For many Dallas Cowboys fans, and a few crabby media types, it is the Spring of their discontent. With NFL free agency soon to enter its third week, the Cowboys have been noticeably quiet, watching the first and second waves of signings come and go with only defensive tackle Cedric Thornton and a group of their own free agents to show. While the team has taken some recent steps to get cornerback and running back help, most notably in visits held or scheduled with Nolan Carroll, Leon Hall, Patrick Robinson, and Albert Morris, nothing stirs up ire more than the subject of defensive end. The only concrete step to get a pass rusher so far is an offer signed by Benson Mayowa, and that will come to naught if the Oakland Raiders elect to match the deal.
This has led to sometimes vitriolic accusations of the Cowboys not having a plan to fix the problem, or being so miserly with their money that no one is interested in playing for them. With the team showing absolutely no interest in bringing Greg Hardy back and Randy Gregory already facing a four-game suspension and one step away from missing the entire season, this is disappointing and even disheartening many.
But there is another possible explanation. The Cowboys may have had a plan, only to see the first step fail almost immediately.
Based on one reading of what has happened, Dallas saw one key need to fill immediately at defensive end, the loss of Hardy. The Gregory suspension is more likely to be something they will wait until camp to decide what they have to do. They may elect to just ride the four games out, or may sign someone as a short-term rental after players are released by other teams, but they are not going to address that at the moment. If they do decide to address it before then, they will probably wait a while longer to find a real bargain bin player because they will be signing that player with at least a thought of releasing him when Gregory finishes his suspension.
We all knew that the Cowboys were not going to get into the first wave of free agency. The team has moved away from that since the disappointment of the Brandon Carr signing. Spokesmen for the team, particularly Stephen Jones, have consistently maintained that Dallas does not believe in paying the inflated prices for those players. But the team has been willing to target players in the next tier or two and go after them if they seemed to fit what the Cowboys were looking for. This year had a somewhat meager selection of defensive ends, anyway, as Danny Phantom discussed. Some were just too high-priced, and some, such as Mario Williams, may have never been seen as a good fit because of their performance last year. But during one of the many long Twitter discussions about this topic recently, there was mention of something that may have slipped under the radar.
Fisher is pretty well plugged in to what is going on with the team. His comment indicates that Adrian Clayborn was one of the top targets for the Cowboys in free agency, perhaps number one. But he wound up re-signing with the Atlanta Falcons, which apparently was either not what Dallas expected, or it was for more money than they had anticipated, pushing them out of the running.
Something like that would have put the Cowboys off schedule. Now they were behind many other teams, several of which had more cap space to work with. And as mentioned, they were not inclined to jump into any bidding wars. This is how they wound up with the offer to Mayowa as their next move, even with the risk of not being able to pry him away from Oakland as a restricted free agent.
They did get Thornton, who seemed to be the second part of their plan. He provides an upgrade from Nick Hayden as a nose tackle. His role is projected to be the space-eater for running downs while helping out Tyrone Crawford by tying up double teams. He can also help the pass rush by putting more pressure up the middle. There is also a possible third part of a plan in Jack Crawford. Fisher and Bryan Broaddus have both stated that the Cowboys are working on a deal to re-sign him, and there is no indication at this point that he is entertaining other offers. This may be just a matter of some hard negotiation over total money, guarantees, and contract length.
Even if this is an accurate reconstruction of the original plan and what happened to it, there are still likely to be objections that neither Clayborn, Mayowa, or Jack Crawford are likely to be the kind of player everyone thought Hardy could be when the Cowboys signed him. But that is not what the team was ever likely looking for. This year, there were no defensive ends who had the kind of talent that Hardy had before he was suspended with the Carolina Panthers. Remember, the approach Dallas follows is to fill a hole. That does not mean they expect the new player to be as good as the one replaced. They just seek to have a decent option there that frees them from drafting for need. Some may complain about them just plugging "warm bodies" in, but the scouting staff is better than that. Players like Mayowa have some characteristics, like athleticism, that the Cowboys find valuable. They are just not going to be top-level players, because those get really expensive. Dallas also looks more for players that have room to grow. Too many free agents are paid for what they have done, not what they can realistically contribute to their new team *cough* DeMarco Murray *cough*.
Dallas' approach does leave them at risk of being left in the end with players that don't fit their profile and are much closer to those "warm bodies" than we like, but it is not as bereft of reason and logic as some believe. The problem this year was that they made a major miscalculation on Clayborn, and now they are paying the price. That flaw, and perhaps not having a more readily effected plan B, were certainly mistakes. However, the evidence is that they did not go into free agency without a plan. It just didn't work out the way they hoped.
Things are hardly over. The remaining options are not great, but it looks like the Cowboys never had an intention of getting a rusher who could be expected to accumulate ten or more sacks in a year in free agency. The idea seems to be getting several players who can contribute five or so and getting them to add up. Like it or not, development of a high-sack edge rusher is left for the draft, and the team is still hoping DeMarcus Lawrence and Gregory can grow into that. Lawrence's back injury and Gregory's recurring violations of the substance abuse policy put that into doubt - which is why the scouting department is going to be digging through the less-than-impressive group available in this year's draft with the finest-toothed of combs.
But there is good reason to believe the plan for free agency was there. It just suffered from a major collision with the reality of this year.