It’s deja vu all over again. NFL free agency is in full swing, but for fans of the Dallas Cowboys, angst is the order of the day as the rest of the league is making headlines with their signings and trades, while the Cowboys are waiting on the sidelines.
Of course, this is similar to 2014 and 2016, when Dallas had great seasons (at least until they ran into the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs). Still, things were also the same in the disastrous 2015 campaign and last season’s disappointing performance. So you have your choice of taking the half-empty or half-full view.
And it is still only day two of the league year. There is still a lot of time to go before we can really begin to evaluate things. But we can take a look at what has (and has not) happened so far to try and get a feeling for how things might turn out.
One thing is clear. There is a lot of money and cap space that has been spent by other teams. Contracts and guaranteed money are just ballooning. One of the guiding principles of the Dallas front office has been that they are not going to overspend in free agency, putting their main focus on keeping their own top free agents and making the draft the most important part of improving the roster. Free agency and trades are going to play a secondary role. Given the overall track record of big free agent signings, there are going to be more disappointments than success stories again when we look back on 2018 in a few years. And one thing has to be kept in mind: All these free agents and traded players are ones that their old teams chose to part ways with. Some may not have been for good reasons, but many were.
The Cowboys have only made three moves, all involving their own players. But one was huge. The franchise tag has secured DeMarcus Lawrence, the number one edge rusher on the market, for another year at least. That gives them time to figure out how to approach a long-term deal for him, as well as see if there are going to be any further health issues such as cost him some games.
They also put a second-round tender on David Irving. That was a calculated gamble on their part, but early indications are that it may work out. The team apparently has some reservations about the talented defensive lineman, and now hope to have a year to see if he can be a long-term piece for the defense or not.
The third move has not gotten much play, but may be a tip as to how they are approaching the draft. They signed exclusive rights free agent Brian Price to a two-year deal. Price played well before an injury cut his season short in 2017. He gives them some insurance at the 1-tech position, a place the team has a reluctance to spend much draft capital. That may signal that they are not going to use a high pick again this year for that. It is also interesting to see the rumors about a possible interest in Ndamukong Suh, who is now on the market as the Miami Dolphins are going through a bit of a rebuild The team is waiting to see if his market will bring his asking price down to something they would consider. It has a lot of time to play out, and the odds are pretty long of him ever coming to Dallas, but this also fits with the desire to find a cost-effective solution in the defensive trenches.
Similarly, the rumors keep shifting back and forth on a trade for Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Seattle reportedly wanted a first-round pick for him, plus he wants a lot of money to play anywhere. The Cowboys wisely passed on the first offer, but there could be a lot of back and forth still to come. Again, it is not something you want to bet on. But if the market starts drying up, things could change.
The team did reportedly make a serious run at WR Sammy Watkins, but again got outbid. That leaves the Dez Bryant situation to still be worked out, and does make the chance of just leaving his contract alone more plausible. Had they succeeded in getting Watkins, it might have been the end of Bryant in Dallas. And that would have been something that could have turned out very badly.
The team has money ready to add to the cap with the built in restructure available for Travis Frederick, plus several other moves they can make. As in recent years, the team is going to wait out that first, frenzied period of huge contracts. Meanwhile, lots of other teams are engaging in the same kinds of restructures to free up space. Kicking the can down the road is a common practice now.
Meanwhile, there have been a couple of notable departures. As was widely expected, Anthony Hitchens caught that first wave of high-dollar deals and has cashed in with the Kansas City Chiefs. For a player that was projected to be a backup, however versatile, there was no logical way for the Cowboys to outbid KC for his services. Linebacker just became a higher priority for the team, although it must be noted that run-first linebackers have been devalued in the pass-centric world of the modern NFL.
Another loss is fullback and special teams ace Keith Smith, who now rejoins his old ST coach Rich Bisaccia with the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys, particularly Jason Garrett, sitll value the position more than most of the league, but don’t want to pay much for it. Now they have to also look for a new FB, but the logic of not paying much is hard to argue given how few plays actually see one on the field.
Word has also surfaced that Alfred Morris is expected to move on, creating a need for RB depth.
So now we are moving toward the second and third waves of free agency, they still have a variety of needs, including left guard, wide receiver depth (especially with Bryant’s status still undetermined), safety, and backup quarterback (the team has to have more camp arms at the very least). They also should be looking for more edge rushing talent since the RDE is still a question, and tight end depth with James Hanna still rumored to be likely cut for cap space, as well as the already mentioned needs at linebacker, fullback, and backup running back.
Some of those will be addressed in the draft, but even with ten picks currently available to them, they are not going to fill all the holes that way. The coming weeks will see them start to plug those holes. It will likely not be very satisfying to those looking for splashy signings, but that is the way the team has chosen to handle things.
It has been a lackluster start to things for Dallas. But if you weren’t expecting that, you weren’t being realistic. This is the current Cowboys way, and barring another disappointment this year, it is not going to change.