FRISCO, Texas -- Before the Dallas Cowboys can answer questions with solutions from outside the building, they have to see if they have answers within the building.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones is already on record saying the Cowboys will not jump into the big-money free-agent pool when the market opens in March.
"With our cap situation the way it is, and really at the end of the day, our philosophy -- we're not big on overspending in free agency," Jones said the other day from the Senior Bowl.
The Cowboys have questions, mostly on defense, but on offense, too.
Let’s take a look at five of them, in no particular order:
Can La’el Collins play right tackle?
Fans have asked this question since the Cowboys signed Collins to a fully guaranteed contract as an undrafted free agent in 2015. They gave him a brief look at tackle as a rookie in the offseason but quickly settled on playing him at guard. With Doug Free entering his 11th season and the final year of his contract, many have brought up the Collins-to-tackle movement again. Just because Collins played tackle at LSU does not mean the skills translate to the NFL level. Perhaps their only chance of re-signing Ronald Leary will be guaranteeing he will start at left guard. To do that, the Cowboys would have to give Collins a try at tackle. He has made flashy plays – if that’s even possible as a guard – in his first two seasons, but he has also made mistakes in his pickups. You can get away with that more on the interior than at tackle. If the Cowboys want to make this move, they have to be fair to Collins and give him time to learn the footwork and technique.
What’s fair to expect from Jaylon Smith?
Maybe the question should be what’s unfair to expect. Without the serious knee injury suffered in his final game at Notre Dame, Smith could have been picked before Ezekiel Elliott in the first round last spring. To expect Smith to be that guy after not playing in a year is not fair. But Jerry Jones is not backing away from high expectations by saying he considers Smith, Elliott and Dak Prescott to be the new Triplets. As the nerve continues to regenerate, Smith will improve over the offseason. He continues to wear a brace to help lift his foot, but he is running and cutting without issues. He can play with the brace on his leg. Will it limit his effectiveness? There is no way of knowing, but if Smith can come close to the player he was at Notre Dame, then the Cowboys' defense will improve greatly.
How will Charles Tapper fit into the defense?
He declared himself cleared to play football again after an undetected defect in his back prevented him from putting on pads in one practice as a rookie. He was something of a project when the Cowboys drafted him in the fourth round – before Prescott, by the way – last spring, but he showed some pass-rush skills at Oklahoma (15.5 sacks in 44 games). At the end of the season, he said he was in much better shape and stronger than he was when the season started. The Cowboys will do what they can to find pass-rush help, but Tapper will also be part of the equation. He won’t prevent them from going outside the building for help, but they hope he will be part of the rotation in 2017.
Is Anthony Brown ready to be a starter at corner?
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are set to be free agents. Both could return. Both could leave. The Cowboys would like to keep both, but they will have to be at their prices. They won’t go over budget, although Carr is more valuable because he doesn’t miss any games. Brown, a sixth-round pick, showed quickly he could play by intercepting a Tony Romo pass early in training camp. With Orlando Scandrick hurt early in the season, Brown showed he could play in the slot. Later when Claiborne got hurt, he showed he could play outside and the coaches opted for him in the base defense over Scandrick. Brown is a willing tackler and appears to have a good understanding of the game. It’s a big jump for a sixth-rounder to go from reserve to full-timer, but he might be ready.
Technically the job is still Romo’s, but nobody expects him to be with the Cowboys in 2017. And technically these will be "outside the building" solutions since they are scheduled to be free agents in March, but there is a good chance both could be back. Sanchez has a close relationship with Prescott and helped mentor the rookie through the season. Moore is a coach in-waiting and understands what Scott Linehan wants better than any quarterback they have. He entered training camp last summer as the No. 2 quarterback before breaking his ankle. Sanchez was signed the week before the season opener and struggled in his action at Philadelphia.