Coming off a great 13-3 season last year where the Dallas Cowboys got a boost from two star players at key positions (Dak Prescott & Ezekiel Elliott), fans expectations were really high this season. But a cloud of darkness has formed as a combination of injuries, suspensions, and shaky performances has led the team to a uninspiring 7-6 record and created an uphill battle if they are to make a run at post season play.
For many fans, this just isn’t acceptable. Key free agents were let go, no big free agent playmakers were added, and the front office just sat quietly on their hands while other teams in the league got better.
The counter-argument is that the team had a plan and they are quietly carrying out this plan. Actually, quietly is not the correct term as this plan carries with it some turbulence. And you’re feeling that turbulence right now. The front office let a quality left guard go in free agency. They also let four defensive backs, all of who logged significant snaps last season, walk in free agency. Plenty of fans have pleaded their case that the Cowboys should’ve kept this guy or that guy. I mean who wouldn’t want Ron Leary on their offensive line? And there is no denying that a Barry Church would help this defense.
And while it would have been great to retain some of these players, the cost of keeping these players would have been expensive and the Cowboys need that money for something else. We’ll get to that later, but for now - here is the break down of the average salaries of the players in question that left in free agency:
Instead of shelling out that kind of money, the Cowboys went the cheap route as they looked to find some young talent to replace these older veterans. Here are the guys currently assigned to that task and their annual costs:
As you can see, there is about $25 million in savings in doing this. Obviously there are going to be some trade-offs. All of the defensive backs listed are either rookies or second-year players so there is going to be a development period that the team has to endure. But with each new game, some of these young players will start to emerge as not only viable replacements for the older vets, but as upgrades to their respective positions. We are starting to see glimpses of this already.
Jonathan Cooper has quietly been a solid contributor on the offensive line for the Cowboys. He may have not been their first choice for the job, but he’s the player that has earned the spot as several competed for the gig in training camp. Cooper was a low cost free agent signing that has done an admirable job filling the void left by Ron Leary.
What hasn’t been so admirable however, is the quality of play from the young defensive backs. At various times this season, the secondary has looked helpless against good quarterbacks. Injuries have played a part, but so has the disappointing regression of second-year corner Anthony Brown. Last season, the defense got an unexpected spark from his contributions in the secondary. This year, he’s been a huge liability. The coaching staff finally had enough and last week against the Washington Redskins they turned to their rookie free agents to get the job done.
It’s only been a couple games, but these rookies have really stepped up as they saw an extended role against the Redskins and Giants. Chidobe Awuzie is finally healthy from a nagging hamstring injury and has taken over the starting cornerback position from Brown. He looked sharp in his debut as a starter and followed it up with another great game on Sunday as his ability to close on the ball has already produced great results. Jourdan Lewis missed the season opener, but has played consistent all year. He’s had some minor bumps as one would expect from a rookie corner, but he’s been a solid fixture in an otherwise shaky Cowboys secondary. And then there is Xavier Woods. Technically he’s a safety, but he’s been taking first team reps at nickel corner and with Orlando Scandrick dealing with a back injury, this meant the Cowboys rolled with three rookies starting at the cornerback positions against the Giants.
Cowboys cornerback position group - the future...is now. pic.twitter.com/hlzCUAXYzO— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 9, 2017
The second-year guys aren’t out of the mix completely. Special teams stud Kavon Fraizer is getting more reps as well and he has flashed some good play against the run. While he’s not as well-rounded of a player, his run defense has been Barry Church-like in recent games. Brown now has a reduced role, but he came away with an interception the previous week in limited action. Maybe a demotion will make him play with another chip on his shoulder.
What happens in the secondary over the next few games won’t always be pretty. There are going to be more hiccups. But if this group continues to show signs of improved play, the Cowboys “secondary overhaul gaffe of 2017” will have people singing a different tune in the future. A revamped secondary will be huge for this team’s ability to compete down the road and while that is a “wait and see” type of circumstance, the Cowboys decision to go this route has already proven beneficial. The money saved by going this direction is going to allow them to retain players who have already demonstrated that they’re a valuable commodity to this team. With players like DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, and Anthony Hitchens set to hit free agency this offseason, fans are wondering - which players do they keep?
Because of the Cowboys responsible handling of letting players walk this season, the answer to this question will be - all of them.
To be continued...
Stay tuned for the next article in this series which will explain how the Cowboys keep all these free agents this upcoming offseason.