The Cowboys already have made changes on both sides of the ball in an attempt to pull out of a tailspin of three consecutive 8-8 seasons. Rod Marinelli is replacing Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, and former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is taking over as play-caller and passing-game coordinator. This team has the talent to turn the offense around with just a few roster tweaks, but the much-needed defensive additions could be hamstrung by the league's worst salary-cap situation.
» DT Jason Hatcher: Coming off the first All Pro-caliber season of his eight-year career, Hatcher's departure would leave a gaping hole in the middle of the defense if the Cowboys can't free up the cap space to satisfy his demands. A risky signing entering his age-32 season, Hatcher rightfully is seeking one last megacontract before his time is up.
» DE Anthony Spencer: The latest example of a player who should have settled for the security of a long-term deal, Spencer played just one game in 2013 after drawing the franchise tag. He reportedly was seeking a deal in the range of Paul Kruger's $20 million guaranteed last summer. He won't sniff that money as a 30-year-old pass rusher coming off microfracture knee surgery.
What they need
Depth, as always. Even with Hatcher playing at a high level, the Cowboys had a revolving door of street free agents on the defensive line last season. With Hatcher and Spencer seeking greener pastures, picking up a few run pluggers and pass rushers up front will have to be a high priority. Safety is commonly cited as a major need, but Barry Church was solid last year and J.J. Wilcox showed promise before an October knee injury ended his season. The biggest issue in the secondary has been cornerback Morris Claiborne's inability to play up to his first-round draft status. On offense, Jerry Jones will be seeking a sidekick to tailback DeMarco Murray, a possible replacement for WR Miles Austin and depth up front.
On the way out?
» DE DeMarcus Ware: There has been speculation that Ware could be discarded as a cap casualty after dealing with injuries in 2013, but that's an extreme long shot. We fully expect Ware to regain 2012 form as the Cowboys' best defensive player in 2014.
» WR Miles Austin: The Cowboys reportedly are ready to move on from Austin after a string of hamstring-plagued disappointments. Austin is due to earn $5.5 million in 2014 with a prohibitive cap figure of $8.25 million. This offense can get by with Terrance Williams opposite Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley in the slot.
» OG Mackenzy Bernadeau: Bernadeau shored up right guard last season, but his $4.1 million cap number is a luxury this team might not be able to afford. Former starting center Phil Costa looms as a potential replacement.
Offseason crystal ball
Salary cap woes are often played up in the media, but rarely prevent a team from keeping an impact player. Sitting roughly $24 million over the limit, Dallas could be the exception to that rule with few avenues for cap relief and Hatcher seeking a monster deal. Cornerback Brandon Carr will be asked to restructure his contract to pare down a $12.2 million cap number. Ware is safe, but Austin is as good as gone. The 2014 NFL Draft should be devoted to adding wide bodies and young legs on defense.
The offensive needs can be addressed in the second wave of free agency, with role players such as Toby Gerhart, James Starks and Andre Roberts available. The bottom line is that the Cowboys have to change the way they operate, starting with a reversal on their long-running policy of overpaying to keep their own players. This team continues to miss the playoffs primarily because it can't afford to carry the depth to withstand key injuries.