It never seems to fail. During the offseason - well, almost anytime, really - there are statements made about the Dallas Cowboys by both local and national writers who cover them that seem to completely misunderstand what the team is doing. One of the latest was in a discussion of what Jerry Jones was likely to be doing at the upcoming NFL owners’ meeting. It was published at the Dallas Morning News, and was a transcription of a podcast between two of their beat writers, Brandon George and Jon Machota. This was stated by George.
And, Jon, the fact that they've been beaten to death in free agency. They haven't really been able to add many pieces or anybody of substance. And they've lost a lot of players.
“Beaten to death”? Not hardly. The Cowboys, or more specifically the operational triumvirate of Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett, and Will McClay, are working on reshaping the defense while getting younger, which is usually the smart way to go in the NFL. The concerns about the losses in free agency mainly focus on the loss of four players in the secondary, three of them starters at the beginning of last season. That seems to be a deliberate and carefully considered strategy, given the money those four have signed on for with other teams. There are already two previous explanations of this up here at BTB, Landon McCool’s podcast from earlier this week, and Michael Sisemore’s post on overhauling the secondary. Here is an excerpt from Michael’s piece.
This was the perfect year to get out from under the mediocrity and as harsh as it sounds that’s a compliment for this defense in the past several years. They have vastly overachieved in many circumstances but overall, the Cowboys’ Achilles heel since 2013 has been their defensive struggles. When push came to shove, this defense wasn’t able to stop Aaron Rodgers in 2014 and they were equally inept in 2016. Dallas didn’t feel like anyone in their secondary was irreplaceable.
This is what the Cowboys do now. Jones in particular has been extremely clear about the way the team now views free agency. It is based on playing the odds. All personnel acquisitions, whether signing outside free agents, re-signing your own, or drafting new blood out of college, are gambles. But some have a better chance of paying off, and the team has decided, based on historical evidence, that the worst chance of success lies in spending a lot of money to sign a player that another team is not willing to outbid other offers to keep. Veterans are just that, veterans who are up against the undefeated Father Time. Some of them pay off for their new teams, but that is not true of the majority of such signings. Re-signing your own veterans has the advantage of knowing exactly who they are, and getting them at a price you think is correct for the team. And drafting relies on the skill of your scouts and the ability of McClay to merge the needs of the coaching staff in the draft board, something the team has been doing better and better since McClay was elevated to his current position of responsibility.
One aspect of all this is that the Cowboys are taking the long approach to things. And this is something they have proven they can do with how they built the offense. They invested heavily in the line, albeit with a little bit of happenstance (remember they were going with Ryan Shazier, but took Zack Martin when Shazier was taken just before they went on the clock). Ezekiel Elliott was the final piece in getting the run-first ball control offense Garrett wants, and then the incredible stroke of fortune that is Dak Prescott just added the element of finding the next franchise quarterback.
Now with a long (in NFL terms) future of stability on offense, the team needs to perform a similar building of the defense, and as Michael pointed out, the secondary seems to be the current focus. What is often overlooked with the stunning emergence of the Dak and Zeke show last season is that the team invested heavily in the front seven last year. Injury has delayed the potential impact of that draft, but look at the next three picks after Elliott. Jaylon Smith was taken, knowing he was almost certainly facing a “medical redshirt” year. Maliek Collins was a solid hit at defensive tackle. And Charles Tapper was sidelined by the undiagnosed Pars defect he suffered from, but he is now cleared for all activities heading towards the OTAs. Anthony Brown turned out to be something of a jump start for the secondary, joining 2015’s first round pick Byron Jones as a firm foundation for further improvement.
This year’s draft is perhaps deepest at cornerback, and has an apparently strong crop of safety prospects as well. Given the sheer numbers on the roster at the moment, that may make the much-desired edge rusher not as big a priority for the team, although that will depend mostly on how the draft falls in each round. Still, the best chance of finding the player who can help the team the most in each round seems to be with defensive backs, and that is exactly what Dallas needs this year.
Chances are that the deficiencies on defense will not be completely made up in one draft, but that is not how things normally work. Fixing everything right now is where teams rely heavily on free agency, and that is not the course that the Cowboys have chosen. The logic is that is seldom works out well, except for teams that are just a piece or two away. Dallas is not in that position, and has to take a longer view of making improvements year by year. An incremental approach is not one that most fans and many front offices are patient enough to accept, but the Cowboys have seen it succeed very well on one side of the ball. Now they have to get the draft right to take the next step. And given how close the team got last year, there is reason to hope that a significant if not completely sufficient improvement may be enough. The offense is certainly there to make a deep playoff run if the defense can up its game enough.
That is the course the Cowboys have charted. The way free agency has gone so far is one leg of the path laid out. Now they have to successfully navigate the draft, along with whatever other moves they may make in free agency. Recent history gives us hope that they are headed in the right direction.