Are the Cowboys dragging their feet?

When it comes to free agents, Dallas owner Jerry Jones has a reputation for being aggressive. When a player Jones covets — either on another team or one of his own players — becomes available, he normally goes right after him.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but in such situations, Jones never has been viewed as a patient man.

That history makes the Cowboys' current patience particularly surprising, and that same patience could prove costly.

Yes, it's true that the team is handcuffed by the NFL's free agency restrictions on the final eight teams in the playoffs, requiring final-eight teams to sign only free agents whose salary is in the same financial ballpark as any departing free agents; Dallas has yet to lose a player, and subsequently can't go on a massive shopping spree.

But what is preventing the team from signing its own free agents? Again, it's unclear how eager team officials are to re-sign the likes of offensive lineman Duke Preston or even safety Pat Watkins, but that doesn't explain why wide receiver Miles Austin hasn't been signed. In fact, it sounds like Austin's representatives have had minimal contact with the team to discuss the parameters of a long-term contract.

Austin is not a player the Cowboys can afford to lose. Take him out of that offense, and there is no deep threat. Jason Witten is as good as it gets on short and intermediate routes, especially down the middle of the field, but are there are any cornerbacks (or defensive coordinators) out there who are sweating bullets about Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton and Kevin Ogletree and Sam Hurd burning them for an 80-yard score? Of course not. That's not saying they're not talented players; they are. But they are not elite vertical threats. They are not players who can score just about any time they get the ball, from anywhere on the field.

Austin poses that threat. Without him, Tony Romo becomes a less dangerous quarterback. Witten and the other wideouts become less potent, as the defense can creep forward to make the short and intermediate routes a little more congested, while having a similar effect on running lanes, too.

Austin is a restricted free agent who received a first- and third-round tender from the team, which assures him a salary of nearly $3.17 million — a salary he would like to never get, preferring instead to sign a long-term deal. Such an agreement will cost the team far more in annual salary — maybe somewhere in the $7-8 million range — but probably not as high as the cost will be if Austin forces the team to slap him with the "franchise player" tag in years to come.

The deadline for teams to sign other teams' players to offer sheets is April 15, and there is speculation around the league that a couple of teams might be waiting until right before the deadline to offer Austin a deal that they hope the Cowboys can't match. The possibilities include a contract with a "poison pill" clause — perhaps a clause that guarantees the maximum amount of the deal if he plays more than two games in the state of Texas in any year of the contract.

If such a contract were loaded with such a clause, would Jones take on a financial commitment if it were … double what he otherwise was prepared to pay? What if the Cowboys allowed an NFC East team signed Austin (and there are rumors going around the league that both the Redskins and Giants are considering it), declined to match the contract because of some creative clause(s), and then got to watch Austin light up the Dallas secondary?

There aren't a lot of Dallas players that simply can not be allowed to walk when their contracts are up. DeMarcus Ware is one, and Jones got Ware's signature on the dotted line. Witten is another, and yes, Austin is now on that list.

Jones and the Cowboys have the money, and the upcoming season will be played without a salary cap. Even if he ends up paying a little more than he thinks is fair market value, he can afford it. He makes money by turning the lights on in the morning at his team's new stadium.

Jones can afford to pay Austin what it will take to keep him in Dallas, and he can't afford to watch his best receiver skip town. Procrastination is not helping either side, and could end up being the genesis of hurt feelings if the process drags on.

It's time to get a deal done.

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