Free agency begins Tuesday, the official first day of the new NFL year.
But don’t expect the Dallas Cowboys to be roaring out of the gate as they did last year when they signed a record eight free agents, including cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million contract.
This year, the salary-cap strapped Cowboys will focus on their own players, and if there is any outside shopping, it will be akin to looking for bargains at a swap meet.
The Cowboys are $6 million over the cap and need to make moves to clear room before Tuesday.
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Here are five things to watch for during free agency:
1 Tony Romo contract talks
The Cowboys are focused on signing quarterback Tony Romo to a long-term contract extension because they want him to finish his career here and because they need him to lower his $16.8 million cap figure for next season. They don’t need to get it done before Tuesday, but if the team hopes to accomplish anything this off-season in terms of adding players, they have to address Romo’s contract. It helps that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco set the bar with his record $120 million deal. Look for Romo to come in just south of Flacco.
2 Negotiations with Spencer
The Cowboys made the important decision on Monday to put the franchise tag on linebacker Anthony Spencer, guaranteeing him a salary of $10.6 million in 2013. Now they must decide if they want to sign him to a long-term deal to lower his cap figure and give them added flexibility in free agency. Owner Jerry Jones said the “the number I have in mind is much less than he’s going to take.” The Cowboys won’t franchise Spencer for a third consecutive year because it will cost them $15.2 million.
3 Roster cuts, adjustments
The Cowboys need to make some moves to clear $6 million in cap room by Tuesday. The Cowboys have verbal agreements in place with nose tackle Jay Ratliff, guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings and cornerback Orlando Scandrick to adjust their contracts to clear cap room. The Cowboys can also turn to backup quarterback Kyle Orton. Linebacker Dan Connor has been told to take a pay cut or he will be cut. He has a $4.3 million cap number next year and a $3 million base salary. They also might release fullback Lawrence Vickers and defensive end Marcus Spears, saving roughly $1.1 million and $600,000, respectively. The Cowboys saved $1.4 million by cutting starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh last week.
4 Who to keep, who is gone
The Cowboys have 15 unrestricted and restricted free agents. But the writing is already on the wall that they will not make an effort to bring many of their free agents back. Look for former first-round picks, running back Felix Jones and cornerback Mike Jenkins, to search for new homes without any resistance from the Cowboys. The same is true for receiver Kevin Ogletree, tight end John Phillips and linebacker Victor Butler. Free agent safeties Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah will possibly be signed and brought to camp for depth purposes. The Cowboys have tendered an offer to restricted free-agent safety Danny McCray.
5 Team needs
The biggest areas of need heading into free agency and the draft are offensive line, defensive tackle, safety and running back. Again, the Cowboys don’t have much financial flexibility to go after some of the bigger names in free agency. So look for them to bargain-shop and address many of their needs in the draft. The release of safety Gerald Sensabaugh has made that position a huge priority, especially considering its importance to the new Tampa-2 scheme on defense. The same is true at running back, where a backup for DeMarco Murray must be found.