Phillips: 3 Things We've Learned About The Cowboys Since New League Year Began

FRISCO, Texas – Three observations on the state of the Cowboys two weeks into free agency, five weeks from the NFL Draft and no apparent timeline on a Tony Romo decision:

The Cowboys are sticking to their free agency plan.It's not flashy, but it's really no different than past offseasons, intensified this year by the team's modest salary cap space: they've looked for cap-friendly deals, not big-money contracts.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones foreshadowed this approach in late February at the Combine: "Not a huge fan of having to go out and pay guys a lot of money, filling in big needs through unrestricted free agency," he said. "We'd rather build through the draft and then pay our own players."

As of Wednesday, the Cowboys have made three new signings: cornerback Nolan Carroll, defensive tackle Stephen Paea and defensive end Damontre Moore. They're bringing back six of their own: wide receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler; running back Darren McFadden; defensive end David Irving; quarterback Kellen Moore; and guard Jonathan Cooper.

They've also watched nine players from the 2016 roster sign with new teams: cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne; safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox; defensive linemen Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford and Ryan Davis; guard Ronald Leary; and running back Lance Dunbar.

Mass departures might be alarming to some fans, particularly with regard to the defense, which has lost three starters in the secondary (Carr, Claiborne, Church) and a productive starting tackle (McClain). As Jones said, the market was going to dictate how active the team could be re-signing their own guys. As the saying goes in the salary cap era, you can't pay everybody.

Nolan and Paea will help fill in, and the Cowboys have faith that some of their young returning players, such as safety Jeff Heath and cornerback Anthony Brown, can step into larger roles. No question they still need help at defensive back and defensive line, though – and perhaps that's where the draft comes in. The general consensus by outside draft observers is D-Line and DB are arguably the two deepest spots in this year's class.

Speaking of the draft, the Cowboys could be in line for several more picks in 2018.The Cowboys didn't receive any compensatory picks this year, but as things stand now – three new signings and nine free-agent departures – they're likely looking at multiple compensatory picks in 2018. (The maximum is four.)

The league assigns these extra draft choices to teams at the end of rounds three through seven using a formula that weights the number of players lost via free agency versus the number of free agents signed. Factors are salary, playing time and postseason honors.

Worth noting: Compensatory picks now can be traded. If the Cowboys are awarded multiple picks next year, they'll have extra assets to potentially move around the 2018 draft.

Worth noting, too: starting quarterback Dak Prescott was the team's first of four compensatory picks last year (No. 135 at the end of the fourth round).

Jerry Jones' Combine-week comments on the Tony Romo situation were prophetic.

"We're in a situation right now where we need to see some things happen," Jones said in Indianapolis the weekend before free agency began. "We need to read some tea leaves. We don't need to be overtly doing something. We don't need to do that for cap room; we don't need to do that for anything."

Jones also was asked that day about the potential benefits of gaining $5.1 million in cap space if Romo were to be released.

"We have other ways to get the $5 million," Jones said.

The next week, linebacker Sean Lee's contract restructure created about $5 million in cap room.

Bottom line: Romo's still under contract, and the Cowboys never issued a self-imposed deadline on resolving his status with the team. It's March 22, and there's no conclusion yet.

Jones said back in Indy that he didn't feel pressured to make a decision by the start of the new league year. He also has never ruled out Romo's return despite the soon-to-be 37-year-old moving to a reserve role for the first time in 10 years last season.

What ultimately happens remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the Cowboys haven't put themselves on the clock here.

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