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Cowboys Free Agency: Lessons To Be Learned From 2015's Crop?

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The fans are all hoping for Dallas to make significant improvements to the roster by signing free agents. However, a look back at last year may give pause.

Darren McFadden was a successful free agent signing for Dallas - but he was one of the few from 2015.
Darren McFadden was a successful free agent signing for Dallas - but he was one of the few from 2015.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is looming. The big illegal tampering event, otherwise known as the NFL Combine, is now less than two weeks away, and the legal tampering starts on March 7, with the teams able to actually sign free agents from outside their own roster beginning with the start of the new NFL year on March 9. Teams can also sign their own free agents at any time. As always, every big name hitting free agency is going to be linked to the Dallas Cowboys.

In recent seasons, the Cowboys have been judicious in free agency. They made a decision between Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray from their own list last year, while letting more players go to other teams than they brought in (which is going to result in a nice bounty of compensatory picks in this year's NFL Draft). And they had only one high-dollar contract in 2015 with Greg Hardy, with all the other signings falling in the category of bargain shopping.

But how did they fare? As we speculate about what might come, with some top names like DeMarcus Ware, Lamar Miller, and even DeMarco Murray being thrown about, it might be wise to look at the results from the most recent year to try and shape our expectations. Here is a list of all the free agents signed last season and how they turned out (names and contract information from the tracker at DallasCowboys.com.) This includes only those players signed during the free agency period and from their own roster prior to the start of training camp. Players such as Matt Cassel acquired due to the exigencies of the season are not included, although most of them would not exactly make this look any better. Each free agent examined has a subjective evaluation of how much help they turned out to be.

Outside free agents

Keith Rivers LB. Signed 1-year, $660k Deal w/ Cowboys (3/5/15) . Retired from NFL on first day of training camp. No help.

Jed Collins FB. Signed 1-year, $810k Deal w/ Cowboys (3/12/15). Cut on May 18 to reacquire FB Tyler Clutts. No help.

Jasper Brinkley LB. Agreed to Terms on 2-year Deal w/ Cowboys (3/12/15). Released on September 7 to make room for OT Jordan Mills. No help, plus the team had fully guaranteed $2 million of his contract. No help at a high cost.

Darren McFadden RB. Signed 2-year, $5.8 million Deal w/ Cowboys (3/13/15). In retrospect, probably the most important free agent acquisition of the season. Was the leading ground gainer in the best year of his career. Big help, despite not being a real fit for the Dallas scheme.

Ray Agnew FB. Officially Signed w/ Cowboys (3/19/15). Another exhibit of  how Jason Garrett loves him some fullback despite the shrinking role for the position in the NFL. Released September 5. No help.

Corey White CB. Claimed Off Waivers by Cowboys from New Orleans Saints (3/14/15). Released on November 17 to make room for CB Deji Olatoye. Help for half the season.

Andrew Gachkar LB. Signed 2-year, $5.5 million Deal w/ Cowboys (3/15/15). Was a backup linebacker, but probably had more impact on special teams. Decent help for the team, although a bit pricey.

Casey Kreiter LS. Re-signed with Cowboys after being cut in August of 2014. (3/17/15). Brought in strictly to keep LP Ladouceur from having to handle all the long snaps. Served his purpose before being released before the season.

Greg Hardy DE. Signed 1-year Deal w/ Cowboys Worth Up To $13.1 million (3/18/15). The most controversial signing of all. His impact was not as much as was hoped, but it is hard to argue that he was not needed. Still, given the cost and the off-field issues that led to so much negative publicity, it is hard to say that the Cowboys were truly successful with him, and there is a growing sense that he will not be re-signed for 2016. Helpful, but not enough.

Efe Obada DE. Signed 3-year Deal w/ Cowboys (4/1/15). He wound up on the practice squad, but has been brought back already for 2015. He may never develop, but his athleticism may also make him very valuable in the future. Incomplete grade at this time, but he is a true pet cat for many fans.

Re-signed Dallas Unrestricted Free Agents.

Dez Bryant WR. Issued the Franchise Tag of $12.8 million (3/2/15). Reached an agreement on a five year, $70 million contract that includes $45 million of guaranteed money and a $20 million signing bonus. This was more or less a deal that the team had to do, although Bryant's injury in the first game of the season greatly reduced his productivity. Still, barring further injury issues, he is going to be extremely important to the team going forward.

Doug Free RT. Re-Signed w/ Cowboys, 3-years, $15 million (3/7/15). He's the starter on one of, possibly the best, offensive line, in the NFL. Obviously helpful.

Nick Hayden DT. Agreed To Terms w/ Cowboys On 1-year Deal (3/19/15). Never spectacular, he is still a solid player. The team is probably looking to upgrade from him, but he has been hard to get rid of. Helpful, no matter how much you may want him gone.

Rolando McClain ILB. Agreed To Terms w/ Cowboys On 1-year Deal (4/1/15). Like Hardy, he was not as productive as the team would have hoped for, although he flashed his 2014 level of play at times. Still, the team needs a lot more than flashes. Somewhat helpful, but also like Hardy, the feeling among those who have good insight into the team is that he is not going to return.

Re-signed Dallas Restricted Free Agents

Cole Beasley WR. Re-Signed w/ Cowboys, 4-years, $13.1 million (3/3/15). Had Tony Romo remained healthy, he would have probably been even more important, but he is a really good and incredibly elusive slot receiver. Very helpful.

Lance Dunbar RB. Signed 1-year Tender w/ Cowboys (4/21/15). Prior to his injury, he was the leading receiver for the team. That was undoubtedly boosted by the games he played with Brandon Weeden, king of the checkdowns, but it was another promising year cut sadly short. Very helpful, but his history with the team may lead to him not being re-signed for 2016.

Chris Jones P. Signed 1-year Tender w/ Cowboys (4/21/15). Signed two year extension for a total of $4.2 million on on April 23. There are some who don't think much of Jones, but he had the third best net punting yard average in the league, and dropped 27 of them inside the 20. Given the offensive struggles the team had all year, he was without a doubt very helpful.

Re-signed Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Cameron Lawrence OLB. Signed 1-year Tender (2/13/15). Went on IR July 29tn. Impact had he remained healthy is of course unknown.

Ronald Leary OG. Signed 1-year Tender (2/13/15). Was the starter to being the year, but lost his job to La'el Collins after continuing problems with an injury suffered in training camp. Still was helpful before injury took him out, if for no other reason than he bought Collins more time to get ready.

Darrion Weems OT. Signed 1-year Tender (2/13/15). Released on September 15 and signed to the practice squad on September 17. Not very helpful.

It is not a pretty picture. For outside free agents, there was not much consistency, and many of the free agent signings were wastes, while others were at least disappointing. The team did much better with its own players, which shows the value of really knowing what you have from seeing them on the roster. Overall, this just reinforces the fact that the draft is the way teams effectively build themselves.

Still, it must be observed that the Cowboys did not have any truly disastrous free agent signings like, say, Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles had with DeMarco Murray. They primarily went with lower cost signings, and even Hardy's large deal was structured to protect the team if he completely flopped. The worst deal of all for Dallas was probably Brinkley's, and it was still fairly minor compared to some out there. The cautious style evidenced in 2015 is almost certainly the way the team will approach free agency this season. It may be time to tap the breaks, if not stomp down hard on them, about some of the "dream" free agent scenarios. Free agency simply leads to more failure than success, and there is no reason to expect that to change this year.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB