Dallas Cowboys: 2013 NFL free agency

Tony RomoAP Photo/Tony GutierrezTony Romo has 18 fourth-quarter comebacks and 19 game-winning drives, including five last season.
Last week ended with the news of a massive contract extension for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Although this news had been expected for some time, it was accompanied by the predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Romo has never won anything, always blows it in the big games and isn't worth that kind of money. Few players are as polarizing as Romo, and everybody from Dez Bryant to Donovan McNabb offered a reaction of one extreme or the other.

Fitzsimmons & Durrett discuss Tony Romo's contract extension and what it says about Jerry Jones.

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Then came the quarterback news from the early part of this week, and with it a heavy dose of perspective about just what Romo is and how thankful the Cowboys are to have him locked up long-term.

In case you missed it, the Oakland Raiders acquired Matt Flynn from Seattle in a trade, then traded Carson Palmer to Arizona. Kevin Kolb, formerly of Arizona, signed with the Buffalo Bills, who recently released Ryan Fitzpatrick. This week has been a big game of mediocre quarterback musical chairs, desperate teams settling for the least lousy options they can find on a market bereft of franchise quarterbacks.

Romo is not one of the elite quarterbacks of the NFL. That tier is reserved for record-breakers and champions. But he is a franchise quarterback -- someone around whose skills and ability a team can confidently build. Do the Cowboys wish he hadn't thrown three interceptions in the regular-season finale against the Redskins with the division on the line? Of course they do. But when they step back and see the big picture, they find ample reason to believe Romo is the quarterback for them.

ESPN Insider Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss Tony Romo's contract extension and what needs to happen for Romo to lead the Cowboys to a championship.

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He has delivered for them. Not on the level Cowboys fans demand, which is to say a playoff and championship level, but Romo's career is not simply a laundry list of choke jobs. He has 18 career fourth-quarter comebacks and 19 game-winning drives, including five this past season alone. The Cowboys were 3-5 at one point in 2012 but won five of their next six to get back into contention for the division. The wins in that stretch included Romo-led comebacks against the Browns, Eagles, Bengals and Steelers. During that stretch, he threw 11 touchdown passes and three interceptions.

None of this erases or excuses Romo's miserable flop in Week 17 in Washington, but it does serve to illustrate that he can play quarterback at a high level. He isn't completely clueless about how to win games that need to be won when things aren't going well. If a quarterback shows he can do that, you have reason to believe that someday he might come through in that really big game that always has seemed to vex him. Romo is certainly good enough to win playoff games and a championship for the Cowboys. The fact that he hasn't done it yet doesn't rule out the possibility that it could happen someday. The Cowboys have seen enough good from Romo to warrant hope that he won't always be bad when they need him the most.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, just look around and tell me who is both available and better. The main reason the Cowboys locked up Romo long-term is because they like him and believe they can win with him. But the deal also helps them against this year's salary cap and, more important, gives them the peace of mind. They won't have to sift through dispiriting, insufficient options year after year at the most important position on the roster.

Romo can't hide his flaws. His term as starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys has coincided with a down period in franchise history. He bears some responsibility for this, as does everyone connected with the team. Although the criticism of Romo can be over the top at times, it is not always without merit. He has flopped too many times in critical spots.

But oh, could it be worse, Cowboys fans. Whatever else he is, Romo is a quarterback who gives you a chance to win every week. He's a quarterback you've seen come back in the fourth quarter, many times. You've seen him make brilliant throws on the run after the play breaks down. You've watched him succeed and thrive, for weeks at a time, behind poor offensive lines and in spite of incompetent performances by injury-ravaged (or simply incompetent) defenses. He is exciting, and regardless of how many times he has played poorly in big games, he offers you legitimate reason to believe you're never out of it.

And when it comes right down to it, this week's NFL quarterback news poses the question quite clearly: Would you rather be stuck with Romo for the next half-decade or be one of these teams that has to play in the Flynn/Palmer/Kolb/Fitzpatrick end of the quarterback pool every year? Put it that way, and Romo's contract extension makes a lot more sense. The Cowboys are, in fact, lucky to have him.

A two-round Todd McShay mock draft

March, 28, 2013
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Todd McShay's latest mock draft Insider is out and it covers the first two rounds, which means Redskins fans get to play too! Here's what Todd projects, along with my thoughts on his picks for each NFC East team:

Philadelphia Eagles

4. Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan

35. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State

Yes, even with cornerback Dee Milliner still on the board, I like Fisher for the Eagles at 4. I think they need to get a long-term building block at that spot, and an elite tackle is just that. As for Manuel at 35, I like it find if they think he has franchise quarterback potential. If not, they're just adding to a stable of caretaker backups and developmental guys, and the pick could be used better. I do know which of those categories fits Manuel, and I imagine if the Eagles are talking about him, they're trying to figure that out as well.

Dallas Cowboys

18. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

47. Kyle Long, G, Oregon

I have no problem with the Cowboys coming out of the first two rounds with a safety and an offensive lineman. I just think they need to pick them in the reverse order. In Todd's mock, the top five offensive linemen go in the first 17 picks -- something that's only happened once in the last 15 drafts. But even if that happens, I'd have no issue with the Cowboys taking the tackle Todd projects to go with the very next pick to the Giants. They need elite offensive line talent more than they need this draft's top safety.

New York Giants

19. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama

49. Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State

Got to be honest, I have no idea what the Giants will or should do in the first round, and it doesn't seem as though most of the draft analysts do either. Offensive line seems to make sense, but they don't like to draft offensive linemen in the first round. I keep thinking they'll take the highest-ranked defensive lineman on their board in the first round, or maybe a defensive back. But maybe I'm relying too much on Giants draft history and this is a year in which they'll go against it.

Washington Redskins

51. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State

Obviously, this is a pick that assumes they don't re-sign Fred Davis. If they do, I have to think they look for a safety here like D.J. Swearinger or Jon Cyprien.

Wait. The Cowboys signed someone?

March, 26, 2013
Really interesting report Tuesday afternoon on Twitter from Adam Schefter:
Dallas and former Lions LB Justin Durant agreed to a 2-year contract that will be signed once Cowboys create more cap space, per team source
Galloway & Company discuss the latest Cowboys news, including the team closing in on signing linebacker Justin Durant.

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I didn't even know you could do that, which is why I find it so interesting. If you want to know about Durant specifically, it looks as though he's a candidate to be that strongside linebacker in their new 4-3 defensive alignment. This is what Scouts Inc. says about him in our free-agent tracker:
Durant had the most productive season of his career in 2012. He is a powerfully built linebacker with excellent athleticism. He is an instinctive defender who reacts quickly as plays unfold. He runs well and shows good range to overlap zones in the passing game and is effective in combination man schemes. He is a solid tackler in the open field and understands angles to leverage the ball. Durant brings consistency and leadership to the Lions.

It now appears he'll bring it to the Cowboys, but Durant's strengths and weaknesses as a player aren't want interests me about this news. What interests me about this news is the idea the Cowboys could get a player to agree to a contract with them on the premise that they have to clear cap space before they can finalize it. That tells me that they were able to present tangible evidence to this player that they will be able to clear that cap room. And that tells me that they're confident about getting long-term contract extensions done with either quarterback Tony Romo, defensive end Anthony Spencer or both.

Durant was one of three players who visited the Cowboys on Monday, along with safeties Will Allen and Michael Huff, and if they have in fact agreed to a contract with one of them, that could be a harbinger of further news on the free-agent front. The Cowboys only have about $100,000 in cap room at this point, and so at least one of those contract extensions with Romo or Spencer has to get done before they can add anyone. They'll save $7 million when they cut Doug Free, but only if he's a June 1 cut, and I don't imagine their plan is for Durant to skip minicamp while he waits until June 1 to sign. If you want to interpret this news as a sign that a new deal for Romo and/or Spencer is on the horizon, I think you're probably on the right track. That's how I'm interpreting it.

On the Spencer, Romo extension plans

March, 25, 2013

We know that the Dallas Cowboys are having free agents in for visits this week, and that the names include safeties Michael Huff and Will Allen and linebacker Justin Durant. We also know that the Cowboys have about $100,000 in salary-cap room, which means they can't right now sign any of those guys. And we know that their clearest way to salary-cap relief at this point lies in their ability to work out contract extensions with quarterback Tony Romo and defensive end Anthony Spencer that would reduce those players' respective 2013 cap numbers of $16.8 million and $10.6 million.

So, about those extensions. How are they going?

Well, some guy on Twitter told me today that the Romo extension was "hours away" and would be for $68 million ($30 million guaranteed) over four years. But I have been unable to find much on this guy's reporting background, so I'm assuming he's guessing, though the numbers would make some sense. (That'd be a team-favorable deal, I'd think, in the current market.) In all seriousness, I believe the Romo deal eventually gets done, though I'm not going to join my Twitter friend in guessing as to the hours remaining in the negotiations.

As for the Spencer deal, a considerably more reputable source named Ed Werder tweeted that the Cowboys were at work on a multiyear deal for him as well, and that it could free up space to sign Huff and/or offensive lineman Brandon Moore. (Ed has Moore's first name wrong on that tweet, but he later clarified.) Spencer has the upper hand in negotiations with the Cowboys, since they've already franchised him for 2013 and his worst-case scenario includes $10.6 million in guaranteed money. So any contract he signs with them will surely include at least that much in guarantees. But since they appear to be all-in on Spencer as a starting defensive end in their new 4-3 alignment, it would be a coup for the Cowboys to lock him up long term and reduce the 2013 cap hit in the process. I still think he's being overpaid off of one very good year, but the Cowboys like him and have decided to go with him, so from their perspective a long-term deal would be a nice get.

As for the names? Huff and Moore would be excellent pickups for the Cowboys, who need a veteran safety and all the help they can get at guard. The issue is of course making room for them in the budget, but it's not crazy to think that, if they're bringing these guys in for visits, they're feeling better about their chances of getting either Romo's deal or Spencer's deal done sometime soon. Who knows? Could be "hours away."

Eight in the Box: FA winners or losers?

March, 22, 2013
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Dallas Cowboys: Loser. The only significant free-agent move the Cowboys have made is the franchising of Anthony Spencer, who will be one of the starting defensive ends in their new 4-3 defensive alignment. Even if you like that move, you have to acknowledge that its $10.6 million cost has worked as a detriment for a team that had no cap room to start with. The Cowboys still need a lot of help on the offensive line and at safety but have been unable to maneuver around the cap. Their inability so far to reach agreement on a long-term deal with quarterback Tony Romo -- a move that would reduce his 2013 cap cost -- has also deprived them of the ability to address needs so far. The Cowboys haven't lost any significant pieces in free agency, but a lack of flexibility compounded by $5 million in leftover cap penalties has kept them from adding where they need to add.

New York Giants: Winner. I mean, not in the same way that teams like the Seahawks or the Chiefs have been winners, but in their own, Giant-like way. Replacing tight end Martellus Bennett with Brandon Myers at low cost, re-signing left tackle Will Beatty before the market opened, signing Keith Rivers and Dan Connor at linebacker ... nothing that's going to knock your socks off, but some targeted, low-financial-impact moves designed to keep the program winning. The Giants still could turn out to be losers if they don't do at least some work on the offensive line. And I think it's possible they'll end up missing safety Kenny Phillips more than they think. But to this point, they're operating their offseason the way they like to operate it. Low-key but productive.

Philadelphia Eagles: Winner. Again, we're operating on a curve here. This division in general has not been the league's most exciting since the start of the free-agency period. But the Eagles have added two starting safeties (Patrick Chung and Phillips, on a low-risk/high-reward deal), two starting cornerbacks (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher), pass-rusher Connor Barwin, a versatile fullback/tight end type in James Casey and a big, 24-year-old wide receiver in Arrelious Benn. The Eagles still have plenty of cap room with which to pursue the right tackle they need, and they've addressed enough positions to allow them flexibility with the No. 4 pick in next month's draft. No one can predict how their new additions will play, but they do seem to have targeted and acquired the players they wanted.

Washington Redskins: Loser. They've actually done well to hold together as much of their division-champion team as they have, considering the $18 million in cap penalties they're still dealing with this year. But they had to cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall, lost special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, and have yet to re-sign tight end Fred Davis. More importantly, though, they still have major needs in the secondary and have been unable to land the free safety or the starting cornerback they need. E.J. Biggers is probably better as a No. 3 cornerback, though at this point he may project as one of their starters. The good thing is that the safety and cornerback market still has lots of options, and the prices aren't going up. But the Redskins have no first-round pick next month, so they have some challenges ahead.

Cowboys' talks with Tony Romo ongoing

March, 18, 2013
PHOENIX -- Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team is continuing its discussions with quarterback Tony Romo on a contract extension and that he believes they will eventually reach an agreement. Jones acknowledged it would be nice to reduce Romo's very high 2013 salary-cap cost, but he did not indicate any particular deadline or hurry for reaching a deal.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Tim SharpThe Dallas Cowboys are intent on getting a new deal done with quarterback Tony Romo.
"There's never really a start or stop time with Tony," Jones said in the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore. "I do think it will get done."

The Cowboys would like to lock up Romo long-term before his contract expires at the end of the 2013 season. Reducing this year's cap cost by spreading out signing-bonus money from a new deal over future years would be one benefit of that, but that's not the sole motivation. The Cowboys like and believe in Romo as their starting quarterback and want him around for a long time. Asked which was a higher priority, Romo's new deal or a new long-term deal for defensive end Anthony Spencer, Jones didn't hesitate.

"Tony's," he said. "Quarterbacks take precedence."

Jones didn't make much of the extent to which the team's salary-cap concerns have limited its ability to maneuver this offseason -- even as he revealed that the team had re-signed linebacker Ernie Sims to a veteran minimum deal and was down to "five figures'" worth of cap space.

Ed Werder joins Galloway & Company to discuss what moves the Cowboys might still make in free agency and much more.

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"We were never going to be big players in free agency this year," Jones said. "We played there last year, and we felt like we did some good things, and we've got to see what the end results are. A big focus for us is on this draft. We need to draft well."

They do, indeed. Jones said he thinks that offensive linemen such as Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free will play better in 2013 than they did in '12. And he said the team thinks it has its two starting safeties already on on the roster, citing Barry Church and Matt Johnson. He acknowledged that the Cowboys can't count on Johnson, who was a midround pick last year and missed the whole season due to injuries, and he said he wouldn't be surprised if they added a veteran safety. But the draft is the Cowboys' only significant means of filling the holes on their roster right now, and they need to find 2013 starters in the early rounds. Especially on the offensive line.

In terms of line specifics, Jones said no decision has been made on Free, who would save the team $7 million in salary-cap space as of June 1 if cut.

"I think he improved last year," Jones said of the Cowboys right tackle. "Obviously, toward the end of the year, when the competition got going there, he played some of his best games."

I still think they'll upgrade at tackle, but since they don't know for sure whether they'll be able to do that with their first-round pick -- and since they can't get the savings until June anyway -- it makes sense for the Cowboys to hold on to Free for now and delay their decision until they know who his replacement will be.

How desperate are the Cowboys, really?

March, 15, 2013
So I've been trying to find something to write about the Dallas Cowboys even though they have no cap room and aren't signing anyone, because this is an NFC East blog and should hit on all four of the teams as much as possible. And I found this from Bryan Broaddus on the team's website about defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and the way he'll fit into Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defensive alignment. Bryan's excited because he thinks Ratliff is the kind of player who will flourish in the 4-3, and that he can play either of its defensive tackle positions well:
In this scheme, the defensive coaches want their guys to play with more speed and quickness, which is right down the alley for Ratliff. There is a reason that Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett never wavered about Ratliff coming back for this 2013 [season] despite the legal problem he faces in the coming months. He was built to play in this scheme.
[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJay Ratliff is part of a talented nucleus in Dallas that should contend for the NFC East title again this fall.
This got me thinking. Sure, Ratliff's a knucklehead for blowing up at Jerry Jones in the locker room. Worse yet, he was arrested and charged with DUI a month and a half after teammate Jerry Brown was killed in a drunk driving accident for which teammate Josh Brent was charged. And sure, he had no more sacks last year than you or I did. But when healthy and on the field, Ratliff is still an excellent player, capable of disrupting an offense from an interior line position.

Then that got me thinking that Ratliff isn't exactly alone on the roster. On the defensive side of the ball, DeMarcus Ware is an excellent player. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are very good. Linebacker Sean Lee is outstanding, and fellow linebacker Bruce Carter sure looked headed that way last season before his injury. Jason Hatcher was excellent last season, and so was Anthony Spencer, whether he's worth his $10.6 million franchise tender or not.

On offense, the Cowboys have excellent players at quarterback, tight end and both starting wide receiver spots. They have a very good running back and left tackle. Can you find fault with any or all of these players? Sure. But on balance, I just gave you 14 starting positions at which the Cowboys are at least above average, and in several cases much better.

Calvin Watkins joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to talk about Martellus Bennett's progression since he left the Cowboys, the definition of a Tony Romo apologist and the Cowboys' salary cap situation.

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The point? Well, as Cowboys fans bemoan the lack of cap space and resultant lack of activity in this first week of free agency, it might be worth remembering that there are some really good players on this team, and that it might not be the kind of team that needed to have a big first week of free agency.

Now, of course they need work. I'm not naive. I know they've been 8-8 each of the past two seasons. I know the offensive line is a wreck, that they have question marks at safety, and that depth is an issue in spots. I know they need to find another starting linebacker to go with Lee and Carter. And yes, of course I know about Tony Romo's reputation for playing small in big spots. All of that stuff is true. I just think it's too easy too often for Cowboys fans to get negative about the way they perceive their team, and I don't think it's all doom and gloom there in Dallas.

Each of the past two seasons, they made it to the final game with a chance to win the division. By definition, that's a contending team, and as close to being a playoff team as one can get. They must improve in spots, most notably the offensive line, or it's going to be hard to believe they can make any big leap forward. But I don't agree with the perception that they're in big trouble because they were hamstrung this week in free agency. I think there are a lot of very good players on the Cowboys' roster who, if properly supported by a good draft and some smart free-agent bargain hunting, can make this a competitive team in 2013, just as it was in 2011 and 2012.

I think that's worth keeping in mind, is all.

In free agency, boring can be good

March, 13, 2013
The key to the NFL's success is not fan interest but rather excessive enthusiasm. The product has its merits, to be sure. But what has elevated the NFL from "very popular sports league" to "worldwide marketing monster" is not the quality of that product or its number of fans. It's the frothing excitement the NFL manages to instill in its fans over every single year-round aspect of football, no matter how minute. The draft. The schedule release. The start of preseason games. And of course, free agency, which began Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the latest free-agency moves going on around the NFL.

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This is one of those weeks that proves the excessive-enthusiasm theory. Nothing anyone has written or said in prior weeks, months or years about how free agency isn't a franchise panacea matters anymore. Fans are monumentally worked up over the idea that their team might succeed at something, even in the middle of March, as temporally far from the start of the season as the calendar allows us to get.

The result is that fans whose teams are signing big-game players are more excited than they ought to be and fans whose teams aren't signing anyone are frustrated at the lack of action. Here in the NFC East, the past 24 hours have been about the latter. The Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Giants are all cap-strapped. The Philadelphia Eagles are judiciously signing unexciting players of whom fans have not been fantasizing.

Do not fret. Instead, read this from Grantland's Bill Barnwell, who throws cold water on the whole idea of the first day of the league year as anything more than an overhyped, irresponsible spending spree by teams that just don't ever seem to learn. Bill writes that it's all too much, and that the rush to sign players on the first day leads, historically, to bad deals. "Players who would have gotten a couple million dollars if they had signed next week got three or four times that figure in guaranteed money Tuesday," Bill writes. "Good for them and great work by their agents, but that sort of behavior in this marketplace simply beggars belief."

If you're wishing your team were more active, Bill's column will set your mind at ease. And if you're an Eagles fan, you'll particularly enjoy the ending, which seems to sum up the Eagles' Tuesday as intelligently dull. They signed five players -- tight end James Casey, cornerback Bradley Fletcher, safety Patrick Chung, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and linebacker Jason Phillips. All to sensible deals. In spite of their excess of cap room:
The sort of logic that went into those moves — buying low on a low-risk, medium-reward player — seemed absurdly out of place on the dumbest day of the NFL year. Some of the teams that made headlines Tuesday by following a now-infamous Eagles plan that didn't work might have done well to follow the new Philadelphia brain trust's lead.

There is, of course, irony in the fact that Andy Reid and the Chiefs had one of the most active Tuesdays. But if you're an Eagles fan, that's not your problem. Take a deep breath and enjoy the idea that your team has a plan and is going to try to execute it with intelligence and sobriety. That may not make for a very fun March, but it could make December and January a lot more fun down the road.

Waiting out the defensive backs market

March, 13, 2013
The main reason Tuesday night was so quiet in the NFC East in free agency was the relative lack of salary cap space among the division's teams. But another reason was that all four have significant needs in the secondary, and defensive backs aren't really signing anywhere just yet.

It's simple supply and demand -- so many veteran cornerbacks and safeties have been released in the past couple of weeks that the market is now flooded. When supply goes up, prices go down, and that could mean the defensive backs on the market aren't finding the deals for which they'd hoped. Assuming that's the case, it would be good news for the teams in the NFC East, all of whom are in the market for at least some help in the secondary:

[+] EnlargeAntoine Winfield
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesA glut of veterans like Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield, 26, has created a buyer's market for teams seeking secondary help.
The Dallas Cowboys have their starting cornerbacks, but have a need at safety after releasing Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys are dealing with $5 million worth of those same cap penalties the Redskins have, and will need to create room and find a bargain if they're to address the position. Every day that goes by without a flurry of big safety signings is good news for the Giants and the Cowboys.

You want names? They are too many to list here. Check out ESPN.com's free agency tracker if you want wish lists for these teams at cornerback Insider or at safety Insider. As you can see, plenty of interesting choices across the spectra of talent, age and versatility. One of the reasons the defensive backs market is likely slow to rev up is because of the big names that have landed on it in recent days. If you were a team making plans to pursue a free-agent defensive back and then, over a 48-hour stretch, guys like Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha and Antoine Winfield became available, you'd have to at least press pause and evaluate, no?

Whatever the reason, the slow-developing, supply-choked market for cornerbacks and safeties is good for teams in the market for help at those positions. The NFC East has four such teams. So while I understand it's a fan's job to panic when your team doesn't sign anyone on the first day of free agency, I ask you to take a deep breath and consider that, in this case, that might turn out to be a good thing.

NFC East free-agency primer

March, 12, 2013
» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Dallas Cowboys
HEAD COACH: Jason Garrett

Cap status: Some last-minute contract restructuring Monday got the Cowboys under the 2013 cap. They're not far enough under to operate very deftly in free agency, so don't expect any big splashes from them in the first wave, but they still have the ability to extend Tony Romo's deal or make some more cuts if they find someone they really want to fit into their budget.

Strategy: They should work on the offensive line, which was atrocious in 2012. But after signing two free-agent guards last year and giving center Phil Costa a two-year extension this year, the Cowboys may put off addressing that need until the draft. I'd expect them to be active on the veteran safety market, as they have question marks at that position, and there appears to be enough free-agent inventory that costs for safeties should be kept low. Depth on the defensive line and at running back will be important as well, as the defense is changing to a 4-3 alignment and DeMarco Murray's backup, Felix Jones, appears set to hit the market. Expect the Cowboys to bargain-hunt at positions that haven't traditionally cost too much.

New York Giants
HEAD COACH: Tom Coughlin

Cap status: After Sunday night's agreement with defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, the Giants remain around $7 million under the cap. Enough to get them in compliance and work on deals for their own free agents but likely not enough to make them players for too much outside help.

Strategy: For the Giants, the focus is in house. They'd like to bring back guard Kevin Boothe, tight end Martellus Bennett and of course restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz. They can tender Cruz and keep him, but they'd prefer to get a long-term deal done soon if possible so the headache goes away. As for Boothe and Bennett, if they'll sign for the Giants' number, they'll be Giants. If they want to try to cash in on the market, the Giants likely will look in other directions. They appear set to let valuable safety Kenny Phillips depart after his injury-wrecked season, so they'll look to address that position as well as linebacker, running back and offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jenkins isn't their last defensive line move, either. They do like to have depth there.

Philadelphia Eagles
HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly

Cap status: The Eagles have about $34 million in salary-cap room and are likely to add $11 million more with the expected release of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Tuesday. They will be able to get any player they want to get, most likely.

Strategy: The Eagles' management figures that whoever remains in place from two summers ago knows all about how badly the last big experiment with free agency went, so don't expect to see a frenzy like the one it created on the market in 2011. But the Eagles have many needs -- cornerback, safety, linebacker, nose tackle, a right guard or tackle, maybe a big wide receiver. They will be active because they must. As for strategy, though, I'd expect them to target younger free agents who can help them build the roster long term, not just help them contend in 2013. The moves the team has made since firing longtime coach Andy Reid and hiring Kelly indicate that Kelly plans to be in Philadelphia for a long time and is thinking about what can make his team competitive for years to come, not just right away.

Washington Redskins
HEAD COACH: Mike Shanahan

Cap status: Cutting veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall saved the Redskins $8 million in cap room Monday. That and the contract restructure of defensive end Adam Carriker helps the Redskins address the significant cap problems they're still having as a result of the $36 million in penalties the league imposed on them a year ago. More cuts and restructures are likely on the way.

Strategy: The free-agent strategy since Allen and Shanahan came on the scene has been consistent. The Redskins like to target players in the 26-, 27-year-old range who have shown encouraging flashes but not necessarily yet proved all they have to prove in the league. They like hungry guys, and as they continue to build around second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, they will continue to try to employ this strategy. Perhaps you heard reports this past weekend of the Redskins' interest in cornerbacks like Derek Cox (26, coming off injury) and Antoine Cason (also 26). As they did with Pierre Garcon at wide receiver last year, the Redskins will target guys who might not be at the top of the market but fit what they want to do both schematically and economically.

Eight in the Box: Top offseason targets

March, 8, 2013
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Dallas Cowboys: Louis Vasquez, G, Chargers. Cap-space problems likely price the Cowboys out of the top offensive line names available, but the line is their most desperate need and Vasquez is much more than a fallback option. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the eighth-best right guard in the league last year -- better than either of the midrange free-agent guards the Cowboys signed last year -- and he doesn't turn 26 for another month. He's the kind of free agent in whom it makes sense to invest -- a guy who's proven he can play in the league but is still hungry to prove more and young enough that they'd have him in his prime. I do still believe the Cowboys need to address the offensive line in the draft, but there's nothing wrong with a smart upgrade like this in the meantime to augment that plan.

New York Giants: Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Ravens. Yes, the Super Bowl champs will try to keep him. No, the Giants don't prioritize the linebacker position. If you're asking me if this is a player the Giants will sign, I'd have to say no. But what we're asking today is which player they should sign, and Ellerbe is a perfect fit. He's only 27 and has leadership experience and a championship ring earned while filling in for Ray Lewis this past year. The Giants' defense has drifted in and out too much the past few years in terms of focus and intensity, and Ellerbe would help with that from a position at which the Giants always seem to have a need.

Philadelphia Eagles: Kenny Phillips, S, Giants. So much uncertainty in the secondary, where the Eagles could be looking for four new starters. Phillips is as versatile a safety as there is on the market and would allow them to go in any number of directions with their cornerbacks or their other safety. He can cover. He can move up in the box and play the run. He's got Super Bowl experience. And if you're the Eagles or an Eagles fan, wouldn't it be fun to sign him away from the Giants and play him against them twice a year? Phillips has had some knee problems, which is his only red flag. If he checks out medically, then as a player who doesn't turn 27 until November he's a big-time answer for the Eagles at a position that has been driving them crazy since they let Brian Dawkins leave.

Washington Redskins: Ryan Harris, OT, Texans. Cap constraints will prevent the Redskins from dreaming big free-agent dreams, and I am fully aware that their greatest need is on defense in the secondary. But they need a right tackle as well, and Harris and Mike Shanahan know each other well from their days together in Denver in 2007 and 2008. Harris turns 28 on Monday and has zone-blocking, run-game experience. Best of all, he's not likely to cost much. If Shanahan liked Harris early in his career and still sees something, Harris could be an easy answer at an important position and allow the Texans to commit greater resources to the secondary and other needs.

NFC East running back scenarios

March, 8, 2013
After reading this from Calvin about whether the Cowboys would pursue Michael Turner, and then this Monday from Mike Jones about the Redskins' running back depth chart, I thought to myself, "That's a good idea. Let's do a post on the NFC East running back situations." So, let's.

Dallas Cowboys

Assuming they move on from Felix Jones, the Cowboys will be in the market for a running back who can spell starter DeMarco Murray and, if need be, replace him when he gets injured. Unlike Calvin, I actually think someone like Turner or former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw would work here. They need someone who's used to carrying the load, since it doesn't appear as though they can count on Murray lasting a whole season. And even if he did, they'd need someone who can replace him for long stretches during the game in order to help keep him healthy. I understand the temptation for a speed back as a change of pace, but Jones was supposed to be that and it didn't work. Why not a veteran grinder who runs with power and is used to playing in a passing offense? Someone like Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar could develop into what they need behind Murray, but it's not a bad idea to bring in someone with experience just in case they don't.

New York Giants

After cutting Bradshaw, the Giants appear set to go with second-year man David Wilson as the lead back and, assuming they re-sign him, Andre Brown as the goal-line guy. Maybe Brown's duties increase over what they were last year behind Bradshaw. And maybe Wilson isn't (a) ready or (b) the right kind of back to handle the running and pass-protection responsibilities in the Giants' offense. They ended the season with guys like Ryan Torain and Kregg Lumpkin on the roster for depth, and they could go back to one or both of them. I imagine they'll give Wilson the shot at the lead-back role, but they'll want to be protected in case he can't handle it. So don't be surprised if they bring a few backs to camp that you've heard of.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles look pretty well set with LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown as electric playmakers in the backfield. They also still have Dion Lewis and Chris Polk kicking around for depth. I don't see this as a need area for the Eagles this offseason.

Washington Redskins

As Mike points out in that link up there, it appears the Redskins would like to find someone who can fill in for workhorse starter Alfred Morris on third downs. That could certainly be Roy Helu if he could manage to stay healthy, but to this point he has not done that, and Mike Shanahan will surely want to bring four or more backs to camp for depth and competition purposes. As great as Morris' rookie season was -- and it was fantastic -- this is a position at which Shanahan has a well-known history of trying to stay ahead of the curve. If the Redskins' running game hierarchy is altered in 2013 from what it was in its very successful 2012, it would not be a surprise.

Dallas Cowboys could use Eric Winston

March, 7, 2013
So the Chiefs cut right tackle Eric Winston on Wednesday, probably because they've decided to take a tackle with the first pick in the draft. But this isn't a Chiefs blog. This is a Cowboys blog, peopled by fans of America's Team. So why are we talking about this?

Because whenever a player of whom fans have heard gets cut in the middle of his contract, one of the first questions fans immediately ask is, "Should [my team] try to sign [this player that was just cut in the middle of his contract]?" And if you cheer for the Cowboys, and the player in question is Winston, the answer is yes.

It amazes me sometimes, the similarities our four NFC East teams can share. They all need help in the secondary, for instance, and they all need help on the right side of the offensive line. So here's a quickie rundown of why the Cowboys should kick the tires on this 29-year-old offensive lineman who is allowed to sign any time.

Dallas Cowboys

Obviously, the Doug Free contract is a huge bust and the Cowboys need a right tackle. They need guard help, too, but a right tackle is a fine place to start. Sadly for the Cowboys, they're too tight up against the cap to really compete for a free agent if that free agent is going to draw interest from multiple teams. I still think they address this in the draft.

Cowboys franchise Anthony Spencer again

March, 4, 2013
So if you happen to be going back through earlier posts and you stumble on this one from this morning, I'd ask that you just read the very first line and not the rest of it. Because even though it appeared to make no sense for the Dallas Cowboys to designate Anthony Spencer as their franchise player for the second year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys have decided to do just that. Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy, tweeted the news about two hours before the 4 p.m. ET franchise-tag deadline and wrote also, "We will work on a long-term deal."

Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the Cowboys putting the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer and releasing Gerald Sensabaugh.

Listen Listen
Now, because of the franchise-tag rules in the new CBA, the Cowboys must pay Spencer at least 120 percent of his 2012 salary if he plays the 2013 as their franchise player. Since last year's tag was $8.865 million, that means Spencer's franchise tag number for this year is $10.638 million, which is a ton of money to spend on one player given the Cowboys' cap problems. (If they tagged him again next year, they'd have to pay him 144 percent of his 2013, so at least $15.319 million.) Here are some of my thoughts on this odd reversal by the Cowboys:

1. They must like their chances of getting a long-term deal done this offseason with Spencer. It had been assumed he wanted to hit the market and cash in on his career season, but the decision to franchise him indicates to me the Cowboys and Woy must have had some encouraging discussions. If they didn't think it was possible to sign Spencer long-term, the Cowboys with this move would just be putting off a problem and making it worse. And while that wouldn't necessarily be out of character for them, the cap crunch is too obvious for even the most stubborn of owner/GMs to ignore. I would not be surprised if a deal got done to reduce Spencer's cap number for 2013.

2. They must be getting close to a contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo. After all of the restructuring work they did last week to get under the cap, tagging Spencer puts the Cowboys right back at or over it again. While there's other restructuring they can do, the best way for them to get significant 2013 cap relief is still to extend Romo and reduce his 2013 cap number in the process. Since they seemed last week as though they'd decided not to franchise Spencer and then they reversed course today, I have to believe they have some sense now of what Romo's 2013 cap number is going to be. That likely means they've made progress on Romo's extension, which I believe has been a foregone conclusion for some time.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett, Anthony Spencer
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesCowboys LB Anthony Spencer has been tagged as the franchise player for the second straight year.
3. They're prioritizing the defensive front. Spencer will move from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Cowboys' 4-3 defensive alignment under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, rushing the passer from the opposite side of the line from DeMarcus Ware and keeping Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff inside as defensive tackles. That looks like a very good pass-rushing line, as long as Ware and Ratliff can hold up physically and Spencer rushes the passer the way he did in 2012. Those are big "ifs," but the Cowboys appear to have decided they'd rather go cheap on the back end than the front. Which brings us to...

4. They need to address safety. Big time. The move that immediately preceded the Spencer news was the release of safety Gerald Sensabaugh -- a move that saves $1.4 million in cap room and leaves an opening at the back of the defense. The Sensabaugh cut, to me, says that they like Barry Church as the safety who can play the single-high position when Kiffin's scheme calls for it and that they still have plans for 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson. The problems there are that Church is recovering from an Achilles injury and hadn't proven himself as a starter for very long before that happened, and that Johnson was an overdraft at pick 135 last year and missed his rookie season with a hamstring injury. That sounds like two pretty big question marks to me for a defensive scheme that asks a lot of its safeties. Now, the draft is very deep at safety this year, and there are good options on the free-agent market, so it's reasonable to argue that they'll have an easier time replacing Sensabaugh than they would have had finding a 4-3 defensive end to replace Spencer. But there's little doubt now where the Cowboys' biggest defensive need lies.

All in all, I can't say I like the move. It smacks of Jerry Jones' and the Cowboys' persistent inability to let go before it's too late. I feel the same way about Jones' stubborn refusal to part ways with Ratliff, as a matter of fact. But this is all easy for me to say, since I'm not the one who'd have to put together a new defensive line if I made those moves. In the end, it appears as though the Cowboys decided they didn't want to try to do that this offseason.
I never feel comfortable predicting with any certainty what the Dallas Cowboys are going to do, but I consider it unlikely that they designate Anthony Spencer as their franchise player before today's 4 p.m. ET deadline. Franchising Spencer would cost the Cowboys $10.6 million this year, since it'd be the second year in a row in which he played under the franchise player designation, and they'd have to clear about $6 million more in cap room in the next six hours just to do it. And if they did it (say, by finalizing a Tony Romo contract extension), they really wouldn't be able to do much else once free agency started next Tuesday. So I do not expect the Cowboys to franchise Spencer or anyone else by the deadline.

In fact, I don't expect any team in the NFC East to use the franchise tag this year. To wit:

New York Giants: They could use it on safety Kenny Phillips ($6.916 million) or tight end Martellus Bennett ($6.066 million), but I doubt they'll do it for either. They simply don't value the tight end position enough to pay Bennett that much money this season. They like him and could bring him back on a deal that features a lower 2013 base salary, but they don't have the cap room or the inclination to lock him in for a year at the franchise number. As for Phillips, you know I think they should keep him. And they might, but again, on a longer deal at their price. I think they'll let the franchise deadline go by and continue to try and use Phillips' knee problems and Stevie Brown's high 2012 interception total as leverage against Phillips in their negotiations -- and let him walk if he's determined to get more than they want to give him.

Philadelphia Eagles: No way they're using a $10.854 million franchise tag on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Even if they want him back, they'll be able to get him for less. And he's not a guy they can't afford to lose. The Eagles have the cap room to do whatever they want, but they don't have many free agents, and the ones they do have aren't so essential as to merit a franchise designation.

Washington Redskins: I think they'd like to tag tight end Fred Davis but can't afford it because of their cap problems. Linebacker/special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander ($9.619 million), guard Kory Lichtensteiger ($9.828 million) and cornerback Cedric Griffin are all guys they'd like to have back, but not at those prices.