- Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- With the Cowboys’ season over, this will be the final weekly version of Five Wonders, but we’ll continue an occasional series throughout the offseason.
These Wonders are about the future:
** I wonder how much turnover this roster will see. Of the 16 unrestricted free agents, I don’t know if there is a lock to return. Anthony Spencer is not a lock, though the team wants him back badly. Then there will be salary-cap decisions that could be made on guys like Doug Free, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Dan Connor, Lawrence Vickers and possibly even Miles Austin and/or Orlando Scandrick. That’s 23 guys right there. You figure on a lot of turnover every year, but this offseason figures to involve more regular contributors than just down-the-line guys. The Austin case could be interesting. He is scheduled to make $6.7 million in base and count $8.3 against the cap. I’m not advocating getting rid of him by any stretch, but there is frustration over at Valley Ranch. Austin finished with 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns, but he was slowed again by hamstring injuries and was knocked out of both Washington games because of injuries. While it would not be cap prohibitive to cut Austin, the Cowboys do not have a receiver ready to replace him, and it would be hard to find a guy who can play outside and inside the way he does. Like everybody else on the roster, 2013 will be a key year for Austin.
** I wonder how the Cowboys can pay Spencer. As noted before the Cowboys wil,l be in a difficult salary-cap situation and will have to make a lot of decision related to money. I’m not sure they will have enough to keep Spencer before he hits the open market. And I would figure a team will be ready to give him more than what the Cowboys can afford. Spencer is coming off a career-high 11-sack season and he is one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL. I do wonder if he can be a star for a defense, the way DeMarcus Ware is a star, or is more of a supporting actor. San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks signed a six-year deal worth a max of $44.5 million last year ($37.5 million actual) with $17.5 million guaranteed. The Cowboys paid Spencer $8.8 million this season on the franchise tag. It would be $10.6 million if they tag him again and that’s a lot to budget for in a cap crunch. Signing him to deal with an average of $8 million-plus would be good, but another team flush in space in need of a strong-side outside linebacker who never comes off the field will probably pay more.
** I wonder if there is a chance Felix Jones returns in 2013. Stop laughing and hear me out. Jones is what he is: a backup. The Cowboys will need a backup running back in 2013 and one with the ability to start if needed, especially given the health issues DeMarco Murray has had his first two years. Is it worth it to keep Jones for two more years at low money? I’m not talking anything substantial at all. Jones is not going to get a chance to be a starter anywhere else on the free-agent market. He hasn’t shown he is that guy. But he’s not a bad option as a backup, and, yes, I realize health is an issue for him too. He’s proven to be tough, playing 2011 with a shoulder injury and this season with two bad knees. The Cowboys like Lance Dunbar but, to me, he’s more of a niche back. We can say the Cowboys can draft a runner late and find a guy, but there are so many needs that keeping Jones on a low-money, short-term deal might make more sense. OK, continue laughing.
** I just talked about player turnover. I wonder about coaching turnover. Jason Garrett would not get into whether the coaching staff would return in 2013, calling it premature. It makes you wonder if changes are coming. Is Rob Ryan safe? Garrett admired how Ryan worked through so many injuries in 2012 and kept things competitive, but he stopped short of a vote of confidence. Even after the loss to the Redskins, Ryan made it sound as if he might not be back when asked if he would like to coach this defense at full strength going forward. Let’s move on to special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. Last year, Oakland was denied permission to speak with him about a move to the Raiders, but that special teams’ job has opened again. DeCamillis and Oakland coach Dennis Allen are great friends. There could be a few new head coaches who would like to speak to DeCamillis. The special teams’ units had some poor moments with a blocked punt for a touchdown at Seattle and a kickoff return for a score at Baltimore. The kick return game didn’t provide much of a lift, but Dwayne Harris proved to be a tremendous punt returner and Dan Bailey was Dan Bailey. On offense, John Garrett, Skip Peete, Wade Wilson and Wes Phillips have been around since 2007. Just wonder if there has to be some moves to break up the band, so to speak.
** The last Wonder will focus on the draft. I wonder if the Cowboys will help the offensive and defensive lines come April. They need help. They also need to look at how they evaluate players in those spots, especially on the offensive line where they have missed on just about everybody not named Tyron Smith. Since Garrett has taken over they have done a better job of taking the “right kind of guys,” and have put together a growing young nucleus. They need interior line help on both sides of the ball. If Spencer leaves, then they need an outside linebacker. They will need cornerback help, too, with Mike Jenkins unlikely to return. If you want to add a safety to the list, OK, but to me, that’s not a top-end priority. They can use a tight end to pair with Jason Witten, even though they like James Hanna’s development. They can use wide receivers too. A running back, too. I haven’t mentioned a quarterback of the future yet, and I’m not sure they go that route with so many more pressing needs to fill. Because of the poor drafts in the Wade Phillips’ Era, the Cowboys do not have much depth (think the 2009 draft). Because of the upcoming cap limitations the Cowboys can’t miss on their picks.