ARLINGTON, Texas -- If there was anything that was made clear way by the Dallas Cowboys' front office on Tuesday afternoon, it was love for left tackle Doug Free and that the team will not have one of the NFL's highest payrolls in 2011.
Free emerged as the Cowboys' best offensive linemen last year, when he became a full-time starter at left tackle. But Free's free agent status is somewhat unclear. Under the old free agency system, an NFL player would become an unrestricted free agent after four accrued seasons. Free, however, is a restricted free agent.
Under the new system, in place since last season after the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement, a player becomes an unrestricted free agent after six seasons.
There has been no determination if the league will return to the old system once a new CBA is in place. In the process, the Cowboys placed a first- and third-round tender on Free worth $3.5 million. If another NFL team wants to sign Free, the Cowboys will receive a first- and third-round pick. The Cowboys placed the same tender on wide receiver Miles Austin last year and eventually worked out a long-term contract with him.
Cowboys officials held preliminary talks with Free's agent, Jimmy Sexton, during and after the 2010 season. Over the last month and a half, however, NFL teams were not allowed to speak with agents.
"I don't want to speak for Doug, but hopefully he's enjoyed being here," team executive Stephen Jones said. "He's obviously a priority for us. We want to sign Doug back. We think he's a very productive offensive tackle for us. He'll be our No. 1 priority when things start up ... to get him signed up."
The Cowboys had the highest payroll (over $124 million) in the NFL last season and it resulted in a 6-10 season and coach Wade Phillips getting fired.
As of Tuesday, before the signing of draft picks and free agents, the Cowboys have committed a league-high $134 million to player salaries. There was no salary cap last season, and it hasn't been determined what the salary cap will be in 2011 if a new CBA is reached.
But Jones said the Cowboys will reduce salary in 2011.
"A lot of it was we paid that money out," Jones said as to why the payroll was high last year.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said there are four or five players on the roster that the team needs to decide on.
The first two decisions might come quickly if and when a league year is instituted. Right tackle Marc Colombo is due a $2.5 million option bonus within 15 days of the league year and, with the Cowboys talking about drafting a new tackle with the ninth pick of the draft, he seems like the first player to go.
Running back Marion Barber is due a $500,000 roster bonus in June. The team could save $4 million against a potential salary cap if he's released.
Roy Williams and Leonard Davis also could see their time with the organization end due to monetary reasons. Cutting Williams would result in a $12.9 million cap hit for the Cowboys, if there is one, and he's underachieved since the team traded three draft picks to Detroit for him in 2008.
"I'd say a handful of players ... four or five players that I couldn't give you a straight answer on today that are under contract," Jerry Jones said regarding their long-term status with the team. "Those type of situations I wouldn't want to go there until we see more cards played."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.