Dallas Cowboys: Eric Winston

Eight in the Box: Offseason regret

July, 12, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC East needed to make but didn't.

Dallas Cowboys: Upgrade at right tackle. The Cowboys believe they improved their offensive line with the first-round draft selection of center Travis Frederick, and they may be right. But the problem is the line needed more help than that. Instead of getting the disappointing Doug Free to take a pay cut and stay, the Cowboys could have explored other options, such as using another early-round pick on a tackle or signing one of the veterans (Tyson Clabo, Eric Winston) who were cut during free agency. Cap issues were one factor, but basically the Cowboys seemed content with the idea of a right tackle platoon or training camp competition between Free and Jermey Parnell. They claim the platoon of that pair worked well late last season, but it's likely the right tackle's play looked good only in comparison to Free's terrible first-half performance.

New York Giants: Anything of consequence at linebacker. Sure, they brought back Keith Rivers. Yawn. And they signed Dan Connor. Double yawn. And they took a chance on Aaron Curry, who was once one of the top prospects in the league but has already washed out with two teams. Interesting, but certainly not a confidence-boosting sign. Mathias Kiwanuka, who was one of their starting linebackers the past two years, will move back up to defensive end to help replace Osi Umenyiora, who left as a free agent. And there are some young guys the Giants brought in as rookies two years ago who may be good enough to play or start. The Giants feel they got stronger up front at defensive tackle and never mind spending on defensive backs, but the middle of the field remains a weakness for them against offenses that are willing to exploit it. Some guys are going to have to outperform expectations at linebacker in 2013.

Philadelphia Eagles: Spend some money on the secondary. The Eagles were the only NFC East team that had cap room to burn. Even though they needed to improve all four starting positions in the secondary, they chose to go the economic route, bringing in uninspiring cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and safety Patrick Chung. Former Giant Kenny Phillips is a premium talent at safety, but they got him inexpensively as well, and the reason is a chronic knee problem that could keep him from ever playing for them. New coach Chip Kelly was looking for physical cornerbacks with the ability to tackle, which is fine, and I can understand that the Eagles felt burned by the way the Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie moves of two years ago worked out. But the moves at defensive back feel like half-measures, and you get the feeling they'll be looking to upgrade the same spots next year. This was a team that should have at least looked into trading for Darrelle Revis, though it would have been hard to justify giving up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft for him.

Washington Redskins: Get Pierre Garcon's foot fixed. This one is on Garcon, of course. The team can't force a player to have surgery if he doesn't want to have surgery. Garcon did have a procedure to repair a shoulder problem, which is good, but it was the torn ligament in his foot that bothered him last season, cost him six games and is at risk of flaring up again if rest didn't cure it completely. Garcon was a hugely valuable part of the Redskins' offense as Robert Griffin III's No. 1 wide receiver. Everyone has heard that the Redskins were 9-1 in regular-season games in which Garcon played. The Redskins' cap problems prevented them from improving the secondary or the offensive line and from keeping special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander. But when they look back on this offseason, their biggest regret may be that Garcon didn't get the foot surgery he needed.
There’s no denying that Doug Free’s four-year, $32 million contract has been dreadful for the Cowboys.

John Lynch joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss playing for Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, why Cowboys fans should be excited about the new defensive staff, why Valley Ranch will no longer resemble a country club and his thoughts on the Cowboys roster.

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Based on his performance the last two seasons, Free would be overpaid if he takes the massive pay cut the Cowboys have proposed. As it is, he’s the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL, which wouldn’t be such a big problem if he wasn’t also one of the least effective last season.

But the Cowboys’ front office isn’t at fault for the Free deal. The Cowboys deserve criticism for a lot of overly generous contracts they’ve given out in recent years, but Free’s deal doesn’t fall in that category.

No reasonable mind questioned the wisdom of locking Free up after the lockout ended in 2011. They really didn’t have much choice. He was a 27-year-old free agent coming off a terrific year in his first season as the starting left tackle. If the Cowboys didn’t give him legitimate left tackle money, the Philadelphia Eagles or Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have.

At the time, it appeared that the offensive tackles would be a strength for the Cowboys for years to come. They had just invested the ninth overall pick in Tyron Smith to replace Marc Colombo at right tackle and maybe make the transition to the left side after Free’s fresh deal expired.

How could the Cowboys have possibly projected Free to regress so drastically during what should have been the prime of his career?

Free went from being Pro Football Focus’ fourth-ranked offensive tackle in 2010 to No. 44 in 2011, resulting in Smith’s move to Tony Romo’s blind side being rushed. As a right tackle in 2012, Free fell all the way down to No. 66.

You can come up with all kinds of theories about what has caused Free’s career to go in reverse. Coaching can’t be solely blamed, however. He took several steps back under Hudson Houck and got worse under Bill Callahan.

The Cowboys’ problem now is that Free has some leverage despite his poor performance since signing the deal. That’s partially because the deal was restructured to free up some money for the Cowboys’ shopping spree last offseason. As a result, the Cowboys wouldn’t gain any cap space by cutting Free now and would create $7 million in dead money if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut.

Plus, the Cowboys don’t have a replacement plan in place. Jerry Jones can pump up Jermey Parnell until he’s blue in the face, but if the Cowboys were that confident in the former Ole Miss basketball player, Free would have spent most of last season watching from the sideline.

The best upgrade option, Tyson Clabo, went off the market when Miami signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, a stark reminder of just how much Free is overpaid. For whatever reason, the Cowboys apparently aren’t so enamored with Eric Winston, a cap casualty in Houston and Kansas City the last two offseasons.

So the Free contract saga drags on. It’s a mess, but it’d be hindsight to hammer the Cowboys’ front office for this one.

Doug Free: Nothing to talk about

May, 8, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Starting right tackle Doug Free said there was nothing to talk about concerning his future with the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday.

The Cowboys have expressed an interest in keeping their starting right tackle, who struggled at times in 2012. Or they could release Free and save $7 million on the salary cap. Another option would be to offer him a pay cut to remain with the team.

"Really nothing to talk about, right now," Free said after participating in a charity home run derby at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. "A lot going on.

"I'm just happy to be here ... but you never know what might happen."

The Cowboys have expressed interest in several tackles, but only Eric Winston remains on the free agent market.
Glenn "Stretch" Smith, Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the latest on Doug Free's role with the Cowboys and the Cowboys' first-round draft pick Travis Frederick.

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Yeah, yeah, I know. The end of Doug Free's time with the Dallas Cowboys was supposed to be one of the foregone conclusions of this offseason, performance and economic reasons combining to eliminate any argument for keeping the free-agent bust around. But the Cowboys didn't take a tackle in the draft, and possible free-agent replacement Tyson Clabo signed with the Dolphins over the weekend. Another possible replacement, Eric Winston, remains unsigned, but as Todd Archer writes for ESPNDallas.com, don't assume the Cowboys are in the market. They may just go with Free and Jermey Parnell at right tackle again:
Had Parnell shown enough to win over the coaches and front office, there would not be this amount of discussion about keeping Free, who struggled in 2012. Over the last few weeks, the Cowboys – well, Jerry and Stephen Jones at least – have made it clear that it is time they start using younger players sooner, the way other teams across the league do.

That’s a fine thing for them to say while a coach like Jason Garrett does everything he can to hang on to a job. He has to win games this year, not necessarily develop players.


The Cowboys lived with Free’s struggles for the first 12 games before finally relenting and putting Parnell at right tackle on every other series. He was OK. Nothing great and not as good as Free down the stretch.

And that’s why the Cowboys – well, at least Stephen Jones – have been emphatic about wanting to keep Free, but at a reduced rate from the $7 million he is scheduled to make this season.

(Permit me a side note, please: If the guys who are deciding the team needs to go with younger players are the same guys who pick the head coach, it'd be pretty tough for them not to factor the first decision into the second, right? But whatever. We'll have time on here to debate Garrett's job security. You guys always seem to think he has less than I think he does.)

Anyway, the point here is about Free, whether there's a spot for him on the team and if so what that spot is. I still don't understand how any none-Jones logic says he should still be in the picture. Todd compares the Cowboys' still having Free on the roster to Linus hanging onto his blanket, but Linus' blanket wasn't a $32 million purchase that turned out to be full of holes as soon as he unwrapped it. Free absolutely has to go, and if the replacement is Parnell or Winston or Max Starks or whoever, they're not going to play worse than Free did in 2012. The stuff about how he got better at the end of the year is bogus, too. Offensive lines always get better as the year goes along, and when you start from where Free did, you only have one direction in which you can go.

If Free is really giving the Cowboys a hard time about a pay cut, then there's no sense in keeping him around. But the Joneses don't like to part with their players or admit mistakes, so the situation remains in limbo. They can't get the savings from cutting him until June 1 anyway, so there's no rush from that end of things. But as other options disappear from the market, you're left with the once-unthinkable idea that Free could be the Cowboys' starting right tackle again in 2013.
IRVING, Texas – If the Cowboys truly believed Jermey Parnell was ready to be their right tackle in 2013, then they would not be holding on to Doug Free the way Linus held on to his blanket.

Glenn "Stretch" Smith, Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the latest on Doug Free's role with the Cowboys and the Cowboys' first-round draft pick Travis Frederick.

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Parnell split the right tackle duties over the final month of the 2012 season. His only start came at left tackle on Thanksgiving when Tyron Smith was hurt and unable to play because of a short week of preparation.

Had Parnell shown enough to win over the coaches and front office, there would not be this amount of discussion about keeping Free, who struggled in 2012. Over the last few weeks, the Cowboys – well, Jerry and Stephen Jones at least – have made it clear that it is time they start using younger players sooner, the way other teams across the league do.

That’s a fine thing for them to say while a coach like Jason Garrett does everything he can to hang on to a job. He has to win games this year, not necessarily develop players.

[+] EnlargeJermey Parnell
AP Photo Tom DiPaceJermey Parnell split right tackle duties with Doug Free over the final month of last season, but the Cowboys seem hesitant to let Free go.
The Cowboys picked up Parnell off New Orleans’ practice squad in 2010 but he was inactive for the 12 games he was on the Cowboys’ roster. In 2011, he played in six games but never took significant snaps.

The Cowboys gave him a $1 million signing bonus before the 2012 draft, hoping he could continue to develop from basketball player at Ole Miss to tackle in the NFL. He was active for every game last season but struggled early in the year when he was asked to play as the No. 3 tight end in short-yardage and goal line situations.

The Cowboys lived with Free’s struggles for the first 12 games before finally relenting and putting Parnell at right tackle on every other series. He was OK. Nothing great and not as good as Free down the stretch.

And that’s why the Cowboys – well, at least Stephen Jones – have been emphatic about wanting to keep Free, but at a reduced rate from the $7 million he is scheduled to make this season.

The Cowboys made only phone calls to the agents for Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo and never really got down the road on negotiations with either player. It’s the same story for Eric Winston.

For better or worse, Free is their guy and Parnell remains a mystery.

Mailbag: How does trade for Austin work?

May, 5, 2013
It's time for our Cowboys weekend mailbag.

Here's the best of the best:

Q: Trading a player. If Terrance Williams shows he's a starter and the Cowboys are comfortable with Dwayne Harris in the slot, then use Miles Austin as the example. If the Boys traded him to another team for a draft pick, what are the rules? Does his entire contract go to the other team? How much are the Boys accountable for? How does a trade like that work? What would be the salary-cap hit for this year and next? David (Florida)

A: The Cowboys are not trading Austin for a couple of reasons: 1. Financial. They just restructured his deal, and NFL teams rarely trade players after that procedure is done. 2. The Cowboys still need him. While yes, Dez Bryant is an emerging talent, the Cowboys have some unproven players in the receiving corps. Austin is getting a $5.8 million signing bonus this season in addition to an $840,000 base salary. He's signed through 2017. I would think 2014 ($5.5 million base salary) or 2015 ($6.68 million base salary) might be the years when he gets cut.

Q: Will Doug Free be with Dallas after June 1? Allen Hudson (Hideaway, Texas)

A: Not sure if Hideaway, Texas is East Texas, or maybe South Texas, but I'm sure you're having a good time there. Free's status is up to him, really. If he takes a pay cut, he stays. If he doesn't, the team will release him. But the longer he waits, the more leverage he obtains because possible replacements get taken off the market. As was the case on Sunday when the Miami Dolphins signed Tyson Clabo. Eric Winston remains on the market, and the Cowboys do have interest. I think if Free wants to remain with the Cowboys he's going to take a pay cut.

Q: What are your thoughts on the lack of depth on the defensive line? Why didn't the Cowboys draft anyone, considering the age of the starters and their injury history (and Jay Ratliff's DUI arrest)? Jerry G. (Israel)

A: I was surprised the Cowboys didn't address the defensive line in the draft. There was a moment at which the Cowboys could have moved up and grabbed Sheldon Richardson or picked Sylvester Williams, who was available at No. 18. The Cowboys went with an offensive lineman, getting center/guard Travis Frederick from Wisconsin at No. 31. There is some depth along the line with Sean Lissemore, Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber and Rob Callaway, but, outside of Lissemore, this group is unproven. Of the four starters, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher don't have contracts for 2014, and Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware, who are now in their 30s, are coming off an injury-riddled 2012 season. The good news is the Cowboys' front is talented and in its early 30s. The bad news is the backups are basically unproven.

Q: Hey there, Mr. Watkins: just curious how much better you think our defense will be in 2013 from the standpoint that we have a lot of injured players returning (Church, Lee, Carter, Ratliff etc.)? Blake Nelsen (Havre, Mont.)

A: The defense is talented, especially in the front seven. When you get Sean Lee and Bruce Carter back full time, that's such a big step in the right direction. Lee and Carter are the 1-2 punch in the defense. The Cowboys believe a healthy Ratliff bolsters that front from a pass rush standpoint. Church was an emerging talent before tearing his Achilles tendon last season. It's fair to say the Cowboys lost some games because their defense wasn't totally healthy. If the defense had gone through the season totally healthy, maybe Rob Ryan is still the defensive coordinator.

Q: Calvin, longtime Cowboys fan here. You're around Jerry Jones: Do you think that he has an awareness that the Cowboys have become the laughingstock of the league due to his poor decision-making and inability to make solid football decisions as a GM? Gary (Dallas)

A: I can think of some other franchises, like the New York Jets, who have made some poor decisions themselves. Jerry Jones is a respected GM, and you can second-guess every GM in the league. The better ones are in New York with the Giants, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay, and now I'm starting to like what's happening in St. Louis. Jones has made some good moves. Got to give him credit for drafting Lee, Carter and Bryant. You can question his draft decisions, like with everybody else across the league, and he's struggled in this area the past few years. The problems with the Cowboys stem from his inconsistency as a GM. He's not going to fire himself, so the moves he makes are something die-hard Cowboys fans have to live with.

Tyson Clabo to sign with the Miami Dolphins

May, 5, 2013
You can cross tackle Tyson Clabo off the Dallas Cowboys' list of potential free agents because his agent, Chad Speck, announced Sunday morning he will sign with the Miami Dolphins.

Speck made the announcement on Twitter.

The Cowboys were thinking of potential replacements for starting right tackle Doug Free, if he refuses a pay cut, and Clabo, along with Eric Winston, was a possibility.

With Clabo now off the market -- financial terms were not disclosed -- the Cowboys are possibly looking at Winston as a replacement for Free, unless he stays with the team.

Eric Winston vs. Tyson Clabo

May, 4, 2013
The Cowboys could be in the market for a new right tackle.

Doug Free is the current starter, but he's been offered a paycut that if he refuses, will force the team to release him.

The two tackles the Cowboys are interested in are Eric Winston and Tyson Clabo.

We compare:

Winston has played with Houston and Kansas City in his career and hasn't missed a start since 2007. Last season, he allowed six sacks according to Stats Inc. Pro Football Focus recorded Winston allowed six quarterback hits and 25 quarterback hurries. He was the ninth-ranked right tackle last season and was given nine positive grades by PFF.

Clabo has played with Atlanta his entire career and has started every game since 2008. In 2012, Clabo allowed six sacks according to Stats Inc. Pro Football Focus recorded Clabo had given up seven quarterback hits and 23 quarterback hurries. There were 11 positive grades for Clabo based on the PFF grading system. Clabo is the fifth-rated right tackle in the NFL according to PFF.

Winston and Clabo have drawn interest from the Cowboys but it doesn't mean either player will sign. Money and availability are the major factors.

So between Clabo and Winston who do you like?
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC East team’s agenda?

Dallas Cowboys: Figure out right tackle.

The Cowboys bolstered their offensive line with the first-round pick of Wisconsin center/guard Travis Frederick, but the line needs more help, and right tackle is the spot that most needs addressing. Doug Free has been a disappointment since signing his big free-agent deal before the 2011 season, and while the Cowboys have said they liked the way Free and Jermey Parnell worked in rotation late last season, they'd be better off finding someone reliable and leaving him in there every play. Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston remain available on the free-agent market, and the Cowboys seem to prefer Clabo. They have enough cap room to sign one of them, but it seems they'd first like to figure out what to do with Free. Will he take a pay cut and stay as a backup? They could just cut him and save $7 million, but the savings wouldn't kick in until June 1 and the Cowboys don't like to admit mistakes or part with their guys. Expect something to change with Free, if only his salary, and the Cowboys to bring in a replacement at some point this offseason.

New York Giants: Resolve the Victor Cruz situation.

Cruz is a restricted free agent with whom the Giants have so far been unable to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension. No team signed him to an offer sheet, which means the next step for Cruz is to decide whether to report to camp when he's required to or hold out. He could sign his tender, play this season for $2.879 million and hit the open market next year, but that leaves him at risk for an injury that could drastically reduce his value. He could accept the Giants' current offer, which reports say is in excess of $7 million per year. Or he could hold out and force the Giants to see what life is like without him. Complicating the matter is that the Giants also have to worry about the contract status of their other star wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks, whose deal runs out at the end of the 2013 season.

Philadelphia Eagles: Pick a quarterback.

New head coach Chip Kelly has amassed a number of interesting options. He has veteran Michael Vick, who was the starter last season until he got injured. He has second-year man Nick Foles, who took over last year when Vick got hurt. He has career backup Dennis Dixon, whose final year at the University of Oregon was Kelly's first as the Ducks' offensive coordinator. And he has former USC star Matt Barkley, for whom the Eagles traded up in the fourth round of last week's NFL draft. Kelly's plan is to throw them all into the offseason and training-camp mix and see who wins the job, and it couldn't be called a huge surprise if any of them did. The most interesting case, however, is that of Vick, who's the current favorite to be the starter but likely would be released if he were to lose the job to one of his younger counterparts.

Washington Redskins: Make sure to get Robert Griffin III healthy.

The Redskins' dynamic young quarterback, who was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery he had in January as a result of the injury he suffered in the Redskins' playoff loss. It's Griffin's second major reconstruction on the same knee. And while all reports have indicated that his recovery is progressing well, he and the Redskins must apply the lessons learned when they left him in that playoff game too long and take his recovery as slowly and responsibly as possible. In Kirk Cousins, they have a capable backup they like who can manage the offense through the offseason and even into September if need be. Griffin's long-term health is the most important thing to the Redskins' franchise right now, and managing his recovery through these summer months is organizational priority No. 1.

Bryant McKinnie deal affects Cowboys

May, 3, 2013
IRVING, Texas – Whether Doug Free is a member of the Cowboys in 2013 or not, Baltimore might have come up with the price tag on whoever plays right tackle for the club this season.

ESPN NFL expert John Clayton joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to talk about Jerry Jones' conference call, the Cowboys' draft picks and much more.

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The Ravens re-signed left tackle Bryant McKinnie to a two-year deal worth a maximum of $7 million, according to The Baltimore Sun. The maximum part of the deal comes in at a $3.5 million if he hits on whatever incentives or escalators in the deal, so the actual average of the deal is less than that.

The Cowboys can use the McKinnie deal in their discussions about a pay cut for Free or in potential talks with unsigned vets like Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston or any other semi-legitimate tackle available now.

If we are to believe Stephen Jones, then Free is the Cowboys’ top choice to play right tackle in 2013. He knows the offense and should be better in the second year under offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan. He played better in the final month of last season when he split time with Jermey Parnell.

Free is scheduled to make $7 million this year. Clearly the Cowboys will not pay that and Free has to know there is not another team in the league that will pay him that. The question is whether he would be willing to take a cut to $3 million or so. The Cowboys’ question is whether they would offer Free a chance to earn back some of the money through incentives.

Clabo has a lot of fans inside Valley Ranch. He has received interest from some other tackle-needy teams, like Miami. The Cowboys made a call to Clabo’s agent after he was released by Atlanta to get a feel for what they were looking for. The same call was made to Winston’s agent, though there are fewer fans inside Valley Ranch for his services.

Winston is on record he is seeking $3-4 million to play. If that’s the case, then that’s too rich for the Cowboys and most likely a lot of teams. Clabo is better than Winston and would be more likely to receive something in that neighborhood.

But McKinnie’s deal would seem to help the Cowboys get their price on whoever they want to play right tackle this season.

Jerry Jones on Doug Free: A lot of moving parts

May, 3, 2013
The Cowboys have said they want to keep starting right tackle Doug Free.

However, if Free doesn't take a pay cut, there are a few options for the Cowboys:

On his conference call, Jerry Jones talked about leadership. Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the leadership experience he had with the Cowboys.

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1. They release Free and he becomes a post-June 1 cut and saves the team $7 million against the salary cap.

2. Free remains with the team at a reduced salary and competes with Jermey Parnell for the starting right tackle spot.

3. If the Cowboys cut Free the starting right tackle might not be on the roster. Yes, the team likes Free but there is interest in Eric Winston and Tyson Clabo. But even those two players might not be around if and when the Cowboys get around to making a decision on Free.

"A lot of moving parts with Doug and there is some competitive aspect of the thing going and coming here as well with other clubs," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones told team season-ticket holders and sponsors during a Wednesday conference call. "We certainly have for the right situation, have a way here that Doug in my mind (can) flourish and it has to do with Parnell being here as well."

Can Cowboys afford to sign a tackle?

May, 1, 2013
I get the sense that Dallas Cowboys fans would feel better about the team if it signed one of these free-agent offensive tackles. Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston are the names you're hearing, and it's pretty obvious either would be an upgrade over Doug Free. Neither has yet signed elsewhere, so there's no real reason to panic. But with all of the salary cap problems the Cowboys have had this offseason it's understandable to worry whether they can afford to sign one of these guys.

Calvin Watkins reports, however, that the Cowboys have more than $5 million in cap room at the present time, not counting the $2 million they'll get in June when the release of Marcus Spears takes effect and not counting the $7 million (post-June 1) they could save by cutting Free. This would seem to indicate that they can sign someone like Clabo and still sign their draft picks (especially since their first-rounder ended up being No. 31 and not No. 18, a distinction likely to save them somewhere around $300,000 against this year's cap). The picks don't need to be under contract prior to June 1, so the Cowboys can wait until then to take care of that even if they sign Clabo in the meantime.

ESPN Dallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor weighs in on Jerry Jones' remarks regarding Tony Romo's work ethic, Romo's commitment to being the Cowboys' QB and more.

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The issue appears to be Free, and how they handle his contract situation. It's easy for us to sit here and say they should cut him based on the way he's played since they signed him two offseasons ago. But the Cowboys don't like to give up on their guys, and it's likely they'd prefer to keep Free at a much lower salary and as a backup tackle. If Free would agree to the pay cut now, they'd add to their cap room and could make a move on a Clabo with more clarity about their overall 2013 cap situation. But if Free won't agree to the pay cut the Cowboys have in mind, then they're a month away from being able to cut him and things could get held up.

As you know, I like the move the Cowboys made to take center/guard Travis Frederick in the first round last week. Along with fellow first-rounder Tyron Smith, he'll give the Cowboys at least two offensive line starters about whom they can feel good. Adding a veteran such as Clabo, whom they appear to like, would up that number to three, and then they could throw a bunch of Phil Costa/Mackenzy Bernadeau/Nate Livings types into the mix for the other two spots and hope that competition pushes two of them to play better.

The Cowboys have enough talent on their roster to be a playoff team in 2013, but they have to get better offensive line play in order to cash in on that. Step 1 was the first round of the draft. Step 2 remains up in the air. But it appears they do have the resources to pull it off.

In defense of offense: The Cowboys' draft

April, 27, 2013
Gavin EscobarKent C. Horner/Getty ImagesPlaying Gavin Escobar with Jason Witten will give Dallas options it didn't have on offense last season.

It's the making-of-the-sausage aspect of the NFL draft that's the problem. If the Dallas Cowboys had begun this offseason with picks 31, 47, 74 and 80 and drafted these same four players, the fans' reaction would have been quite different (though they'd still probably be mad about having lost the Super Bowl). The reason everybody was so upset about the Cowboys' draft 24 hours ago was this trade they made with the San Francisco 49ers in the first round and the idea that they didn't get enough in return for the No. 18 pick.

But from here? From the tail end of Friday night, with three rounds and four Cowboys picks in the books? To me, it looks as though the Cowboys are having a pretty good draft.

The first and most important thing they needed to do, above all else, was find offensive line help in the first round, and they did. You might not like Travis Frederick as a first-rounder, but the fact is this draft was weak at the top. And if you're sifting between sub-optimal options, why should you feel compelled to pick the guy other people have agreed to like as opposed to the guy you like? "Trust your board," is every team's pre-draft mantra, and if the Cowboys' board called Frederick their answer, there's nothing wrong with taking him with the 31st pick.

What happened next seemed weird because it was offense again with the first two picks Friday night. A team that has Jason Witten used its second-round pick on a tight end its fans had never heard of, Gavin Escobar, instead of a safety or a tackle or another offensive lineman. So the crying began anew, as well as the same old jokes about how the owner needs to fire the GM when we all know there's no chance of that ever happening. Then, in the third round, with the pick they got in that first-round trade, they went offense again, taking Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams.

But then a funny thing happened. The outlines of the plan began to congeal in front of everyone's eyes. And through the prism of a pick that finally felt like a really good one, it all started to make sense. The Cowboys just signed their franchise quarterback, Tony Romo, to a gigantic contract extension. When you do that, you're inclined to build up the offense around him. And by taking an interior lineman in the first round and a pair of dynamic passing-game weapons in the second and third, that's what the Cowboys were up to in the early part of the 2013 draft.

Recall the common complaints about the Cowboys' offense. (The non-Romo ones, if you will.) It's unimaginative. It stalls in the red zone. It doesn't have a reliable No. 3 wide receiver, and its No. 2, Miles Austin, is always hurt. The picks of Escobar and Williams address all of that. Escobar is a considerably better player than James Hanna, last season's sixth-round pick, and the ability to put him on the field along with Witten will offer the Cowboys options they didn't have on offense last season. Escobar is a reliable pass-catcher who can outfight defenders for the ball in traffic, and that will serve him and the Cowboys well up and down the field, but especially in the red zone. Williams is a big-play outside receiver who allows them to use Austin in the slot when they go three wide and can be a game-breaker if teams overcommit to Dez Bryant on the other side. They have found fresh options that offer more variety for an offense that too often limits its quarterback's options in key spots. And by taking the lineman first, they've helped shore up Romo's protection, as well.

Some wanted a running back, but you can always get one of those, and there are still plenty on the board with four rounds to go. Some wanted a tackle or a guard, and I couldn't have argued if they wanted to overaddress the line. But you're more likely to find a usable offensive lineman in the fourth or fifth round than you are to find a big-play tight end or receiver there. Eric Winston and others remain on the free-agent market as possible answers at tackle. They did something about the line with their first pick, and the opportunity to do more exists for them.

Some wanted defense in the second round -- a three-technique defensive tackle or a playmaking safety. They ended up with a physical safety in J.J. Wilcox with their original third-round pick, and they like what he offers in terms of upside. But the basic theory with the Cowboys defense appears to be that the changes on the coaching staff, the switch to a 4-3 front and improved health will deliver improvement. They lost six defensive starters to injury last season, and if those guys all come back and thrive in their new 4-3 roles, those are their big additions on defense.

No, spending the early part of the draft on help for Romo was a completely worthwhile choice of priorities for the Cowboys, who came out of the first three rounds with three offensive players they like and can find multiple ways to use (plus that new safety). They're focused on putting Romo and coach Jason Garrett in the best possible position to succeed by expanding the boundaries of the offense's capabilities from play to play and week to week. If you're Romo and Garrett right now, you're thinking up new plays and personnel formations that weren't available to you last season when Bryant, Austin and Witten were your only reliable pass-catchers, and you're excited.

The draft is about hope that things will get better. A look back at the first three rounds offers the Cowboys a number of ways to imagine a more fun and productive offense. It doesn't really matter how it started or how they got here. So far, the Cowboys have to feel as though they're having a pretty good draft.

Stephen Jones: We want Doug Free

April, 26, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys have not addressed the offensive tackle spot with their first four selections and have not reached out to the agents for veterans Tyson Clabo or Eric Winston.

While executive vice president Stephen Jones said Doug Free’s situation is “to be determined,” he was also emphatic that he wants Free to remain with the team.

The Cowboys have made a pay-cut offer to Free, who is scheduled to earn $7 million this season. Jones said they have not heard from Free or the player’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, about whether they would accept a lower salary yet.

“We want him back, how’s that?” Jones said. “We’d love to have him here. I think he’d love to be here. Now the question is, it’s got to work for him and it’s got to work for us. I have all the respect in the world for Doug. He works his ass off. He wants to play better. He knows he needs to play better. He’d be the first to tell you that.”

Free split time over the last month of the season with Jermey Parnell and performed better. The Cowboys have had some conversations with the representatives of Clabo and Winston, but they have not ventured into any negotiations.

With the draft ending Saturday, the competition in the free-agent market figures to heat up quickly.

Jones said the team would like to get something resolved sooner rather than later.

“We’ve got a little bit of money to figure out what to do with Free and you don’t have to worry about us in free agency,” Jones said.

Stephen Jones says Cowboys looking at Eric Winston

April, 16, 2013
Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on 105.3 FM Tuesday that the team is looking at free agent tackle Eric Winston.

ESPN Insider Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the Cowboys, the NFL draft and much more.

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The Cowboys are in the exploratory stages and have not opened contract talks with Winston.

"He's obviously somebody we're taking a look at," Jones said. "We certainly hadn't dismissed Doug (Free). We felt like when we went to rotating him and Jermey Parnell, he really picked up his game in terms of the competition, not to mention the fact I think he got some clarity as to what Bill Callahan was after. So I think there's some interesting prospects there between what we have and what we could get, and obviously the interior part of our line, the same thing holds true. We had some injuries, and after one year under Bill and what may happen in the draft, we'll just have to see what happens."

The Cowboys have options with Free. They can release him, which would open up $7 million in salary cap space after June 1, or offer him a pay cut.

Winston said in an interview on Sirius/XM that he is looking for a contract that averages $3-4 million per season. It's unknown if the Cowboys, with a little more than $5 million under the salary cap, are willing to go to that figure.

Of course, based on the best player available theme, the Cowboys might draft a tackle in the first round to compete for the starting right tackle spot.