With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the Cowboys stand.
Top three story lines
1. QB Tony Romo had to finish last season with his broken clavicle healing, watching Jon Kitna salvage a 5-3 finish to an otherwise lost season. Now Romo waits to enter — broken record time — a critical season in his future with the Cowboys. But this time we really mean it. Romo has shown some leadership skills by organizing player workouts during the lockout, but he must make a big statement this season to keep his place under center for the Cowboys.
2. What does the defense hold in store? Last season's early-season meltdown was as much about the ineffectiveness of the "D" than any other reason, which was shocking when you saw how much talent there was. But the players had lost respect for Wade Phillips, who was let go midseason, and the baton now has been handed off to Rob Ryan. Not quite as bombastic a personality as his brother Rex, the head coach of the Jets, Rob nonetheless has just as creative and fertile a defensive mind and should have fun mixing and matching the talent to come up with some fresh personnel packages once they get back to football. There's too much talent to duplicate last season's disaster.
3. Will the Cowboys make a splash in free agency? Other than hiring Ryan and retaining Jason Garrett, it has been an eerily quiet offseason in Dallas. Jerry Jones passed on chances to trade in the draft, and many believe he's poised to strike at some point. There has been a groundswell from the fan base to sign CB Nnamdi Asomugha, which would lead to the release of Terence Newman. It would be an upgrade on defense and allow Ryan to play his pressure-based schemes with man coverage on the back end.
2011 free agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: S Alan Ball (3), OT Alex Barron (6), DE Stephen Bowen (5), OT Doug Free (4), QB Chris Greisen (4), DE Jason Hatcher (5), WR Jesse Holley (1), WR Sam Hurd (5), OG Kyle Kosier (9), CB Bryan McCann (1), S Gerald Sensabaugh (6), DE Marcus Spears (6), ILB Leon Williams (4). [Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]
Analysis: One of the first orders of business might be to sign Free to a long-term deal. He was terrific in his first full season as a starter and appears to be the future at left tackle, unless the team determines that 2011 first-rounder Tyron Smith fits better there. There will be decisions to make on Hatcher, Bowen and Spears, and at least one of them will be gone. There has been some talk about exploring one of the top free-agent five-techniques, such as Cullen Jenkins, and letting the other players walk. Spears is perhaps the least likely to return. Safety is a need position, as Ball and Sensabaugh struggled last season. Expect the Cowboys to explore veteran free-agent options there. A veteran wide receiver also might be on the list of things to do if Roy Williams is deemed too expensive to return. A lot of familiar faces — Williams, Marion Barber, Marc Colombo and others — could be cut.
2011 rookie class
First-round OT Tyron Smith (No. 9 overall) — The plan is to try him at both tackle spots, but he's expected to be the starting right tackle if he can maintain his weight.
Second-round LB Bruce Carter (No. 40 overall) — A tremendous athlete and a potential steal here if healthy, Carter will continue to rehab his knee and try to get ready by August.
Third-round RB DeMarco Murray (No. 71 overall) — Murray has good ability if he can stay healthy, and his arrival could spell the end of Marion Barber.
Fourth-round OG David Arkin (No. 110 overall) — The physical, gnarly Arkin could join Smith in the starting lineup at some point because of the age at guard.
Fifth-round CB Josh Thomas (No. 143 overall) — His poor ball skills will keep him as a developmental corner, but his tackling ability will be served well on special teams.
Sixth-round WR Dwayne Harris (No. 176 overall) — Despite a lack of great speed, Harris was a playmaker in college and could factor in as a returner in the pros.
Seventh-round FB Shaun Chapas (No. 220 overall) — He's a dirty-work fullback who could push Chris Gronkowski and factor in on special-teams units.
Seventh-round C Bill Nagy (No. 252 overall) — A developmental project who could be tried at center or guard.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Cowboys be by the work stoppage?
On scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Cowboys rate a 5. The Cowboys want to get Ryan's hands on his defenders to teach them his myriad formations and intricate packages as much as possible. Romo would like to get back to work for real and get plenty of reps, and the offensive line — which lacked chemistry last season — could have two or three new starters. Also, the team wants troubled WR Dez Bryant to get back with the program so it can monitor him closely.