The Dallas Cowboys are a team on a figurative treadmill.
Dallas is a playoff contender every season, but Big D is no closer to winning a Super Bowl championship than it was in January 2008 when the Cowboys lost a home playoff game to division rivals the New York Giants. They don't have the talent or depth found on the rosters of the Seattle Seahawks or the San Francisco 49ers. Even the Carolina Panthers and possibly the Philadelphia Eagles have passed Dallas in that respect.
The 2013 Cowboys were a mixed bag as far as their salary cap numbers. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is nothing short of a bargain, while quarterback Tony Romo is, depending on your expectations for a franchise QB, can be argued with equal passion to be either worth or not worth his deal. One thing is clear about the state of the Dallas roster:
It needs help on both sides of the ball.
10 Dez Bryant, WR: $2.926 million cap hit
Dez Bryant can, at times, be a pain in the you-know-what, but there is no denying how great a player he is and what great value he is at his current deal. The fourth-year wide receiver reeled in 93 total passes, good for eighth-best in the league, and only two players had more receiving touchdowns in 2013 than did Bryant (13). You really can't ask for much more from an offensive play-maker who has a cap hit of under $3 million.
Here's the problem. Bryant, who recently stated that he is “Dallas forever,” is set to get paid after next season, and Dallas will be tight against the cap. In other words, Bryant will, unless he's prepared to offer the Cowboys a true and massive hometown discount, be set to enter a contract year. As long as he doesn't perform as poorly as did Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants last season, Bryant will be able to write his own ticket next winter.
9 Sean Lee, LB: $2.930 million
You know what you're going to get with this product of Penn State University. Lee's tackling talent will never be questioned. He finished the season second on the Cowboys in total tackles.
The problem is that the guy just cannot stay healthy.
Lee hasn't played in all 16 games of a regular season in a single one of his four years in the league. Neck and hamstring problems plagued him throughout 2013, and he missed five contests in all. It's a shame, because Lee has the goods to be one of the best in the business at the position.
We'll likely never know just how good he could have been.
Grade: Good, but unlucky
8 Tyron Smith, T: $3,408,027
The third-year pro is evolving into a cornerstone of the Dallas offensive line. Smith has proven to be worthy of being selected ninth overall back in 2011, and he picked up several honors at the end of last season. He was selected for the Pro Bowl, the Associated Press named him a second team All-Pro, and USA Football selected him to the All-Fundamentals Team.
He'll cash in down the road, but the Cowboys don't have to worry about that at the moment.
Grade: Well worth the money
7 Miles Austin, WR: $3,589,400
“What happened to Miles Austin?” The title of this ESPN.com story tells you all you need to know about Austin's 2013. Take away his rookie campaign, and Austin had the worst season of his NFL career. He reeled in just 24 of 49 passes, and he didn't find the end zone once for the first time since 2007, his initial year in the league.
The veteran wide receiver is banged up, and reports emerged right after the season that he will be released when free agency begins. Dallas can get better production at a much better price in a younger WR. It's time for both parties to move on.
Grade: See you later
6 Morris Claiborne, CB: $3,696,478
“From what I know, from his perspective, if you step back from it and look at his age (23) and his personal experience there with the loss of his dad and building a family, on top of dealing with the disappointment with injury, he's a competitor. You put all that together and it was a hard year for him.”
Jones will be hoping that 2013 was just a one-off. Claiborne played in only 10 of 16 regular season games, and he failed to outshine Orlando Scandrick when healthy. It's too early to break out the “bust” label.
That day, however, isn't all that far away.
Grade: Do better
5 Jason Witten, TE: $4.352 million
You're not going to get me to say anything bad about Witten. He made his ninth Pro Bowl in eleven years, he's been the most consistently productive tight end of the past decade, and he's going to go down as one of the greatest receiving tight ends in NFL history.
I've seen the mock drafts suggesting that the Cowboys should maybe dangle Witten as trade bait in order to move up in the 2014 NFL Draft and grab a play-maker. He gave Dallas 73 catches and eight touchdowns last season. His best days aren't ahead of him, but that doesn't mean that Witten can be easily replaced.
4 Brandon Carr, CB: $5.432 million
A defensive back with a cap number like Carr's needs to be a shutdown corner. He was torn to shreds by Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who went for over 300 receiving yards against Dallas on October 27, and Carr fell into somewhat of a slump after that contest. Some have suggested that Carr, who finished the year fourth on the team in total tackles, should move to safety.
That might not be the worst idea, especially if the other cornerbacks on the roster play up to expectations.
Grade: Talented, but should be more
3 Doug Free, T: $6.520 million
The 30-year-old took a pay cut last offseason, and then Free had himself a solid 2013. He was a significant part of an offensive line that played better than advertised, and it is expected that he will again start for Dallas next fall. Just because he isn't mentioned among the best tackles in the league doesn't mean that the veteran of seven seasons isn't worth the money.
That said, the Cowboys may look to expand his contract in order to free up some cap space.
Grade: Money earned
2 DeMarcus Ware, DE: $8,092,443
Ware, if healthy, would still be a dominant pass rusher. Time catches up with athletes at different times, though, and Ware's body is beginning to betray him. He missed the first three games of the 2013 season, and he had the fewest sacks (6) of his NFL career.
Some team out there is in a position to give Ware one final veteran contract. Dallas can barely afford it, and doing so won't put the Cowboys any closer to winning a Super Bowl than they are today. His offering to restructure his current Dallas deal wouldn't be enough at this point.
Grade: Should go
1 Tony Romo, QB: $11,818,835
When a team goes all-in on a quarterback as the Cowboys did with Romo, that player has to win a championship to have truly earned the contract. Take your standard QB stats like passing yards and touchdowns, when discussing Romo, and throw them out the window. He's never even been to a Super Bowl, and his contract puts Dallas in a tough spot every year.
The window for the veteran quarterback who will turn 34 years old in April to win it all is closing. Romo is not Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or even Eli Manning, and the money that he is paid handcuffs the Cowboys each offseason.
Grade: Not worth it...not yet, at least