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Dallas Cowboys: Who Their Top Free Agent Target Should Be

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COMMENTARY | Free agency may not officially begin until March 12th, but for the Dallas Cowboys, planning for it began the moment Tony Romo threw his 19th interception of the season.

Of course, their offseason checklist has been reprioritized.

While the focus of the NFL community has been on the playoffs, Jerry Jones' team, as always, has had no shortage of attention. The unexpected firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan set the stage for debate across the social media fray. His release cleared up any doubt about the changes Jones threatened after their season ending loss to the Washington Redskins.

The effect Ryan's departure will have on the upcoming free agency period largely depends on his replacement. There is some speculation that the desire for an entire defensive makeover led to his dismissal. It's certainly more complicated than just switching schemes. You don't fire a contractor in the middle of the job unless you're ready for a complete redesign.

But before that redesign can happen, you have to analyze your financial status. The Cowboys are projected to be about $20 million above the salary cap. Combine that with 16 free agents, an entire draft class yet to be named and it's hard to imagine any sort of major acquisition.

Put simply, the Cowboys are broke. They can't afford to take the gloves off and go swinging into March with a blank check.

No team can. Not to oversimplify, but free agency is really just a three-step process. It's identifying your biggest needs, finding the players that best fit those needs and then subtracting the ones that can't fit your payroll.

The Cowboys' biggest needs, in order of priority, are offensive line, defensive line and safety. Thankfully, this year's draft is ripe with offensive tackles and guards and defensive specialists. It's entirely possible that the 'Boys could rebuild Romo's protection in the first couple of rounds and stock some depth later for whatever defensive philosophy they hire.

What's not possible is keeping the personnel they currently have while honoring the salary cap. Romo, Doug Free, Brandon Carr and Miles Austin all represent major cap factors that will need to be reworked in some way or another. I don't think there's any question that at least three of those four will be back in 2013, which means there has to be a major cut elsewhere.

The question comes down to, who can you afford to lose? Or more like, who can you afford to replace?

They can afford to lose Doug Free. They can afford to lose Jay Ratliff. They can afford to lose Felix Jones, Victor Butler, Eric Frampton and Ernie Sims. Losing those guys won't be a major downgrade in talent and replacing them won't smoother the salary cap.

But can they afford to replace Anthony Spencer? Pro Football Focus ranks him as the fifth best 3-4 linebacker in the league (minimum 60% of the snaps). He had a great season and earned every bit of his paycheck. It will be very difficult to replace his experience and skill set. But it will cost over $10 million if the Cowboys choose to franchise tag him for a second straight year.

They officially committed to not committing to him last year by using an $8 million franchise tag and cited inconsistent performances as a reason not to give him a long-term contract. So what does Spencer do? He goes out has the best season of his career.

So now the Cowboys are faced with the same decision they were at this point last year. Do they sign him to a long-term deal or franchise him?

Or let him walk.

This is where free agency becomes so important. A deal for Spencer will most likely cost them at least $8 million a year plus signing bonuses. He's a good player, great at stopping the run and would have no trouble making the transition to a 4-3 if need be.

But by letting him walk and restructuring a couple of deals, the Cowboys could be in position to go after the best available free agent per their needs.

That free agent is Baltimore's Paul Kruger.

He solves two problems: he brings youth with major upside and he alleviates some salary cap pressure. He had a career season with the Ravens, racking up 9 sacks and graded out as PFF's number one 3-4 outside linebacker.

The Cowboys have an opportunity to get younger and potentially better-for less money. According to reports, Kruger wants a deal "somewhere in the range of 5 years, $40 million". Letting Spencer walk would free up enough cap space to pursue such a deal.

This is by no means an indictment of Spencer. He's a great player and key part of the Cowboys' defense. But in light of the new direction this team is headed and the salary cap issues they face, it's time to move on. The Cowboys need to make Paul Kruger there number one priority in March.

Justin is a freelance sports writer and featured columnist. He is a lifelong fan of the Dallas Cowboys and a passionate follower of all things NFL.

Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema

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