The opening of free agency isn’t until 4:00 P.M. on Thursday, March 9th, when teams will officially be able to execute contracts with free agents. However, starting today teams can contact and begin negotiating with the free agents to be. In reality, this is the actual opening of free agency as you will hear plenty of news about “Player A agreeing to sign in principle with Team B for X amount of dollars over Y years” before 4:00 on Thursday. The fact that contracts can only be executed starting a few days from now is merely a formality.
Over the next few days plenty of fans will spend hours fawning over their teams potentially signing players like cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, A.J. Bouye, or Logan Ryan, pass-rushers like Nick Perry or Calais Campbell, and run-stuffing defensive tackles like Dontari Poe, Johnathan Hankins, or Brandon Williams. All of these are undoubtedly very good players, although most of them will undoubtedly be overpaid, but more importantly players like these will all be out of the Cowboys price range to one extent or another. Even mid-tier options like Jabaal Sheard, Kenny Britt, and Dre Kirkpatrick are most likely out of the Cowboys price range.
For fans who follow the organization closely, they know how unlikely it is that players like the ones named above will end up as Cowboys over the next week. In contrast to the free-spending days of the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Cowboys have recently become a team who stays out of the initial surge of free agent signings, and instead sits back and looks for value in players who may have slipped through the cracks. The roster will be built through the draft primarily, not free agency, and the mega-contracts will be reserved for homegrown talent, not players leaving other teams looking for a big pay-day.
So with that in mind let’s take a look at a handful of free agents who may be able to provide value to the 2017 Cowboys at a fraction of the cost.
Safety Duron Harmon, New England Patriots: The Patriots third safety over the past two years behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, Harmon has become a reliable part of their secondary, usually playing a little more than half of the team’s defensive snaps. Harmon has good size (6-1, 205) and seven interceptions since entering the league in 2013. He is better closer to the line of scrimmage and would be a nice replacement to play the role vacated by Barry Church if he were to sign elsewhere. Only 26 years old, Harmon will likely be overlooked for bigger names but his best football is ahead of him.
Safety D.J. Swearinger, Arizona Cardinals: Was a full-time starter for the Cardinals in 2016 due to Tyrann Mathieu’s injury. Very physical around the line of scrimmage and would be another good replacement for Barry Church if he were to leave, although he will likely be more expensive than Harmon. Rumored to be a priority for the Cardinals due to the fact that they are expected to lose their other safety, Tony Jefferson. Will be just 26 once the season starts.
Cornerback/Safety Micah Hyde, Green Bay Packers: Extremely versatile defensive back who can play outside corner, slot corner or safety. Good size at 6-0, 197, young (will turn 27 during the season), has eight interceptions and four sacks since entering the league in 2013. His versatility could be a creative solution to the problem the Cowboys face having so many free agent defensive backs. He isn’t someone you want as one of your four starting defensive backs in an ideal world, but he can be an excellent piece to your nickel and dime defense.
Safety Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars: Struggled for a few seasons after being drafted high in the second round in 2013, but had a very good season, especially against the run in 2016. He is another potential replacement for Barry Church as a box safety who can cover in short to intermediate zones. Will turn 27 before the season starts.
Defensive End Andre Branch, Miami Dolphins: Resuscitated his career last season in Miami after four years in Jacksonville with 5.5 sacks. He won’t be anything more than a solid rotational piece but you can’t really expect more than that with the budget the Cowboys have. Good size at 6-5, 263 lbs. and still young (will be 28 when the season starts), Branch is probably a better player than Benson Mayowa.
Defensive End Alex Okafor, Arizona Cardinals: Dallas-area native who has battled injuries throughout his career, but put up eight sacks in 2014, although just 5.5 combined over the last two years. Good size at 6-4, 261 and just 26 years old, so he could be worth a flier.
Defensive End Devin Taylor, Detroit Lions: Impressive size at 6-7, 275 with 11.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Would be a nice rotational piece but perhaps too similar to players like Tyrone Crawford and David Irving. With that said, Taylor is just 28 years old and if the price is right the Cowboys aren’t exactly in a position to turn their noses up at help on the defensive line.
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End John Simon, Houston Texas: 3-4 OLB for the Texans but would be more of a defensive end, or perhaps a SAM linebacker who puts his hand down at times for the Cowboys. Versatile player with 8.5 sacks over the last two seasons and strong against the run, will turn 27 during the season.
Defensive End Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers: Another versatile, movable piece from a 3-4 team who would likely be a defensive end for the Cowboys. Good size at 6-4, 285, with nine sacks in four years. Turns 27 before the season.
Defensive End/Defensive Tackle Jared Odrick: Recently released by the Jaguars just two years into a large free agent deal, Odrick suffered through an injury-plagued 2016 but had 22 sacks over his previous five seasons. Good size at 6-5, 298 and versatile with the ability to play inside or out, although he will turn 30 during the season.
Defensive Ends Chris Long (Patriots), DeMarcus Ware (Broncos), Julius Peppers (Packers), Mario Williams (Dolphins): I lumped all of these players together because they all have a similar profile; former elite players who are now aging and could provide value on a cheap one- or two-year deal as they look to close out their careers on a contender.
All Cowboys fans know the story with Ware, and he may be the most likely of the four to end up in Dallas based on his history and the fact that he’s seemingly been openly campaigning for a return. Long played heavy snaps in New England last year but his role diminished as the season went on, he may be looking for a bigger role than the Cowboys can offer although there seemed to be mutual interest between the two last offseason. Peppers has been the most consistent of the four with 18 sacks over the last two seasons despite being the oldest, while Williams dropped off a cliff over the last two seasons with just 6.5 combined sacks compared to 14.5 in 2014.
Still, any of these four would be a welcome addition to the defensive line rotation. Yes, the Cowboys generally want to avoid signing older players, but the value of signing a cheap, former elite edge rusher could be seen by watching the Falcons in the Super Bowl where 36 year-old Dwight Freeney was excellent off the edge. You don’t want to rely on any of these guys for more than 20-25 or so snaps a game, and you may not get a full 16 games out of them, but if the Cowboys find themselves in an NFC Championship or Super Bowl in 2017 one of these former elite pass-rushers could summon enough juice to make the difference, like Freeney nearly did.
If it was up to me, my order of preference would probably be: 1. Peppers, 2. Ware, 3. Williams, 4. Long.
While most of the focus will be on the defensive side of the ball, there are areas where the Cowboys can strategically improve their depth on the offensive side.
Offensive Lineman Tim Lelito, New Orleans Saints: Lelito is a versatile lineman the Cowboys actually attempted to sign to an offer sheet last offseason, but he declined, presumably because he didn’t want to sit on the bench. Has experience at tackle, guard, and center, and perhaps this time around he will reconsider the Cowboys after seeing what played out with Ronald Leary this past season. Turns 28 before the season.
Wide Receiver Brandon Lafell, New England Patriots: Turns 31 during the season but if Terrance Williams signs elsewhere Lafell could be a nice bridge to a younger player for a year or two. Has plenty of experience as a number two receiver and seems generally reliable for about 800 yards and 5 or so touchdowns per season.
Wide Receiver Marquise Goodwin, Buffalo Bills: Another Texas-area native, Goodwin could provide cheap depth and be a spark in small doses with his speed (ran a 4.27 at the 2013 Combine). Had 431 yards receiving last season after an injury-prone first few seasons and should be inexpensive. Turns 27 during the season.
Wide Receiver Cordarelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings: Former first-round pick with impressive size and speed, but never really learned the nuances of the position and has never topped 500 yards receiving in a season. Like Goodwin he could provide depth and a spark at times on tunnel screens and quick-hitting plays. One of the best kick-returners in the league with 5 touchdowns in four years, and an average of over 30 yards per return.