By Matthew Postins
Free agency in the NFL begins next week. That means the Dallas Cowboys, along with the rest of the NFL, will be looking for some veteran talent to add to their roster. Of course, the Cowboys could be in better shape. They likely won’t have much in the way of money to spend, unless they cut additional players or re-work additional contracts, and that isn’t out of the questions. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team would be “efficient” spenders in free agency.
So this list isn’t about the top offensive free agents on the market. It’s about the five best fits for the Cowboys on the free agent market. Some will cost more than others. But these five players are attractive targets, and not just because some of them can be had for cheap.
Nate Burleson, WR, Detroit
New Cowboys play-caller Scott Linehan is familiar with Burleson, as the pair was in Detroit the past few years. Burleson had some of his most productive seasons with Linehan calling plays, including a 73-reception season in 2011, his career-high. The Lions released Burleson for cap space, as he is coming off two seasons in which he played a combined 15 games, the worst stretch of his career. Injuries caught up with Burleson, among them a fractured arm that caused him to miss a month last season. At 32, he’s not the same player he was a couple of years ago. But the Cowboys wouldn’t need him to be that player. They would just need him to come in and act as a fourth or fifth receiver in the offense. He’d be much cheaper than keeping Miles Austin, who many believe will be cut after the new league year begins. Linehan isn’t going to come in and change the offense, but he will add his wrinkles and could use a player that is used to those wrinkles.
Jason Avant, WR, Philadelphia
The Eagles cut Avant, now 31, for cap purposes. What will be attractive about Avant to teams will be the expense of signing him. Most don’t expect him to get much more than the veteran minimum. He’s always been the third or fourth guy on the team, so he’s used to getting uneven reps in practice and in games. He was productive in Philly, catching at least 40 passes four straight years before catching 38 last season. He’s been amazingly healthy throughout his career. He has a reputation as a good veteran presence in the locker room and as a sure-handed receiver. If the Cowboys are going to cut Miles Austin, as expected, they need a veteran voice for that group and Avant would fit the bill.
Eric Winston, OT, Arizona
Winston is a player the Cowboys were interested in last year as they were trying to determine if they wanted to keep or cut Doug Free. The circumstances have changed a bit this year. Free is coming off a solid 2013, but he only has one more guaranteed year left on his deal. After that the Cowboys could easily cut him. Jermey Parnell didn’t do nearly enough to improve last year to unseat Free. Starting left tackle Tyron Smith is a beast, but if he gets hurt what do the Cowboys do? Winston is a durable veteran (just four missed games in his eight-year career) and can play both sides of the line. If the Cowboys are comfortable with their tackle situation, they may not make a move, or go for a player a little younger and cheaper. But getting Winston on a one- or two-year incentive laden deal might be worth it.
Charlie Johnson, OG, Minnesota
At the moment it doesn’t seem like the Cowboys are in a hurry to cut Mackenzy Bernadeau, the starting right guard. In fact, the Cowboys restructured Bernadeau’s deal for cap space. Keeping Bernadeau might not be a bad thing. This will be the first offseason since he joined the Cowboys that he won’t be rehabbing serious injuries, and that could pay off for the Cowboys in 2014. But they could use depth, especially depth that can play both guard and tackle. Johnson can provide that, as he’s played both positions for the Vikings. Now, he’s not a hulking player at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, at least by NFL standards. But his versatility and affordability would be key if the Cowboys are seeking to add competition along the offensive line.
Brian De La Puente, C, New Orleans
Now that the Cowboys have cut Phil Costa for cap space they’re in need of a backup center. It would be nice if they could find a guard-center combo, and De La Puenta may be an option. He’s worked for the past three seasons in New Orleans at guard and center. Plus, he’ll come cheap. With just three years in the NFL signing him for the veteran minimum will pay him less than half of what Costa was expected to make in 2014. Travis Frederick is the starter, but De La Puenta would give the Cowboys a little security at a reasonable rate.