Cowboys' fate hinges on labor deadlines

At first glance, it appears the offseason will be business as usual for the Dallas Cowboys.

The front office, scouts and coaches are watching tape of college and pro players. They will attend offseason events such as the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl, pro days at various colleges and the NFL scouting combine.

But with uncertainty surrounding the NFL labor situation, this offseason is shaping up to be different as two deadlines loom large.

The first deadline, Feb. 7, is when NFL teams can start cutting players. But salary cap uncertainty could change the way teams will go about such cuts.

The second, March 3, is even more important. If there's no collective bargaining agreement reached between the players and the owners by this time, no league business -- other than the April 28-30 NFL draft -- can be conducted from that point forward.

Players won't be allowed to have contact with team officials. They will be banned from team facilities. Medical benefits will stop for players and their families. And, depending on their contracts, some coaches may not get paid.

While the start of the 2011 season is in limbo, so are the personnel decisions for the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL.

"Well, I think it will leave it, to some degree, up in the air to see what the rules are under the CBA," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "But we won't be alone. All the other teams are dealing with the same issue, so more than likely that should even out."

Let's take a closer look at how this offseason uncertainty affects the Cowboys.

FREE AGENCY: Flooded market

Last season, the Cowboys had the highest payroll in the NFL despite not signing any free agents. In fact, they even lost players via free agency, safety Ken Hamlin and guard/center Cory Proctor, and traded wide receiver Patrick Crayton.

This offseason could be different. Free agency normally starts in early March, but with the potential of a lockout, the free-agency period might not exist.

Five Cowboys starters are entering free agency, including two important cogs on the offensive line and a strong safety who tied for the team lead in interceptions.

Three defensive ends are also unrestricted free agents, with two of them potential 2011 starters in Stephen Bowen and Marcus Spears. Hundreds of NFL players could become unrestricted free agents if the league and union change the way players become free.

Under the old system, a player became an unrestricted free agent after four NFL seasons. But that changed when the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement two years ago.

Players must now wait at least six years to become unrestricted free agents, and this affects approximately 212 players from the 2005 and 2006 draft classes. Several of those players are about to become free. Spears, whom the team could let test a flooded marketplace, is one of them.

"It's a business," Spears said during the 2010 season. "It's nothing personal. They know I want to stay with them and have success here, but I can't control it."

Gerald Sensabaugh, the strong safety, who had five interceptions, was seeking a long-term contract prior to the 2010 season. When he didn't get it, Sensabaugh said he would test the market.

Like Spears, Sensabaugh wants to play for the Cowboys but he's in a similar situation, one in which he heads into a market that could include tons of players from which to choose.

If the league and players return to a four-year waiting period for unrestricted free agency, some players might go back to their original teams. It makes for an uncertain spring and summer. If there's no league business for an extended period of time, the free-agency period could be short.

That possibility, along with talk of an extended regular season, has players on edge.

"It's a concern," Baltimore Ravens cornerback and NFLPA executive committee member Domonique Foxworth said. "I would say most of the concern is health and safety, and when they [the players] hear 18 games, they get upset and want to talk about that. I imagine it will be a concern for a number of people. It's going to change what you kind of have been working your whole life for to get to that first free-agency period. It's going to be different for a number of guys, which is unfortunate."

ROSTER: To trim or not to trim

The NFL salary cap was $123 million in 2009, but last season was uncapped because of the owners' decision to opt out of the CBA. Gene Upshaw, who was the NFLPA's executive director until his death in 2008, once said that if the salary cap was removed, it would never come back.

But it appears the new director of the union, DeMaurice Smith is willing to bring it back with concessions. The salary cap, first instituted in 1994, has gone up every year since it was established.

Feb. 7 is the first day NFL teams can release players, and two Cowboys players come to mind in regard to the salary cap.

Wide receiver Roy Williams was dissatisfied with coach Jason Garrett's play-calling toward the end of the season. The two had a meeting about comments Williams made about the team's offensive coordinators.

If the Cowboys release the under-performing Williams, they would take a $12.9 million cap hit. The organization has not been afraid to take hits on the salary cap. When the Cowboys released receiver Terrell Owens following the 2008 season, the hit was $9 million.

Williams said he wants retire with the Cowboys but is due to earn a $5.1 million base salary, and his cap number is $9.4 million. It's doubtful he would take a pay cut, if asked.

"I have no idea," Williams said about getting released for financial reasons. "I just play ball."

Running back Marion Barber, when healthy, didn't produce numbers expected from a starter. He rushed 113 times for 374 yards with four touchdowns and didn't regain his starting job when he returned from a calf injury in the last month of the season.

The Cowboys have to make a decision on Barber in early June, when he's owed a $500,000 roster bonus. Cutting him before that that saves the team $2.75 million against the salary cap, but keeping him means he will earn $4.75 million in 2011.

Barber refuses to comment about his future, and it appears his lack of snaps in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia, in which he didn't enter the game until the third quarter, was telling.

The status of roster bonuses after a possible lockout hasn't been determined, especially if league business is restored in June or July.

Clearing out salaries of players who underachieved in 2010 is a priority for the Cowboys. With an expected larger salary cap in 2011 and a potential larger crop of players from which to choose in free agency, things could get messy.

"We will have personnel changes," Jones said. "There is no doubt in my mind."

DRAFT: Rookie scale coming?

Lockout or no, the three-day NFL draft will still take place in New York, and the Cowboys have the ninth overall pick, which should give them a premium player.

The last time the Cowboys had a top-10 pick was in 2003, when they selected Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman fifth overall. Newman is still with the team.

Jones has said he doesn't like high picks because of their high price tags. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the possibility exists of introducing a rookie wage scale, which might change Jones' thinking.

After a 6-10 season that saw the Cowboys ' secondary exposed, inconsistency on the pass rush and an aging offensive line affected by health, finding a elite player in the top 10 is a must.

"We're going to take the best player that's available when it comes time for us to pick," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I know that's the old saying that people get tired of hearing about, but that's what we need to do with this team. You never know who is going to be injured and who is not going to work out from year-to-year, so you just need to take good football players, and that's what we're going to do."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.