IRVING, Texas – One thing is certain with the Dallas Cowboys in free agency: They won't be nearly as busy as they were a year ago.
That's not to say there aren't immediate needs for a team with consecutive 8-8 finishes, three straight seasons without a playoff trip and a .500 record going back 16 years. The Cowboys need more defensive linemen for a switch to the 4-3, and they are thin at safety after releasing Gerald Sensabaugh to clear room under the salary cap.
The biggest question for the Cowboys entering free agency, which starts Tuesday, was whether to keep one of their own. They've already answered it by putting the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer for the second straight year, making it unlikely he will sign elsewhere.
Last year, Dallas signed seven free agents, highlighted by four starters in cornerback Brandon Carr, fullback Lawrence Vickers, offensive linemen Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. Linebacker Dan Connor ended up starting most of the season after Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were lost to season-ending injuries.
This year, the Cowboys have been restructuring contracts to get under the salary cap and still have work to do to make room for Spencer and anyone else they want to add. Dallas is operating with a $5 million cap penalty for the second straight year over the NFL's interpretation of a contract for receiver Miles Austin that was signed during the year without a cap.
"We've had years when we've played free agency and some years when we don't sign anyone because of the cap situation," executive vice president Stephen Jones said in an interview for the team's website. "But obviously last year we went hard. If you have a salary cap, you can't do that every year."
If Spencer doesn't agree to a long-term deal, he will make $10.6 million, or 120 percent of the $8.8 million he earned under the franchise tag last season. His salary is based in part on the average of the top five salaries at linebacker even though he's likely to switch to defensive end with the Cowboys abandoning the 3-4 after eight years.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones hinted at the NFL scouting combine that the team couldn't afford to keep Spencer. But he was a defensive end in the 4-3 at Purdue, and Dallas needs all the options it can get as it makes the transition.
Additionally, coach Jason Garrett couldn't say enough good things during the season about Spencer, who led the Cowboys with the first double-digit sack total of his career (11).
"He's just a good football player," coach Jason Garrett said at the combine. "He showed us that this year and the last four or five years that he can do a lot of different things."
Garrett said the Cowboys were "absolutely" planning to keep defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who was arrested for drunken driving just a few weeks after teammate Josh Brent was jailed on intoxication manslaughter charges in an accident that killed practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown. Brent would have been a factor in the switch to the 4-3, but his career is on hold while his case is in the courts.
Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears and Sean Lissemore are among the veterans likely to land on the interior of the defensive front. But the Cowboys don't have any natural pass-rushing ends beyond DeMarcus Ware and Spencer.
"When you go from a 3-4 style of defense, you talk about what you want from the three defensive linemen and what you want from the linebackers and you go through it," Garrett said. "You just have to kind of rework those and say, 'OK, now we're talking about a defensive end in a 4-3 defense and you go through those parameters. We're in the process of doing that right now, and that will certainly help our evaluation of these players (in the draft) and the free agents that might be available to us."
If the Cowboys add other free agents, the cap room is likely to come from an extension for Tony Romo, who is entering the final year of his contract. Jerry Jones and his son have been clear that they want a new deal for Romo, who turns 33 next month.
Any additions by Dallas are likely to be inexpensive, although that could be a fit at safety, with several veterans getting released for cap relief. The list got longer in recent days with Jacksonville dumping Dawan Landry and Arizona getting rid of Adrian Wilson after 12 seasons with the Cardinals.
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