‘Tis the season for gloom about the Dallas Cowboys, especially for some.
The Cowboys have not improved themselves through one week of free agency. On paper, they have taken a step back. Will the draft be enough?— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) March 16, 2017
However, it also has to be understood that the Cowboys are doing things pretty much the way they have for several years now. The main avenue for them to upgrade the talent on the roster is the NFL Draft and focusing on keeping their best talent over the years. They had an outstanding group in 2016 that could only get better with Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper both returning from injuries that cost them their rookie years, Kavon Frazier almost playing a bigger role, and wild card Rico Gathers waiting in the wings. That may be a bit harder to accomplish this year with fewer picks and a much less favorable position in the draft - but remember that the biggest coup of the entire draft last year came with a fourth round compensatory pick named Dak Prescott.
There is a problem that many seek to judge free agency in a vacuum. But free agency is just a part of the puzzle, and as mentioned, it is not the main focus for Dallas. Further, “winning” free agency has not been a reliable indicator historically of how teams will do in the coming season. If you go back a year and look at the “grades” handed out, you will frequently encounter evaluations like this one at CBS Sports.
The Skinny: They had a great free-agency period. General manager Howie Roseman dumped some bad deals from a year ago, re-signed Sam Bradford and also added some good players in guard Brandon Brooks, corner Leodis McKelvin and safety Rodney McLeod. They also traded to move up five spots in the first round with Miami, dumping two Chip Kelly players in corner Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso. They also traded DeMarco Murray to the Titans, dumping his big contract.
A+: Ridding themselves of the bad Kelly deals in those trades and moving up in the first round makes this grade. But then they also added some quality players and others for depth. But this grade is about the Chip dump.
So once again, don’t get too worked up about concerns that the Cowboys have not done enough in free agency. They are sticking to the plan that led to the 13-3 record last year.
And here is what they have accomplished so far.
They kept the receiving corps intact with the re-signings of Terrance Williams and Brice Butler. That is a good thing just in the fact that the passing attack was very effective last year. It is also worth noting that this is something of a favor for Prescott. He put together a rookie year for the ages, but he is still a young and growing talent. Not having to develop a lot of new chemistry with his targets might be much more important than we realize. He certainly seems to think it’s a good thing.
They shored up the depth on offense with Jonathan Cooper and Darren McFadden. The loss of Ron Leary was substantial, but the team is leaning towards La’el Collins as the future at left guard. They still have to sort out right tackle in the wake of the retirement of Doug Free, and that may see another signing prior to the draft. There is also the chance of picking up someone during training camp or even grabbing someone after the final cuts before the season starts.
The secondary is almost certainly going to see a lot of draft capital invested with the mass departure of Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne. The only move made so far is signing Nolan Carroll. On first look, he seems like a good replacement for Carr. Not spectacular, but a solid cornerback according to some reliable talent judges like Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com. The team seems to have a lot of faith in Frazier, Jeff Heath, and Anthony Brown, but the secondary will certainly get some attention during the draft.
Here is a prediction: The team will draft a defensive lineman or two, but they are going to lean more heavily on their own resources than you may expect. Tapper is a freaky athlete, David Irving will get a chance to shine, Benson Mayowa had a pretty solid year, and new acquisition Stephen Paea is definitely a Rod Marinelli favorite. And they added another wild card of sorts in Damontre Moore. If he gets and keeps his head straight, he could be a contributor.
There are still places the Cowboys might spend judiciously in free agency. They are somewhere in the second phase of what usually is a three-wave approach to things. Some places that they most likely will be looking closely at are the secondary, for insurance, that right tackle situation, and the lack of any backup quarterbacks on the roster at the moment. The QB2 job may be the top priority at the moment, especially given Jason Garrett’s preference for having an experienced passer to back up his starter.
In any case, don’t put too much weight on the various grades that you will see on free agency. The Cowboys generally received average to slightly above ratings last year, and that certainly didn’t seem to affect their performance in the regular season. While we will see what else happens in free agency, we can now start looking forward to the draft. And even then, we won’t really know what they have until we see how the team looks when games count.
(Shout out to my colleague Jim Scott for the inspiration for the title.)