- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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We have a running Insider feature called "Offseason Playbook," and the latest one looks at the Dallas Cowboys. Gary Horton and Field Yates break down the team's offensive and defensive philosophies and biggest offseason needs, and it's a pretty comprehensive look at the Cowboys' situation. I agree that offensive line remains Dallas' biggest need ahead of defensive line, for example, and I think safety and running back are good calls for needs No. 3 and 4.
But what caught my eye was the part at the end where they take a look at a key free-agent move they think the team should make. The name they pick for the Cowboys is the ultra-realistic name of unrestricted free-agent guard Donald Thomas:
The salary-cap woes of the Cowboys are no secret, so don't count on Dallas making a string of splashy free-agent signings. What the team needs to do is target value signings, and Thomas, buried on the New England Patriots' depth chart at guard behind Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, is a starting-level player who won't break the bank on the open market. The Cowboys could stand to upgrade at right guard in particular, where Mackenzy Bernadeau struggled in 2012.
Thomas, a 27-year-old four-year veteran, is an effective run-blocker who also would improve the Cowboys' protection of Romo. He's a smart, developing interior linemen who also offers value as an emergency center. While Anthony Spencer is the biggest free agent the Cowboys have this offseason, it will take cap maneuvering to sign him to the high-priced deal he is currently seeking. A possible contract extension for Tony Romo could free up some space for Dallas, but with the Cowboys' current spending limits, Thomas is the type of player Dallas needs to pursue, and he's a player who can start right away.
Now, the idea of signing another unheralded free-agent guard a year after they brought in Bernadeau and Nate Livings may sound like plowing the same old ground. But the premise here is what I like -- the idea that whatever solutions the Cowboys are able to find on this year's market or even in this year's draft aren't going to be big, exciting names but rather strategically targeted pieces that fit their needs well. They are going to have to be smart and minimize their chances of mistakes.
The issue is whether you can trust the Cowboys to operate that way. They claimed they were working to do that last year in the free-agent market and did so with mixed results. With limited cap room and many needs on both lines and elsewhere, this is going to have to be a surgically successful offseason for the Cowboys if they're to build a 2013 playoff contender. Whoever they sign, it's not likely to be someone of whom you've heard very much.