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Cowboys hot topic: A closer look at this year’s free agent failures - and one forgotten success

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Dallas has a well-earned reputation for bargain bin shopping in free agency, and things have not turned out so well this year. Or have they?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys may have solved their LG dilemma with Jonathan Cooper.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Dallas Cowboys released DE Damontre Moore to open up a roster spot for substitute place kicker Mike Nugent. Some headlines out there spoke of Nugent “replacing” Dan Bailey, but that is hardly the case. He will be gone as soon as Bailey is healthy again.

Moore was arguably the third-biggest free agent acquisition for the Cowboys in 2017, behind CB Nolan Carroll and DT Stephen Paea. Now all three of them are gone. Carroll was released on October 11 as the team realized that rookie Jourdan Lewis gave them a better option. Paea was a victim of a lingering injury and elected to retire when his knee did not allow him to play at the level he wanted to.

It is another year of failed free agent signings for the Cowboys. They join other “failures” for the team like Cedric Thornton and Brandon Carr (although Carr has had an apparent renaissance with the Baltimore Ravens, where he has three interceptions already this year - something he never came close to with Dallas).

There is a great deal of frustration for many who question why the Cowboys can never find real contributors in free agency. They see other teams do so well with free agents who come in and perform. Of course, other teams also have free agents who never pan out, and many wind up spending a lot of cap space on them for little return. That is just part of the risk in free agency, and it is one that the Cowboys have deliberately decided they would avoid. They never get into any bidding for top tier free agents, at least since they spent big for Carr. But there are still vocal complaints about how Dallas just does not even try. Things are not helped when players who are released here go on to success elsewhere. It was seen as quite a risk when the Cowboys also let Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all go in free agency this year, all primarily due to the cost of re-signing them. And all have also notched an interception in their new gigs, something that they just didn’t do much during their tenures with the Cowboys.

So 2017 is now shaping up to be one more year of total failure in free agency.

Except for one player.

Although it was technically a signing for the 2016 season, there was another free agent that the Cowboys picked up on January 4th, 2017. That was offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper. They would go on to sign him to a one-year contract in March to compete for the vacancy left by the departure of LG Ronald Leary. Now Cooper has started there the past three games, and against the San Francisco 49ers, he was an effective part of the offensive line that led the way for the most productive game of Ezekiel Elliott’s young career. Although coach Jason Garrett would not declare his promotion over Chaz Green permanent, the fact that continuing injury issues for Green led to Cooper getting the chance would indicate that the team may want to ride with the latter for a while. Green was back on the active roster for the game, but in the role of swing tackle. Frankly, that seems the best place for him, given how hydration during games continues to be an issue.

And observers concur that Cooper was clearly better than Green as the starting LG. Against the 49ers, the offensive line finally looked like the dominant unit that paved the way for Elliott and kept Dak Prescott protected in 2016.

For all the positives that came out of that 40-10 win against the 49ers, Cooper and the improved play of the offensive line took center stage. The Cowboys ran for an absurd 265 yards in the game -- the most by an NFL team so far this year.

Ezekiel Elliott’s game-breaking talent was a big part of that, as he amassed a career-best 219 total yards. But so too was the offensive line, which appeared to hit a stride it had not yet found during Cooper’s third start of the season.

“I feel pretty good, continuing to build the continuity amongst the guys,” said Cooper following the game. “One of my big things is for them to build and gain trust in me, because they’re some pretty solid players.”

Those “pretty solid” players include, of course, the trio of former first-round picks on the O line in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. And there is also La’el Collins, who was a legitimate high first-round talent before getting caught up in a bizarre series of events that let him fall to the Cowboys as a UDFA.

And it may mean that Cooper is finally living up to his own first-round pedigree. He was selected seventh overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, but a broken fibula in preseason caused him to miss his rookie year, and other injuries hampered his comeback. He bounced around with the Patriots and Browns before landing in Dallas.

Now he finally seems to be performing at, or at least near, what was expected of him when he was drafted. He is an under-reported reclamation project that is on the cusp of paying off hugely for the Cowboys.

That is the gamble they take in their free agent approach. Moore was always something of a stopgap defensive end due to the four-game suspension of David Irving, and became the odd man out because the Cowboys invested this year’s first-round pick in Taco Charlton, and had more money tied up in Benson Mayowa. Carroll was veteran insurance for the secondary, and just turned out to be as mediocre as many perceived him to be when Dallas signed him. Paea fell victim to Father Time. All represented a risk when they were acquired, and in their cases, the risk didn’t pan out.

For Cooper, it is going much better. And if he continues to hold down the LG spot on this line as well as he did the last game, even if only for one year, it will be a bigger payoff than any of the three more discussed “failures” were ever likely to bring. He may even earn himself another contract in Dallas, and that would almost certainly be a very affordable one for the team given his checkered history.

When you keep playing long shots, you are going to lose more often than you win. But the reason for playing them is that when they hit, you get such a huge return on your investment. Cooper’s cap hit is under $1.7 million, and that is peanuts compared to his linemates (although admittedly more than Green’s hit). The Dallas approach to free agency certainly invites criticism, especially when other teams make a high-profile signing pay off. But in this case, Cooper may prove to be a very smart move for them. He alone may salvage free agency for Dallas this year.