is about selling and visibility and attention, as much as it is about winning and losing. Jones had no choice but to dismiss Pacman Jones, but make no mistake, Jerry Jones wants to win, and wants star players to help his team win. He has few peers as a businessman, and he understands that to sell the expensive seats (not to mention the luxury suites) at the new shrine, selling and star power are of equal importance.

So before determining which free agents the Cowboys should pursue, consider their main needs:

• Strong safety: Roy Williams has been in decline for a couple of seasons, and when teams force him into coverage, he gets exposed repeatedly. He remains very effective against the run and on the rare occasions when he is asked to rush the passer, but he is entering his eighth season – he'll be 29 at the start of the season – and is simply a liability in pass coverage, and offenses are sophisticated enough now that they are able to force him into one-on-one coverage.

• Inside linebacker: Thomas, who turns 36 in September, is one of the league's elder statesmen, especially for his position. It's not unusual for kickers, and sometimes quarterbacks to play as long as he has (next season will be his 14th in the NFL), but for a linebacker, he is a rarity. He still runs better than most realize, he's an exceptionally smart player, and he remains a violent hitter and sure tackler. However, he has had issues in the past with concussions, and his remaining days as a player are few. He still is a very valuable player, when healthy, but an heir apparent has to be ready to step in.

• Backup quarterback: Brad Johnson has been a solid player for a lot of years, and might well make a good coach in the future. But when Tony Romo's broken finger forced Johnson into the game, it was clear that his desire to play had outlived the life in his throwing arm. He's fine if his role is to hold for kicks and then carry a clipboard while wearing a cap on the sideline, but it is time for the team to find a reliable replacement as Romo's backup.

• Wide receiver: Owens remains one of the most talented receivers in the league, but the off-field drama came from too many sources to be "all made up," as he claimed, and a No. 1 receiver – even if his starting quarterback sits out three games – has to be counted on to come up with more than two games of 100 or more yards. Whether the other Roy Williams can step one day into the role of No. 1 receiver remains to be seen, so the team has to find another reliable option. Considering the money invested in Owens and Williams, however, it would be shocking to see the team sign a receiver. Expect the other receiver spots to be filled by the group already on the roster, including Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin, maybe Stanback, etc.

If Dallas goes after any free agents at all after backing the Brinks truck up to Ware's door, strong safety has to be the first priority. Some free agents aren't reasonable (no way Brian Dawkins leaves Philadelphia to join the Eagles' most hated rival), while others (like Baltimore's Dawan Landry) aren't financially possible … and it's highly unlikely that the Ravens let Laron's brother get out on the open market, anyway, as he and Ed Reed might well be the best safety tandem in football.

Stay tuned to part II coming your way on tomorrow!

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