Doug Free

Once again Doug Free finds himself needing to have a good camp and season to remain with the Cowboys, but the fact he is in a contract year should help

Top 10 Stories to Watch at Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: No. 5 Contract Year Performers

By Matthew Postins gets you read for Dallas Cowboys Training Camp with a look at the Top 10 stories to watch the next few weeks.

Contract-Year Performers

There is a theory nearly as old as the NFL itself — when a player enters the final year of his contract, it seems his level of play increases (as does his pay). Look no further than Anthony Spencer’s first franchise-tag year. Here are five Cowboys that enter the 2014 season in the final year of their current contracts and how a great performance in training camp — and beyond — could influence their careers in 2015.

DeMarco Murray. He’s coming off his best season as a pro and only missed one game to injury. He has a rebuilt offensive line in front of him, a line that is young and can grow together. He still has the solid quarterback handing him the football in Tony Romo. And a solid trio of pass-catchers in Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten to keep defenses honest. Murray could be in for another big year in 2014, as long as his health holds. I think the Cowboys will be more cautious with him during training camp to keep him healthy. The bigger the year by Murray, the less likely he is to remain in Dallas beyond this season. He’s grown into a three-down back and those backs are rare in the NFL these days.

Bruce Carter. Boy here’s a guy that needs a big 2014. He was supposed to flourish in the Cover 2 system as the weak side linebacker. Instead he had difficulty maintaining coverage and lost his starting job at one point. The Cowboys are really counting on Carter to have a big season, now that Sean Lee is out for the year. Track how Carter plays, especially in preseason games. If he’s still struggling it could mean he’ll share time with another player that could take his place entirely in 2015. From here, Carter returning to Dallas in 2015 is less than 50 percent.

Dallas Cowboys

The emergence of Dwayne Harris as a kick returner as well as receiver may mean he could play his way out of Dallas with a great contract year

Dwayne Harris. He is one of the best combo special teams players in the game. He is one of the best returners and can turn right around and help in coverage. Plus, he can get you 15-20 receptions a season. That’s great value for a player that, once he hits the open market in 2015, could be coveted. The bigger the season Harris has in 2014 the less likely the Cowboys will keep him. Could the Cowboys use other returners as a way to lessen Harris’ impact, thereby keeping his value down? Or do they go all-in, let it rip and let the chips fall where they may? Frankly, if he has another great season, the Cowboys will have competition.

Doug Free. He needs to convince the Cowboys, beyond all doubt, that he can be their right tackle of the near future. There are things working against him, though, starting with his age (30) and the fact that Zack Martin could easily slip into his job in 2015. If Free wants to stay the first step is to dominate the right side during training camp and during this season. The second would be to take about the same amount of money he’s making now. Of course, if he dominates in 2014, other teams will come calling.

Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith. Let’s be clear — not even Jerry Jones is dumb enough to let either one of these players get away, no matter what happens this season. Expect both to get new deals before free agency hits next March. It’s one of the few sure things with the Cowboys in 2014.