Ranking free agents Cowboys must keep

Once the lockout is lifted, the free-agency frenzy begins. The Cowboys will need to add at least one starting safety, but the majority of their work will consist of creating cap space and re-signing their own free agents.

It isn't likely that the Cowboys will keep all of their notable free agents. We know Jerry Jones has been busy with labor negotiations, so here's a little help for the owner/GM: a list prioritizing the free agents the Cowboys need to try to keep.

LT Doug Free: Free, 27, has a strong season as the starting left tackle under his belt and couldn’t have much better leverage. The Cowboys don’t have a decent plan to replace him. First-round pick Tyron Smith has potential to be a left tackle, but it’s asking too much of a 20-year-old rookie to expect him to learn the playbook on the fly while figuring out how to play on the opposite side that he played at USC. To lock up Free to a long-term deal, the Cowboys will probably have to pay more than they want. Proven left tackles just entering their prime are hot commodities on the open market.

DE Stephen Bowen: Bowen, who had developed a reputation as a nice interior nickel pass-rusher, proved in the second half of last season that he can be a solid starter. The Cowboys will certainly have competition for the 27-year-old's services. The Redskins, who are more than $10 million under the salary cap, are a 3-4 team expected to make a run at Bowen.

SS Gerald Sensabaugh: When the Cowboys didn’t draft a safety, they ensured that Sensabaugh -- who had five interceptions last season after struggling for the first eight games -- would have a lot of leverage. Safety is the biggest hole on the roster. If the Cowboys don’t re-sign Sensabaugh, they’ll have to find two starting safeties in free agency. However, count on the Cowboys to be cautious about overpaying Sensabaugh, considering they regretted giving safeties Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin lucrative deals. Sensabaugh wants a significant raise and a long-term deal after making $1.8 million last season. It’d be surprising if he agreed to a deal before testing the open market.

LG Kyle Kosier: Kosier, a good technician who makes many of the Cowboys’ line calls, has been Dallas’ most underrated lineman for years. Based purely on contributions, he would rank at least one spot higher on this list. But Montrae Holland has significant

starting experience and would be at least a decent left guard if Kosier departed.

DE Marcus Spears: He gets judged harshly around here because he’s a former first-round pick who hasn’t put up impressive numbers. However, Spears is a solid run-stuffer with high character. If the price is right, there is certainly room for him in a defensive end rotation with Igor Olshansky and (hopefully) Bowen. If the Cowboys can’t keep Bowen, Spears might become a priority.

DE Jason Hatcher: He’s had ample opportunity to earn more playing time. It hasn’t happened. He’s a decent backup but the most expendable of the Cowboys’ three unrestricted free-agent defensive ends.

WR Sam Hurd: He’s been the Cowboys’ best special-teams player over the last few years, but Hurd wants a chance to be in a receiver rotation. That’s not going to happen with the Cowboys. If Hurd signs with another team, sixth-round pick Dwayne Harris should take his spot on the roster.