Suffice to say, they will not all be back.
For those keeping track of such things, the 16 who are wondering who will sign their next paychecks are defensive back Alan Ball, tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker Keith Brooking, guard Derrick Dockery, safety Abe Elam, fullback Tony Fiammetta, defensive end Clifton Geathers, guard Montrae Holland, wide receiver Jesse Holley, quarterback Jon Kitna, guard Daniel Loper, punter Mat McBriar, running back Sammy Morris, wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Frank Walker.
As is the case with every team, some of the Cowboys’ free agents will return in 2012. Some will not. The question is, which are most likely to go?
Contract decisions will be dictated by a number of factors, including each player’s age, health, desire to return and the demand he finds on the open market. Most of them are up in the air, players who could be brought back or allowed to walk, depending on who else appears on the roster, and on the offers they get from other teams.
Two players the team very much wants to bring back:
• Tony Fiammetta drew rave reviews around Valley Ranch — from both teammates and coaches — in his first season with the team. Blessed with the prototypical battering-ram physique and the ideal fullback’s mentality, Fiammetta will run through a brick wall to open up a running lane and doesn’t ask for attention for performing his brutal job.
• Mat McBriar is a favorite among Dallas players and management, but his name appears on this list with an asterisk … because while the team would love to have McBriar back, it wants a healthy McBriar back. The veteran punter suffered a case of drop foot this season that affected his mobility and balance, and led him to the injured reserve list at the end of the year when, he acknowledged, he basically couldn’t punt. Get him healthy, and the Cowboys will try to bring him back.
But what about the others?
Wide receiver Laurent Robinson made himself a lot of money this year. He joined the Cowboys late — he didn’t have the benefit of training camp — and all he did was catch 11 touchdown passes and become the most reliable wideout on the team. There’s no question that the Cowboys would like to have him back, but Miles Austin has four more years on a six-year, $54 million contract and Dez Bryant is owed about $4.7 million over the next three years. Will Dallas match if another team approaches Robinson with a huge deal? Consider the money thrown at receivers in recent years. This doesn’t include the eight-year, $120 million mega-deal the Arizona Cardinals gave Larry Fitzgerald. But Seattle signed Sidney Rice to a five-year, $41 million deal last July. The New York Jets decided in July that Santonio Holmes was worth $45.25 million over five seasons. Are they decidedly better than Robinson? No. So there’s a chance some team will lob a huge contract at him. If so, can Dallas afford to spend heavily on three receivers when the team has other holes to fill?
It is widely believed that Bennett wants to start and to be paid like a starter. As long as Jason Witten has a pulse, that’s not happening in Dallas, so if those really are Bennett’s demands, he’ll have to have them met elsewhere, and although he has raised questions about his work ethic and never has reached his enormous potential, his physical gifts alone likely will convince some team to spend a lot to sign him.
Kitna reportedly told the team last week that he plans to retire. He turns 40 years old in September and ended the season on the injured reserve list with a back injury. Don’t expect the Cowboys to try to talk him in to another season.
If Brooking, who will turn 37 in October, leaves (either to another team or to retirement), it will mark the end of the road for one of the team’s most popular players. Coaches rave about his work habits and his willingness to teach younger teammates. Teammates talk about his high energy level and his non-stop motor. Media rush to him in the locker room, knowing he’s good for a solid quote, whether the team just won or lost. But the team has been pushing him aside for a while, especially since Bruce Carter joined the active roster. If, as most believe, Carter is being groomed to start alongside Sean Lee in the middle of the Dallas defense, is there any reason to sign Brooking as a backup? His frothing-at-the-mouth pregame speeches notwithstanding, Brooking very well could have played his last game in a Dallas uniform.
The wild card in this might be Spencer, who was drafted out of Purdue with the idea that he could be a fierce pass rusher across from DeMarcus Ware. That didn’t happen — he averaged just over four sacks per year in his first five NFL seasons, with a career-best six this year and in 2009 — but he is a big, young, durable linebacker who is effective against the run. The Cowboys have not said they don’t want him back, but it might be a case in which he could return only if he finds out teams around the league don’t think as highly of him as he feels they should. Spencer is smart enough to know he’s not going to get Ware money, but he’ll get a raise over the five-year, $7.453 million deal he signed as a rookie. How much more will determine whether he stays or goes.