Cowboys face costly roster decisions

ARLINGTON, Texas -- All summer long the Dallas Cowboys' main voices -- owner and general manager Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips -- preached that they wanted the best players on their 53-man roster.

In the next 48 hours, Jones and Phillips will gather the assistant coaches, scouts and front-office staff to determine who those players are. But if the early part of this week is an indication, they are also looking to get younger because of money. So the Cowboys have to be careful not to screw things up Saturday afternoon.

The Cowboys released safety Pat Watkins, considered one of their better special teams players. Dallas wants to go with younger safeties Danny McCray and Barry Church to play special teams in place of Watkins, a guy Phillips couldn't find flaw with when asked to do so three times in the past two weeks.

The Cowboys want to go with unproven players on special teams coverage over Watkins. Not so much because Watkins couldn't perform at an acceptable level, but because finances might be a factor.

Watkins was scheduled to make $1.176 million in 2010. McCray and Church make a combined $640,000 in base salaries.

This is not to say McCray and Church can't contribute on special teams, but it's tricky to go with unproven players on such an important unit.

"It's hard," Phillips said about comparing young players to veterans. "You've got to have a feel for it and a feel for the guy. You don't want to live on potential and say, 'Hey, [this] guy has potential, [but] the other guy produces.'

Patrick Crayton, another quality veteran player who is trusted by quarterback Tony Romo, is on the trading block. The Cowboys might grant Crayton's request to be released if they find no takers because of the potential of Kevin Ogletree, who enters his second season.

In the final preseason game of the season, a 27-25 victory over the Miami Dolphins, Ogletree had six catches for 51 yards. It's doubtful the Cowboys are going to cut him, but they still wanted to see something positive from him in the final preseason game.

Ogletree has nice speed and good hands and runs routes well. At times, he's been inconsistent in training camp. In the short term, Ogletree isn't better than the more dependable Crayton.

But Ogletree likes his chances of making the roster.

"Being young doesn't hurt me," Ogletree said. "You can't take anything for granted. Any young player is good, but being a young player the coaching staff can trust is what I want to be."

The issue is money.

Crayton will make $2 million this season. Ogletree is scheduled to earn $395,000.

If the Cowboys release Crayton or possibly trade him because of finances, then Ogletree needs to contribute.

Sam Hurd is another player the Cowboys may release in favor of Ogletree.

The Cowboys like what Hurd can do on special teams. However, he's not good enough to play on offense.

On game days, the Cowboys will have four wide receivers active. No room for Hurd, it seems.

Dallas could release Hurd and possibly bring him back at a reduced salary. He's scheduled to earn $1.759 million this season.

"We're certainly in an uncapped year. We have some leeway," Jones said. "On the other hand, we know we're going to have to pay the fiddler sometime. It's always a part of that in the NFL. That's the system, and we've got to plan on having that system in the future."

Here's all you need to know about how other teams feel about Hurd.

After catching a 43-yard touchdown pass against corner Sean Smith in the first half, Tony Sparano, the Dolphins coach, who used to coach Hurd in Dallas, made the following comment: "I know that receiver on the other side that caught the ball over Sean's head, I know what he's capable of. You would tell me he's a backup, but I know what the guy's about."

Dallas can fool itself into thinking Hurd can be released and re-signed with a pay cut, but there are teams out there who like him.

Everyone around the Cowboys knows there are tough decisions to make regarding the roster. The Cowboys shouldn't nickel-and-dime their roster, especially if they feel like this is a roster that can make a deep playoff run.

It seems the Cowboys want to go with younger players and that's fine, but those young players, regardless of who they are, have to contribute.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.