Ellis: Robinson Deal Has To Be Realistic

IRVING, Texas -When it comes to their own free agents, most Cowboys fans agree priority No. 1 needs to be re-signing wide receiver Laurent Robinson.

An under-the-radar signing after final cuts in September, he blossomed into a big part of the offense, catching an eye-popping 11 touchdowns and showing an obvious connection with Tony Romo. Given Miles Austin's hamstring problems of 2011 and Dez Bryant's occasional flakiness, one might argue the Cowboys absolutely have little choice but to get something done with Robinson, maybe with money as no object.

Except money is an object when you're on a budget, as the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL are because of the salary cap. Stephen Jones has said the team will be able to do what it wants, which is great.

The question is, how much should the Cowboys really want to pay a No. 3 receiver? If everyone is healthy, that would still be Robinson's role. In fact, he would actually be the fourth option in the passing game, with Jason Witten ahead of him.

Robinson is a really nice player for that spot. He's a good fit here. But how much do you pay the fourth option - fourth! - in the passing game, when there are so many other positions in need of upgrades at starter.

Like, what about safety, a cornerback position or two, outside linebacker, both end spots on defense, and maybe both guard positions on offense?

The salary cap makes free agency a zero sum game. The money the Cowboys would pay to their fourth receiving option is money they can't give to that Pro Bowl guard from New Orleans, or one of those cornerbacks from Kansas City or Atlanta.

Is Robinson a different player from the one the Cowboys signed off the streets just prior to Week 1, released in Week 2 and were then able to get back in Week 3? Or does he just look better because of the nice season he had with this quarterback, in this offense.

Robinson went to training camp with the Chargers in 2011 on a one-year deal for the veteran minimum. In four seasons prior, with only 38 games played because of injury issues of his own, he had a total of 89 catches for 1,000 yards and four touchdowns.

Not exactly eye-popping numbers. But look, all this isn't intended to tear down Laurent Robinson so much as it is to point out that there will be other Laurent Robinsons available in free agency, guys on the verge, guys who could be a fine fourth option for this team.

There's Robert Meachem of the Saints, Harry Douglas of the Falcons, Domenik Hixon of the Giants. Cincinnati's Jerome Simpson (he of the backflip) is out there, as are Chicago's Earl Bennett and Minnesota's Greg Camarillo.

The Cowboys could even bring back Patrick Crayton if they wanted him bad enough. Remember, Crayton had 50 catches, 697 yards and seven touchdown for this team in 2007. In the middle of that season, in which he started every game, he signed a four-year, $14 million deal.

It was fair money for a guy with one pretty good season, and would be still. Back then, Crayton was the Cowboys' third option.

Robinson's 2011 was better, of course, but the Cowboys still have to think of him as their fourth option in the passing game.

That's why they have to set a reasonable limit for themselves in negotiations to re-sign Robinson.

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