PHOENIX – Besides their production on the field, the Cowboys' recently departed defensive free agents brought leadership to the locker room.
Safety Barry Church (now with Jacksonville) was a Cowboys defensive co-captain.
Cornerback Brandon Carr (now with Baltimore) didn't miss a start in five seasons with the Cowboys.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne (now with the New York Jets) earned his teammates' respect battling back from debilitating injuries. So did defensive tackle Terrell McClain (now with Washington).
How do the Cowboys replace those intangibles?
Team executive vice president Stephen Jones believes they're still on the current roster.
"You always balance that, but I do think we've got some good leadership on the defensive side of the ball," Jones said from the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix. "Sometimes it takes a void for young leaders to step up.
"I think Byron (Jones) can be a leader on this football team. Jeff Heath can be a leader on this football team in terms of that (defensive backs) room. Obviously Sean Lee's a tremendous leader on the defensive side of the ball. Tyrone Crawford's a big-time leader on the defensive side of the ball."
The Cowboys began the new league year knowing they'd say good-bye to some of their 20 free agents. Although they created about $5 million in room by restructuring Lee's contract, they entered free agency near the bottom of the league in salary cap space.
The reality in today's salary cap era is teams can't afford everyone. Their model is the most cost-efficient approach long term: attempting to draft well and then retaining their own players.
Zack Martin is a good example. The two-time All-Pro guard is the team's top priority for a contract extension at some point in the future.
Unfortunately, the byproduct from a financial standpoint is losing other players to free agency.[embeddedad0]
"We have to make tough decisions," Jones said. "As I said, we don't want to make a living in free agency. It's a tough place to do it. I think we need to continue to build upon what we've done in the draft and hopefully continue to make good picks in the draft. That will help our team tremendously in terms of not only improving ourselves on defense, but also improving our cap situation."
Lee, now a two-time Pro Bowler, wasn't a walk-in starter, or leader, as a second-round pick in 2010. He grew into the role organically with playing time and opportunity.
Jones believes others will next season, too.
"Voids get filled if you pick the right character guys, the right kind of guy," Jones said. "These guys step up when given the opportunity."