The second full week of free agency has been more fruitful for the Dallas Cowboys than many expected. The team acquired FB Jamize Olawale in a trade, and signed outside free agents LB Joe Thomas, WR Deonte Thompson, WR Allen Hurns, and are reported to have a deal coming with T Cameron Fleming and G Marcus Martin. There is no word on the numbers on Fleming or Martin (and it is not official yet), but the others have turned out to be very cost-effective. The well-known Cowboys objective of not overpaying for free agents certainly seems to have been accomplished so far. And all the players brought in address needs of the team, with more hopefully to be filled in the coming weeks.
But as anyone who has watched free agency in the past knows, it doesn’t really mean anything until the team takes the field in the fall. There is no better example of how things can go sadly awry than the experience of Dallas in 2017. They signed five outside free agents last offseason, OL Byron Bell, S Robert Blanton, CB Nolan Carroll, DE Damontre Moore, and DT Stephen Paea. Only Bell made it to the end of the season on the roster, and he did not make a significant positive impact.
The good news is that, so far at least, the current crop looks a lot more likely to at least make the roster this fall. Olawale has some impressive ability as both a runner and a receiver, Thomas can make some plays as a linebacker and special teams, Thompson brings some speed the team really needs at receiver along with some good hands, Hurns looks an awful lot like a poor man’s Dez Bryant on video, and Fleming started several games down the stretch during the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl run.
Nonetheless, there are two areas where the Cowboys need to either have gotten it right or will need to make the correct calls. And how those turn out will tell the tale.
The evaluations of the scouting staff have to have been much better this year.
That list of failures from just a year ago shows just how badly the scouts did. Paea had injury problems that forced him into retirement. Blanton simply wasn’t good enough to crack the roster and Moore was apparently a victim of his own mistakes off the field as well, and Carroll was probably the biggest miss of all. Only Bell was kind of what we thought he was, a backup who could plug a hole in desperate times - and not all that good at that.
Now we have to find out just how good a job the staff did in going after these players. Simply put, they have to live up to the expectations. Their evaluations are of course a done deal now. If the staff got its act together, then some of the new members of the roster, at least, should be able to contribute. There is nothing that can be done to correct things if they missed on one or more of these players, other than the team cutting their losses by releasing them.
Utilization is the key.
Now it is on the coaches. They have been given some new tools to use. The coaching staff, with all the new faces there, must properly employ them. And there are plenty of ways that can go wrong.
Olawale is not the same player as Keith Smith, whose roster spot he clearly takes. He does have a history of being a special teams contributor, so that is a good match for him. But as a fullback, he has a different game. He is not seen as being as good a blocker, but if the coaches choose to make him a bigger part of the offense than Smith was, he has some exciting potential. He had a history with the Oakland Raiders of making some huge plays with the ball in his hands.
Now it falls on Scott Linehan to figure out how to make use of that potential. And frankly, that is not at all a given. Will we see an offensive plan similar to 2016 when Dallas rode a pair of rookies in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott to a 13-3 record? Or will we see the frustrations of 2017 when the staff just couldn’t come up with the answers it needed on a consistent basis?
Of course, injuries and that notorious suspension played a huge role in things last year. Fleming, assuming the reports of his signing are correct, could be a huge step towards making sure that doesn’t happen again. He has the makings of a superior swing tackle, something the Cowboys were sorely lacking. As such, he would be primarily competing with Chaz Green, who has the unenviable task of putting a truly disastrous season behind him. Green was not solely to blame for his travails, of course. The plan to move him to guard hurt him.
There could be danger with Fleming if they go through with the idea of replacing La’el Collins at RT with him so Collins could kick back inside to fill the hole at LG. After what happened with Green, it is hard to imagine they would go down that road again.
Of the new signings, Thomas seems the safest. Sean Lee is still Sean freaking Lee, although his health is always a worry. And Jaylon Smith reportedly is seeing even more improvement on the drop foot issue that he dealt with last season. Given that he proved he could play effectively despite that issue, both the starting MIKE and WILL jobs seem to be in good hands. Thomas looks capable of being a backup to step in if needed, and can also be used when a SAM is on the field. We don’t know if he would fill the SAM slot or if they would move Smith out there and put Thomas in the middle - but given the need for defensive flexibility with the way the game is played now, there is certainly hope that the team can figure that out better than they did the O line last year.
Meanwhile, Hurns and Thompson add some needed depth to wide receiver. The danger here is if that idea of parting ways with Bryant is still alive for the team. As has been reported, the very team-friendly deals that they signed has taken some of the momentum away from that. But the public statements about Bryant’s future with Dallas, particularly from Stephen Jones, indicate that there is still a real danger of that coming back to life. And that would almost certainly be a mistake. If the team plans to use Hurns and Thompson in anything but the WR1 role, then the receiver situation could be much improved. Otherwise, things could get very rocky.
Further muddying the waters is the NFL Draft. If the Cowboys take a receiver early (and a lot of mocks have them going WR at 19), then that idea of doing without Dez could once again become a siren song. And like the original myth, that song could lure the team onto the rocks to founder.
Things look so much better than they did a week ago, when the Cowboys were keeping their powder dry as huge contracts were being handed out by other teams. But now, the important thing is how they seek to use the new players. If they get it right, this could wind up as a successful free agency. Stumble into one or more of those pitfalls listed above, though, and it might be deja vu all over again.