IRVING, Texas – In other sports, this is the month where pen goes to paper for a bracket, or teams are playing sunny practice games at spring training.
In the NFL, the month of March has its own madness with the upcoming start of the new league year, which is the beginning of free agency. That officially takes place on March 11 this year, but this is also the time when things start happening around the league. High-profile guys will get cut, possibly sign new deals or in some cases, both.
The franchise tag deadline passed on Monday with the Cowboys, to no one’s surprise, choosing not to tag any of their players. Anthony Spencer had been tagged in each of the last two years, but after undergoing microfracture surgery, he’s just hoping to get back healthy enough to play football this season, whether it’s with the Cowboys or another team that signs the unrestricted free agent-to-be.
What to do with Spencer is one of many decisions the Cowboys have to make here in the next few weeks. In fact, Spencer might be the last guy the Cowboys decide about, considering he will be a free agent on March 11 but far from healthy. If teams, including the Cowboys, choose to pay big bucks to Spencer, it’ll be with a hope that he can return to form.
But there are plenty of other guys on whom the Cowboys must decide. Let’s break down the team’s free agents and other players who could be cut or have their salaries restructured and/or lowered this month.
Miles Austin – The most likely offseason scenario involves Austin, an eight-year veteran who was once a fan favorite when he burst onto the scene in 2009. A two-time Pro Bowler, Austin’s career has spiraled downward as hamstring injuries have taken their toll. It’s not really about if the Cowboys cut Austin, but when. If they make him a June 1 cut, it can’t happen until March 11. They can save about $5.5 million on the cap, which won’t come off the books until June. That will still be plenty for the Cowboys to sign their draft picks and maybe other cap-casualties that occur in the summer.
DeMarcus Ware – Probably the biggest decision the Cowboys have to make this year, and perhaps in the last several years. Ware has been one of the more consistent and dominant players in franchise history, but injuries have slowed him down the last two seasons. Ware is coming off elbow surgery this offseason, and it’s clear the Cowboys don’t want him to count $16 million on the cap. If the two sides can come to an agreement for a lower base salary, Ware will probably agree to that and stay. But if the Cowboys try to trim too much off his $12.25 million base, Ware could decide against that and be released. That move saves the Cowboys $7.5 million on the cap this year. And there wouldn’t be a reason to make him a June 1, considering they would need to use that extra cap space in free agency now.
Justin Durant – The veteran linebacker was a solid player last season, but with DeVonte Holloman and Kyle Wilber both showing enough promise late last year, coupled with the $1.2 million the Cowboys save by cutting Durant, it seems likely he will not return in 2014 – at least not at that price.
Phil Costa – Like Durant, here’s another player that will probably be on his way out. Costa backed up Travis Frederick and is scheduled to make $1.5 in base salary. Perhaps they could restructure that and lower his base but at that price, a $1.725 million cap charge, it’s likely Costa will be released.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents:
Jason Hatcher – One of the top defensive linemen on the free-agent market, he’ll be 32 when the season starts and that could affect his payday. Don’t rule out the Cowboys getting back into the mix if Hatcher doesn’t get the early-market cash he’s seeking.
Anthony Spencer – This will be interesting because of the nature of his injury. Microfracture surgery won’t be an easy rehab for any player, but Spencer has enough time to get ready for the start of the season. The Cowboys will know his rehab process better than anyone, so they should be the favorites to re-sign him. The key will be how much risk teams like the Cowboys will take by paying him and how much of a pay cut or below-market price will Spencer be willing to accept.
Danny McCray – The Cowboys’ best special teams player over the last four years has been beat up here of late. Injuries have been tough to overcome for McCray, who has proven he is more of a special teams ace only. Likely to sign somewhere else, look for the Bears to have interest with former special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis in Chicago.
Ernie Sims – He filled some voids for this team, but with the development of Wilber and Holloman, don’t expect Sims back in the mix anytime soon. The Cowboys tried to go in another direction last year, but he played too well in training camp to get released.
Brian Waters – The veteran guard hasn’t publicly made a decision on his future, which could include retirement. Waters has not undergone biceps surgery and might not at all if he decides to retire. If he does choose to play, he will likely time it out right so he’ll miss camp but be ready for the season. The Cowboys have to move on mentally, but if he chooses to play, Waters could end up back in Dallas for the right price.
Jarius Wynn – He could be back in 2014, but probably for nothing more than the veteran minimum. But he played well at times last season and since defensive end is a need, Wynn could be a solid option, considering his development last year and his current knowledge of the system.