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Big Decisions Loom For Cowboys As Free Agency Prepares To Open

FRISCO, Texas – The new league year doesn't begin until Thursday at 3 p.m., but it'd be an understatement to say the NFL has already been a whirlwind of activity.

On the eve of the free agency window, motion already seems to have begun on activity that will shape the league landscape for the foreseeable future.

Chief among those concerns is the long-discussed topic of Tony Romo's future with the Cowboys, which may be resolved at the very outset of the new league year. The organization has not made any announcement to this point, but reports surfaced Wednesday indicating that the veteran quarterback would be released from his contract as quickly as Thursday afternoon.

If the Cowboys do in fact make that decision, it comes as a bit of a contrast to the narrative of team owner/general manager Jerry Jones last week during the NFL Combine. While speaking to reporters in Indianapolis, Jones said he was in no rush to determine Romo's future by March 9.

"The March date has a little something to it, but it's not really impactful," Jones said last week. "We could've done something in concept before March 9. We're in a situation right now where we need to see some things happen. We need to read some tea leaves."

If the reports are to be believed, the Cowboys have read the situation well enough to make a decision. What exactly that decision is remains to be seen. If the Cowboys release him outright, they save $5 million on the salary cap while carrying a charge of $19 million on this year's books.

If they decide to make him a post-June 1 cut, they can split that $19 million cost over the next two years – carrying a charge of $10.7 million in 2017 and $8.9 million in 2018.

Regardless of which route they choose, if the Cowboys' do in fact release Romo, it would signal the end of his 14-year tenure with the team – not to mention his decade-long stint as the Cowboys' starting quarterback.

That's only the beginning of what the Cowboys face in free agency, though.

The dominoes are already falling, as the team re-signed receiver Brice Butler on Wednesday morning. Butler's return on a one-year contract marks the first official move regarding a Dallas free agent. The organization also tendered exclusive rights free agent David Irving earlier in the week.

And that's guaranteed to be just the start of the process. Six Cowboys starters – Ron Leary, Terrance Williams, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and Terrell McClain – are slated to become free agents on Thursday afternoon.

The likelihood the Cowboys keep them all is incredibly small, and several of them are already being linked to other franchises. It's a fact the Cowboys have known for a while now, but there's likely going to be a drastic shift in what their lineup looks like – starting as soon as Thursday afternoon.

Any potential departures will also lead to some welcomes, as is always the case. The Cowboys have already freed up about $22 million in salary cap space by restructuring the contracts of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Sean Lee. If they ultimately decide to release Romo, they could bump that number up to roughly $27 million.

There are bound to be some signings. The Cowboys hosted veteran quarterback Josh McCown at their facility on Wednesday, and they have other needs to address – such as cornerback, safety, running back and defensive line.

The Cowboys' offseason philosophy revolves around making good decisions in the NFL draft, but the idea is to firm up the roster before that point. Butler's re-signing makes a lot of sense in that regard. The four-year veteran caught just 16 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns last fall, but he represents a veteran presence who can conceivably start if need be. His presence also shouldn't hinder the Cowboys from addressing the position in the draft, should they want to.

That will be the theme of the next few weeks – determining team needs after the market has taken shape, and addressing them as best as possible in the draft.

If the days leading up to the start of the league year are any indicator, this could be one of the Cowboys' most memorable free agency periods in recent memory.


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