Who's next to earn Cowboys' money?

IRVING, Texas – Now that Sean Lee is a Cowboy for the next seven seasons, who’s next on the Cowboys’ list?

The Cowboys have around $6.5 million left in salary-cap room this year. Normally they keep between $2-3 million in space as a cushion to cover themselves in case they need to add players during the season or for injury settlements. They would also like to carry over as much money as possible to add to their 2014 cap space.

So the “who’s next?” could probably wait until next summer, unless the Cowboys are pro-active and want to do a deal with kicker Dan Bailey, who will be a restricted free agent after this season. Bailey’s deal would give him a big bump personally but not chew up so much cap space that it would hamstring the team in 2013.

Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, but he will be 32 next summer. How much do they commit to him? Could he get more to play elsewhere? Typically the money in the 4-3 scheme Monte Kiffin goes to the defensive end and the three-technique. There just might not be enough money for Hatcher.

Dez Bryant is signed through 2014, and he should be at the top of the Cowboys’ list, but there is always the franchise tag to remember. Bryant looks to be in a position to become one of the NFL’s best receivers, but we’re still talking about an eight-game sample of his true greatness. His numbers could be astronomic if he plays 16 games this season the way he did eight games last season. And then his contract goes up astronomically, too.

Bruce Carter is also signed through 2014. He, like Lee, is another cornerstone piece of the defense. Also like Lee, he has to show he can stay healthy. He was drafted with a knee injury in 2011 and did not really play as a rookie. He excelled last year but missed the final five games with an elbow injury. The move to the 4-3 could turn him into even more of a playmaker.

Tyron Smith is technically signed through 2014, but under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Cowboys have a fifth-year option on his deal, which essentially ties him to the team through 2015. The Cowboys have to exercise that option by next spring, which would pay him a little more than the cost of the transition tag for an offensive tackle. On the first day of the 2015 league year, that money becomes guaranteed.

The Cowboys cannot extend Smith until next summer, so these talks are not even on a backburner right now. Reaching a deal will take time because there won’t be any deals from the 2011 first-round class to use as precedents. Plus, Smith has to show he is a true Pro Bowl tackle. He has been good his first two years but still has room to grow. That’s why this year is such a big year for him and for the Cowboys. They think he is a building block along the offensive line, but they don’t absolutely positively know that yet. With a top-notch 2013 – not necessarily a Pro Bowl invite – the Cowboys could feel better about a long-term deal.