Helman: Reading Between The Lines Of The Cowboys' Free Agency Options

INDIANAPOLIS – With several weeks still to go before free agency officially opens, it's anyone's guess how the market officially plays out for the Cowboys.

Talking to reporters this week at the NFL Combine, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones allowed that he's not particularly fond of free agency, considering the unpredictable and expensive demands of the open market.

"Unfortunately, good players get paid like they're great players, average players get paid like they're good players and it's a domino effect," Jones said on Tuesday. "It's not a great way to put your team together."

That volatility makes it tough to predict who the Cowboys will add when the time comes, but Jones wasn't shy about sharing his intentions for the coming month.

During the Cowboys' time here in Indianapolis, Jones has been asked at one point or another about most of his team's impending free agents. As noted in another story I wrote, he stated his intention to meet with Rolando McClain's representation about a possible return to Dallas next season.

"Hopefully we can figure something out. We'll be visiting with his agents while we're here," he said.

The same can be said for Morris Claiborne, who represents an interesting problem for the Cowboys. After being taken No. 6 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, it's undeniable that he hasn't lived up to that pick, but he can still be considered a viable starter as a position of need.

"Same thing – like to have him back," Jones said of Claiborne.

Obviously, nothing Cowboys officials say in February is an accurate indicator of what will happen in March. Again, the twists and turns of NFL free agency aren't exactly predictable.

But of the Cowboys' three biggest free agents, Jones at least expressed a willingness to re-sign McClain and Claiborne. Compare those comments to his thoughts on controversial pass rusher Greg Hardy, and you notice a difference.

Asked Tuesday if Randy Gregory's four-game suspension opened the door for Hardy to return to the roster, Jones replied: "We haven't made that decision. We're not going to get into the details and certain names as to who we're going to target."

That's a solid point. Gregory's suspension puts the Cowboys in a rough spot, as they're noticeably short on pass rushers. Perhaps losing Gregory for four games could prompt them to bring back Hardy out of necessity – but they certainly haven't offered any glowing endorsements of the Pro Bowl defensive end.

Hardy signed a one-year, incentive-heavy contract last spring, and he finished the season with 35 tackles and six sacks in 12 appearances. He also brought a heavy amount of scrutiny with him for a wide-variety of off-field behavior – factors Jones said the Cowboys have to consider fully.

"All those things -- that falls into the full body of work," he said. "And so when we evaluate it and finally make a final decision, all that will be measured and obviously all the things you just mentioned were issues at one time or another."

If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture, consider Jones' quote from Wednesday morning. Asked about re-signing Cowboys' free agents this spring, he said it essentially comes down to cost – but he did make one notable exception.

"All of this is a function of price with our guys, for the most part. Obviously Greg is a different situation – we've got to, at the end of the day, make a decision there," Jones said. "But with the rest of the guys it's all going to be a function of price."

Do with all of that what you will. Again, the Cowboys' willingness to re-sign free agents in February isn't going to prompt them to overpay in March. As Jones himself said, price ultimately dictates who will wind up on the roster.

But given that the Cowboys are already formulating gameplans for the months to come, it feels like a telling indicator that they aren't quite sure what to do about Hardy.

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