NFL Nation: Doug Free

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:


The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.


The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.


I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.


Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.


Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick likes to please. He especially likes to please his quarterback, Tony Romo.

As Frederick enters his second season with the Cowboys, he has one goal.

“I’m going to try and do as much as I can to take as much as I can off Tony that he was doing before for the offensive line,” he said. “Not necessarily because I was a rookie or this or that, but because, if I can see it better, that’s going to take one thing off his plate and that’s going to help the team as a whole.”

Part of Romo’s responsibility is setting the protections with calling out the middle linebacker. The offensive line follows the assignment. If Frederick can take that responsibility away from Romo, then Romo can worry more about the coverage.

When Romo and Frederick watch film of practices or games, they discuss what worked and didn’t work, what they might do differently the next time.

“I think what really has helped is going through the season last year,” Frederick said. “It’s literally about situations. You can talk about as many situations as you can think of and still see 50 more. It’s about being in situations and maybe you make a mistake. Maybe last year I’d change the Mike (linebacker call) on something and he would rather have kept it. After it happened, he told me, ‘OK, this is what I would’ve done.’ Now in the next situation I can do it.”

It’s not just about making Romo’s life easier. If Frederick can do more, he makes it easier for his fellow linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Ronald Leary or Mackenzy Bernadeau.

“The more I can communicate, the better Zack’s going to be able to do, the better Tyron is going to be able to do, the better Doug’s going to be able to do,” Frederick said. “When that happens, everybody can move faster and play faster and they don’t have to think. If I can think more than I did last year, then it makes it less that everybody else has to think about.”

There is a physical adjustment Frederick has made this offseason, too.

“Hand placement has been a big thing for me,” Frederick said. “In college it’s just about getting it done. If you’re strong, you have a better opportunity because no matter where you grab usually you can just hold on. But in the NFL with the great talent we play against and even here in who we practice against every day, you really have to focus on where you’re playing your hands and an inch can make a huge difference.”
IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys selected Zack Martin in the first round of last month's draft, Mackenzy Bernadeau didn't need to be told what it meant.

Like first-round picks before him on the offensive line, Tyron Smith (2011) and Travis Frederick (2013), Martin is being plugged in as a starter. The Cowboys have plugged him in at right guard, where Bernadeau has started 26 games the last two seasons.

"I know the business," Bernadeau said. "I know he's going to come in and play somewhere. Not knowing obviously where it's going to happen but I was prepped to know if he's ready to come in take the right side I'll be competing or trying to play the left side or just be ready to prepare to if I need to play all three interior positions. I knew myself and I didn't have to have a conversation with anybody."

Bernadeau has worked with the first team at left guard during the organized team activities and will compete with Ronald Leary for a starting spot. Leary started every game at left guard in 2013. Bernadeau has been taking some backup center snaps as well.

"Since I've been here I'm always going to be ready for all three spots, left side, center, right side," Bernadeau said. "I'm always prepping for that."

Bernadeau, who accepted a pay cut during the offseason over the next two seasons, played left guard for the Carolina Panthers. He said the difference between playing on the right or left side is, "like learning to write with your left hand instead of your right hand," but his previous experience helps.

He had to get used to right tackle Doug Free the last two years, but has spent time getting used to playing next to Tyron Smith in 2014.

"It's more important to get used to the guys next to you and what their steps are than the techniques because I played both sides before," Bernadeau said.

Perhaps most importantly for Bernadeau is that he is on the field at all in the offseason. He missed his first offseason with the Cowboys because of hip surgery and was limited last year because of shoulder surgery.

"It's great to be able to get a full offseason in," Bernadeau said. "Hopefully I'll stay healthy."
IRVING, Texas -- With a rookie minicamp out of the way and the organized team activities starting next week, it's time for the award-winning Five Wonders.

Away we go:
  1. Free
    When the Cowboys picked Zack Martin in the first round, the assumption was that he would (or could) move to right tackle in 2015 with Doug Free in the final year of his contract. I wonder if the Cowboys look to extend Free's contract this offseason. Free is set to make $3.5 million in 2014 as part of a re-worked deal he signed last year. The final two years of his contract void after this season, which means he will count $3.98 million against the cap if he's not a Cowboy in 2015. That's not a reason to keep him. He rebounded with a decent 2013 season and he just turned 30. The Cowboys need to be sensible with a new deal and we've spent the offseason talking about not paying age, which was part of the reason why they said goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and never really tried to keep Jason Hatcher. But tackles tend to play longer. Flozell Adams played his best after he turned 30. This isn't to predict Pro Bowl success for Free; just an example. As for Martin, it was interesting to hear Jerry Jones reference multiple times the importance of being stout in the middle of the line. Keeping Martin at guard might make sense.

  2. By signing Ryan Williams to a one-year deal with no guaranteed money this week, the Cowboys have opened up the competition behind DeMarco Murray. I wonder if they can keep four tailbacks. They did the last couple of years because Phillip Tanner was able to play on most of the special teams' units. Williams' injury history would seem to keep him away from special teams. Lance Dunbar covered some kicks and punts last year, but he had a difficult time staying healthy. Joseph Randle will have to work to be a special teamer. If the Cowboys don't keep a fourth tailback it would allow them to go heavier at tight end or offensive line or even carry a third quarterback, depending on what Kyle Orton decides to do this year. It would also open up a potential spot on the practice squad for a tailback as well.

  3. The Cowboys have made adding defensive linemen to the mix an offseason priority. They want to throw numbers at the position. The Cowboys want to mix the snaps around to keep players fresh. I wonder if Henry Melton or Anthony Spencer can come even close to cashing in on their playing time incentives. Both players have to get healthy first, but Melton is further along in his rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament than Spencer is in his return from microfracture surgery. Melton and Spencer can earn up to $1.5 million apiece depending on certain play-time percentages. Melton can earn $250,000 for 50 percent play time and up to $750,000 if he reaches 70 percent. He has never played more than 60 percent in a season. Spencer' play-time incentive levels are 65 percent ($250,000), 75 percent ($500,000) and 85 percent ($750,000). If he starts the year on the physically unable to perform list, then he would be lucky to hit on the lowest threshold.

  4. I wonder if Jason Garrett's decision to scale back one day of the rookie minicamp because of the number of players who were hurt or were slowed by dehydration is a sign that he will be more compromising in his practice schedule throughout the year. The Cowboys have studied how other teams go about their practices and have dealt with injuries, but the general conclusion is they are doing the right things. Too many players suffered hamstring injuries the last few years. The Cowboys installed ballet bars outside the locker room to help with stretching pre- and post-practice, but I've maintained Garrett needs to cut back on his practice time. You don't want to leave your best work at Valley Ranch during the season. The Cowboys are one of the teams that use GPS devices on players to measure how much they practice, distances traveled and other pieces of information. If the numbers indicate a player has reached a threshold, then they need to rest that guy so as to not risk it. He can call it an adjustment to the new collective bargaining agreement that has shortened the offseason conditioning program. Who knows, it might just work. And it beats the alternative.

  5. On the list of position battles, punter will rank low on the list, but I wonder if undrafted Cody Mandell can push Chris Jones this summer. Mandell averaged 47.1 yards per punt last season at Alabama with a 42.1-yard net average. He had 14 punts of more than 50 yards and 15 ended up inside the 20. He had six touchbacks. Jones will go to camp as the leader without question. He averaged 45 yards per punt and had a 39-yard net average. He had 30 punts inside the 20 and just six touchbacks. He also developed into a reliable holder for Dan Bailey, which cannot be overlooked. And another aspect gives Jones an edge: he's left-footed.
IRVING, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys' first-round pick, all eyes were on guard Zack Martin at the first rookie minicamp practice.

And not just the coaches, scouts, front office and media.

A handful of veteran offensive linemen watched the drills Friday, led by Doug Free, Tyron Smith and Mackenzy Bernadeau.

"They just want to see us work," Martin said. "And if we’re going to be part of that group, they want to make sure and know what they’re getting."

After starting all but two of his 52 games at Notre Dame, Martin lined up at right guard on Friday. Bernadeau started 26 games the past two seasons at right guard. Ronald Leary started at left guard in 2013.

"It's really just a starting point, first time he's been out there," coach Jason Garrett said. "We see his position flex and his versatility. We actually see him starting inside more than we see him starting outside. We'll have great competition all throughout our offensive line, particularly in the interior of our offensive line. It seems like it's a pretty natural fit for him. He typically played on the left hand side, played left tackle, but his position flex is something we thought was a real asset. He's a smart football player. He has a lot of poise about him and doesn't seem to be fazed by a whole lot.”

The Cowboys threw 2013 first-round pick, Travis Frederick, into the starting lineup from the beginning last year. Martin said he does not expect it to take long to get comfortable inside.

“Playing inside, the guys are a lot tighter,” he said. “Everything is closer together, so out on the edge you’ve got room to maneuver. Inside you’ve got to have tighter footwork and be more aware.”

And if he needs any pointers, the veterans will be there.

“Just helping with techniques,” Martin said. “Technique is something you’ve got to get. They’re like another coach on the field. Doug’s been through it a bunch of years now. Maybe if he sees something the coaches don’t see, he’ll correct me.”

Cowboys pick Zack Martin in 1st

May, 8, 2014

IRVING, Texas -- The pick: Zack Martin, offensive line, Notre Dame.

My take: Jerry Jones passed up style for substance by taking Martin over quarterback Johnny Manziel, which might say how the Cowboys are being run these days.

Martin is the third offensive lineman the Cowboys have drafted in the first round in three of the past four years after Jones did not pick an offensive lineman with their top pick from 1989-2010. Martin joins Tyron Smith (2011) and Travis Frederick (2013) as the first-round picks taken the past four seasons.

Martin can come in and play guard, either right or left, as a rookie in 2014 and move to tackle in 2015 depending on Doug Free's status. Free is set to become a free agent after the season. It is also possible Free could move to guard.

The move bolsters the Cowboys' line for quarterback Tony Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries in less than a year, and it also helps for whenever the Cowboys move on to Romo's successor in the future.

Martin was a four-year starter at Notre Dame at left and right tackle.

Saying no to Johnny: In what had to be a difficult decision for Jones, as the Cowboys said no to Manziel. Will it come back to haunt them the way passing on Randy Moss did in 1998?

Moss tormented the Cowboys in his years with the Minnesota Vikings. Manziel could have that opportunity now.

As much as Manziel would have been a marketing dream for Jones, it would have forced him to choose between Manziel and Romo at quarterback. The Cowboys gave Romo a six-year, $108 million extension last year with $55 million guaranteed. From a salary-cap standpoint, the Cowboys would be hard-pressed to get out of Romo's contract comfortably until 2016, though it would not be impossible to do in 2015.

Now, however, it's a decision Jones does not have to make.

What's next: The Cowboys hold the 47th and 78th picks in the second and third rounds on Friday. After going with Martin in the first round, look for them to target defense. The Cowboys had the worst-ranked defense in 2013.

Cowboys Twitter mailbag, Part 2

May, 3, 2014
IRVING, Texas – Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys’ Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss the futures of Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray,a great scenario for the Cowboys if Aaron Donald, Anthony Barr and Zack Martin are there at No. 16 on Thursday, drafting a quarterback later in the draft and the future of Doug Free.

For Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

Cleaning up some Cowboys' cap issues

March, 17, 2014
IRVING, Texas – As the Dallas Cowboys ponder what to do with Henry Melton, Jared Allen and Brandon Weeden, let's clean up some salary-cap issues.

First the good news: Well, for Tony Romo and Sean Lee it's good news.

Romo and Lee will receive $5 million payments on their deferred signing bonus money this week. Romo received a $25 million signing bonus last year as part of his six-year, $106 million extension. Lee received a $10 million signing bonus last summer as part of a six-year, $42 million extension.

Now the bad news:

With last week's decision to designate Miles Austin a post-June 1 cut, the Cowboys created $5.5 million in salary-cap room in 2014 but they do not get the credit until June. Most of that money will go to their draft picks. But that move also created $5.105 million in dead money against the 2015 salary cap.

The Cowboys are also looking at $3.98 million in 2015 in dead money once the final two years of Doug Free's deal voids. There will be another $2.254 million in dead money once Kyle Orton's deal expires. The Cowboys could look to extend Free's contract this year, which could keep that nearly $4 million off the books.

And now some good news again:

One way to look at the release of DeMarcus Ware, which opened up $7.4 million in space this year, is that it created $17.5 million in cap room in 2015 because he is off the books.

Dallas roster not stripped, but retooled

February, 25, 2014
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said stripping down the team and going through a complete overhaul is impossible in large part because of the salary cap.

If you look at the roster, however, the Cowboys have undergone a slow-rebuild -- if not a one-year overhaul -- the past few years with the idea that they can still make the playoffs, which would fall into Jones’ “compete for a Super Bowl,” credo by definition.

The 8-8 finishes the past three seasons have prevented the Cowboys from making the playoffs, but the roster overhaul has happened and the cleaning up of the cap, as Stephen Jones likes to call it, is in midstream.

The offensive line has been remade since 2011 with only Doug Free remaining. They have invested in three younger cornerbacks, although they have yet to see the payoff in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They have two younger receivers to build around in Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams.

The rebuilding of the defensive line has to start this offseason, especially if DeMarcus Ware does not return.

The Cowboys have gotten younger. They have seven players under contract for 2014 that will be 30 or older by the time the season starts. Only Tony Romo, Free, Jason Witten and L.P. Ladouceur are guaranteed to be around this season. There are cap questions around Ware and receiver Miles Austin, and quarterback Kyle Orton has to decide whether he wants to continue to play.

Free agent defensive linemen Jason Hatcher (32) and Anthony Spencer (30), and guard Brian Waters (37) will be allowed to test the market and sign elsewhere.

The Cowboys have 27 players signed past 2014 who finished the year on the 53-man roster in 2013. Only 10 have significant financial commitments, including Austin and Ware, who could be gone before this coming season. Players such as Carr and Mackenzy Bernadeau could be part of a recycle in 2015.

Bryant and Tyron Smith stand to see steep pay increases over the next 12-18 months, with their contracts expiring over the next two seasons. Perhaps the same could happen with running back DeMarco Murray, who is in the final year of his deal.

Rebuilding is not a word Jones will use. Reloading does not apply to a team that has one playoff win since 1996.

Maybe retooling is the more apt description.

But will that guarantee anything more than 8-8?
IRVING, Texas -- Now comes the fun part for the Dallas Cowboys.

With their projected salary cap of $127.6 million in 2014, they have to find a smart way to shave nearly $25 million to get under the cap. Preferably they would cut more than that in order to have room to sign players in free agency.

The task might seem daunting, but with a couple of clicks on a computer, they can get that $25 million pretty easily.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware has reached double-digit sacks for seven consecutive seasons, but he'll need four sacks in the final three games to keep the streak alive.
AP Photo/James D. SmithHow to handle DeMarcus Ware's contract looms as a big decision for the Cowboys in the offseason.
The question is how much money do they want to push into the future on veterans?

“We’ll have extensive personnel meetings in regards to (the cap),” coach Jason Garrett said. “When you put that together with the financial part of it, the salary cap part of it, we think it’s really important to do the football evaluation thoroughly independent of that. And then you add that as an element. It’s an element that’s alive and well in the National Football League. Money matters in the salary-cap era we’re in right now. But I do believe the football evaluation is primary, and then you add that element into it, and then you make your best decisions for your team in regards to that player and how he fits in your team.”

The Cowboys will restructure the contracts of Tony Romo and Sean Lee. Those two moves will create about $13.4 million in salary-cap relief, while also increasing the cap numbers on those players in future years. However, when the Cowboys signed these deals, this was their only option.

In the past the Cowboys have restructured DeMarcus Ware's contract with no questions asked. He was putting together Pro Bowl seasons, and it was worth it. Now coming off a six-sack season and turning 32 in July, is it worth it to do it once more?

He is to count $16.003 million against the cap with a $12.25 million base salary. If they simply restructure his contract again, the Cowboys would gain nearly $8.6 million in cap space. But they have to factor in future cost, age and performance when making the move. Ware has said he would restructure, but clarified his “pay cut” stance after the season. If the Cowboys choose to cut Ware, they would free up $7.4 million in room.

The Ware decision looms as the Cowboys’ biggest of the offseason, especially if he does not take a pay cut. They do not have an in-house candidate to take his spot, and could gamble that he returns to form in 2014.

Brandon Carr will have a $12.217 million cap number. Restructuring his deal made sense before the season started, but might be a question now because of how he played in 2013. If they redo his deal like they did in 2013, then they are adding to his cap figures down the road, which would make it harder to release him.

The feeling is they will bite the bullet and re-work the deal, creating about $4.7 million in room.

Restructuring Jason Witten's deal will create $2.6 million in room.

If you look at Romo, Lee, Carr and Witten, that is nearly $21 million in room. The decision on Ware could create as little as $7.4 million, and as much as $8.6 million.

Wide receiver Miles Austin figures to be a June 1 casualty, which will open up $5.5 million in space, but would carry more than $5 million in dead money in 2015. Most of that money will be used to sign the draft picks.

The Cowboys have other avenues to create space (Doug Free, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Kyle Orton) in varying ways.

Getting under the cap will not be an issue. Getting under the cap enough to be able to make upgrades in free agency is another story.

Teams have to overpay in free agency. Signing Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal two years ago is proof, but that was the going rate for a top cornerback on the market. It is rare to get the on-field value to match the contract in free agency.

The Cowboys would be better served to be bit players in free agency and keep their own, like a Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey, with longer-term contracts.

Dallas Cowboys season wrap-up

January, 2, 2014

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 17
Preseason power ranking: 20

Biggest surprise: The Dallas Cowboys did not believe they could have a worse defense than the one they fielded in 2012. They were wrong.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan lost his job after the Cowboys finished the year ranked 19th in defense and allowed 400 points. The Cowboys not only switched defensive coordinators, they switched philosophies, bringing in Monte Kiffin to run a 4-3 scheme.

It never worked.

The Cowboys allowed 6,645 yards, 432 points and failed to deliver most of the time. They were hit by injuries, just as Ryan’s defense was, and poor play from big-name players such as DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. Sean Lee was having a Pro Bowl-type season but hamstring and neck injuries forced him to miss most of the final seven games. Only Jason Hatcher, Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church had representative seasons.

Biggest disappointment: It’s hard not to go with Ware, who had a career-low six sacks. For the first time he did not play in every game in a season, missing three games with a quadriceps strain. He also played with injuries to both elbows, a back strain and stinger. But the pick will be Miles Austin. Like Ware, he suffered through injury. He missed five games with a hamstring injury and was held without a catch in two games as he attempted to play through the strain. He finished the season with 24 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns. It was the fewest catches he had since 2008 when he was a bit player and first time since 2007 he did not score a touchdown. The Cowboys hoped for a late-season boost when he returned but it never came.

Biggest need: The easy answer is to say upgrade the entire defense. They need help at linebacker and safety. The defensive line needs an overhaul. We talked about Ware’s status, but Hatcher, who had a career-high 11 sacks, and Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery, are set to be unrestricted free agents. The Cowboys used 19 defensive linemen during the year and found solid contributions from players such as George Selvie and Nick Hayden, but optimally they play in reserve roles. The hits on the line started in April when the Cowboys passed on Sharrif Floyd, their fifth-ranked player, at No. 18 and traded down and continued when Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles on the first day of camp. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in the offseason the defensive line was a strength. There is no way he can say that now.

Team MVP: By process of elimination it cannot be a defensive player because the unit was the worst in the NFL. DeMarco Murray would get votes for a second-half MVP. The contest comes down to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Romo missed the final game because of back surgery, but threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted only 10 times while throwing for 3,828 yards. Bryant earned his first Pro Bowl berth and finished with 93 catches for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. They made big plays at big moments. They had mistakes at big moments, too. As a result, they split the award.

Five Wonders: Looking to the future

December, 17, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- So many things to wonder, so little time.

It’s Five Wonders and we’re hitting big topics right off the top.

Away we go:

** I wonder if the Cowboys have a decision to make on DeMarcus Ware in the offseason. Ware is set to count $16.003 million against the salary cap in 2014. He has a base salary of $12.25 million. The Cowboys have reworked his contract numerous times over the years, even adding voidable years to it to help with the prorated amounts. They will need to restructure more contracts in the offseason to get under the projected $126.3 million salary cap in 2014. They will also have to cut some high-priced veterans. Perhaps even Ware, which seems shocking in a way. Ware has only six sacks with two games to go. He missed three games because of a quadriceps injury and has not been effective for much of the past month. He was so good in training camp. He made Tyron Smith look bad on an almost daily basis. Is it just health? Ware says he is healthy. Is it age? Ware turns 32 next July. The Cowboys have made mistakes with age before. Jay Ratliff comes immediately to mind. Ware is far from Ratliff. He is the right kind of guy. He works hard. He is a good teammate. He plays hurt. Ware has not only missed three games but he is playing only 67.2 percent of the snaps when he does play. It is one thing to commit $16 million to a guy on the cap when he is getting you anywhere from 12 to 18 sacks a season. It’s another thing to do it when he is struggling. If the Cowboys released Ware, their all-time leader in sacks, they would save $7.43 million against the cap. Jerry Jones has a hard time with these types of decisions. Could he ask Ware to take a cut in pay? Would Ware accept one?

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesIs Jason Garrett's future in Dallas secure?
** Mike Shanahan won’t be the Washington Redskins' coach in 2014. Could he join the Dallas Cowboys' coach? If Jones decides to part ways with Jason Garrett, then Shanahan’s name will be linked to the Cowboys just because he’s a name. Same with Jon Gruden. But let’s stick with Shanahan here for a moment. Now it’s difficult to take Albert Haynesworth’s word for much. After all he did stomp on Andre Gurode’s head in 2006. But Haynesworth said last week in Washington, D.C., that it is in Shanahan’s contract that Daniel Snyder has to limit contact with the players. I can understand why Shanahan would want that in there. It helps him control things more. But I wonder if Shanahan would ever come here because you know Jones would never EVER have that in coach’s contract. Jones moved to the background when Bill Parcells was coach but he did not disappear.

** Let’s stick with the head coaching theme and the possibility of Garrett’s demise. Forget “who” Jerry Jones targets. I wonder “what” kind of coach he targets. Shanahan and Gruden have Super Bowl rings on their résumé, but Jones has said before he does not necessarily want a coach with a championship because he does not believe the coach has the same fire. (Yes, I realize Parcells is an exception.) I wonder if Jones goes for a defensive coach. The offensive personnel figures to be mostly the same in 2014: Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Smith, Travis Frederick, DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams and Gavin Escobar. The defense needs the re-tooling. Does Jones go after a defensive coach? There’s a lot of work to do there obviously and not as many parts. Who is a building block? Sean Lee. The rest you hope can rebound from poor seasons. If Jones goes defense, I wonder if he would go with a first-time coach or a veteran head coach. Would Mike Zimmer be in the mix? Lovie Smith? None of this matters if the Cowboys win their final two games.

** I wonder if Murray’s performance over the past month or so is making those at Valley Ranch rethink their thoughts about his long-term future. Murray is 23 yards away from reaching 1,000 yards for the season. He probably should have hit that number against the Green Bay Packers if they just ran the ball more. He will get it this week against the Redskins barring something unforeseen and he will do it in just his 13th game of the season having missed two games with a knee injury. That’s pretty impressive. He has run harder as the season has gone on but has left yards on the field as well. The prevailing wisdom is that running backs can be found here, there and everywhere and you only commit long term to the Adrian Peterson types. Murray is not that kind of back but he has had his best season. He is signed through 2014.

** If the Cowboys lose Sunday and the Philadelphia Eagles win, I wonder how the Cowboys approach the season finale against the Eagles. The Cowboys will be out of the playoff chase. In 2005 the Cowboys were eliminated before their finale against the St. Louis Rams but Parcells chose to go with his starters and lost 20-10. Many inside the organization wanted to see him start Tony Romo in that finale, but the coach stuck with Drew Bledsoe. Not to go all Herm Edwards on you here, but you play to win the game. If you can take a look at a player, then fine. The problem the Cowboys have is they don’t have much in the pipeline you would want to see. Maybe Jermey Parnell gets a shot at right tackle, but Doug Free hasn’t done anything to be benched and should be back in 2014. Maybe Escobar takes the bulk of the backup tight end snaps over James Hanna. Would that change any perceptions of Escobar as he heads into his second season? Could Williams get the work over Miles Austin? Yeah, but that has happened for most of the season.
IRVING, Texas -- The location of Tyron Smith's new locker at the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility says a lot about how the franchise views the 22-year-old left tackle.

Smith moved this week to the locker formerly occupied by defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. It's noteworthy because that stall is one of six that border the exits in the locker room, and coach Jason Garrett has strategically tried to put team leaders in those lockers because they are the highest trafficked areas in the room.

OK, so that didn't work out real well with Ratliff, who now plays for the Chicago Bears after a rather bitter departure from Dallas in October. But the other players in the exit lockers -- Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Doug Free -- set examples that Garrett wants the rest of the Cowboys to follow.

"An NFL locker room is a sacred place, and there are things that are controlled in there," said Witten, who is now Smith's neighbor in the locker room. "Tyron has earned that. That's something that he deserves. If you look around our football team, he's a guy that plays at a high level and expects everyone else to as well. I think that's a good thing to have him there."

Garrett has been effusive in his praise for Smith recently, saying the third-year tackle is performing at a Pro Bowl level. Smith's new real estate in the locker room is evidence that the coaches consider him a leader despite the fact that he's younger than every player on the team with the exception of most rookies.

"Ain't there yet," Smith said. "I'm trying to get there."

Midseason Report: Dallas Cowboys

November, 6, 2013

IRVING, Texas -- After nine games, the Dallas Cowboys have issues.

The defense can't stop a topflight quarterback. The offense can't -- or won't -- run the ball. Injuries have affected the offensive line, defensive line and secondary.

Yet with seven games to play, the Cowboys lead the NFC East with a 5-4 record. Can they join the conference elite?

Before that question can be answered, here's a look at how the Cowboys have graded out so far:

Cowboys' cap jail not life sentence

October, 21, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- As Adam Schefter reported on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys are projected to be over the 2014 salary cap by a league-high $31 million, but it’s not as if the team did not know it.

With the quick work of the calculator, the Cowboys can shave nearly $37 million off the salary cap with six restructures and just two roster moves.

When the Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a six-year extension worth $108 million last offseason, and Sean Lee to a six-year extension worth $42 million last summer, they did so knowing they would re-work the players’ deals in Year 2. The Cowboys can create roughly $13 million in salary-cap room just with those two moves alone.

Restructuring the deals of DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Carr, Jason Witten and Orlando Scandrick could create another $17 million in cap space.

They can get another $5.5 million in salary-cap space by making wide receiver Miles Austin a post-June 1 cut, or could come up with less savings by asking Austin to take a pay cut the way right tackle Doug Free did in 2013. The possible release of Mackenzy Bernadeau would give the Cowboys $1.4 million in space, but create a hole on the line, especially if Brian Waters does not want to continue to play.

The downside of restructuring the deals of veterans is that it increases their cap figures in the future. Romo’s 2015 salary-cap figure would balloon to more than $27 million, but the team would simply re-work the contract again and push the due bill out again.

Teams expect a spike in the salary cap in 2015 or ’16 that could make it all more palatable.

By then the Cowboys will have to make decisions on free agents like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and possibly Bruce Carter.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones, who is in charge of the salary cap, says the same thing every year when it comes to free agency: the Cowboys will be able to do what they want to do in free agency.

And 2014 should not be any different, even if it looks daunting right now.