The reason why I think the Dallas Cowboys should prioritize beefing up the defensive front early in the 2013 NFL draft is because the free-agent market appears as though it will be stocked full of quality candidates to replace Doug Free at right tackle.
The Cowboys won't likely have the money to pursue a wide array of starting-caliber free agents, especially if they pay Anthony Spencer and can't restructure guys like Tony Romo, Jay Ratliff and Miles Austin. But if they invest in even a single UFA, it has to be a potential replacement for Free.*
With that in mind, here are four impending free agents I'd like to see the 'Boys chase.
1. Ryan Harris (OT, Houston Texans)
Cowboys fans would be thrilled if the team could bring in a guy like Andre Smith, Gosder Cherilus, Sebastian Vollmer or Phil Loadholt. But even though the market has been watered down by a tackle-heavy draft and a slew of UFAs, those four are likely going to be too expensive.
Instead, the Cowboys could be able to get a discount on an experienced right tackle like Ryan Harris, who started 34 games in four years with the Broncos and was a solid swing tackle on the best offensive line in football last year in Houston. He's not a very good run blocker (probably worse than Free) but he'd likely help shore up the pass protection.
Ideally, the Cowboys sign Harris for a couple million bucks and draft a tackle in the middle rounds to compete with him going forward.
2. Donald Thomas (G, New England Patriots)
Andy Levitre isn't affordable, and I like Donald Thomas a lot more than Louis Vasquez and Matt Slauson because he appears to be much better at opening up holes and this is a team that ranked 31st in football with only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt in 2012.
It's very unlikely the Cowboys land two players in the price range of Harris and Thomas, but they should at least be interested in both. Thomas would be a nice upgrade over Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard.
Another intriguing and potentially affordable possibility is Atlanta's Garrett Reynolds.
3. Trevor Scott (DE, New England Patriots)
Ideally, the 'Boys re-sign Anthony Spencer. And even if they don't, Victor Butler and Marcus Spears are still present. But with Kenyon Coleman aging and Spencer and Butler slated to become unrestricted free agents, they might be in dire need of some help off the edge.
Scott actually became a pretty valuable member of the New England defense during the second half of the 2012 season. Primarily as a backup in the rotation, he had 16 quarterback pressures over the final nine weeks of the year. And when he started in Week 13 against Miami, the five-year veteran had two sacks and three hurries. So I'm thinking he might be worth a flier.
4. Sammie Hill (DT, Detroit Lions)
I listed Hill yesterday as a free agent the cap-strapped Giants should chase. With Ratliff and Josh Brent both big question marks, he also makes a lot of sense as a candidate to compete for reps next to Hatcher on the Dallas defensive line.
He could come relatively cheap after starting only three games for the Lions, and he's young enough (26) that a breakout season could be right around the corner. He's not a great run defender, but neither is Ratliff at this point.
The Cowboys have to draft someone who can dominate the trenches for years to come. But while they wait for whoever that is to grow, they could use a guy like Hill.
* Free, by the way, is still on the roster, but he proved in 2012 that he's not worthy of that privilege and has no business starting.