After the first week of nothingness in free agency, the front office of the Dallas Cowboys redeemed themselves with a couple of emphatic moves when they signed Allen Hurns and Cameron Fleming. For fans who have come to expect the Cowboys free agency period to resemble a tumbleweed blowing through a ghost town, it was a pleasant surprise to see them land this caliber of new talent.
That’s not really the Cowboys forte. Stephen Jones openly admits that free agency is like being in the “penalty box” for those teams that don’t draft well or construct poor contracts. The Cowboys have been upfront about not wanting to hang out in the penalty box, which is something you can say they learned the hard way in previous years. They’ve experienced some rather terrible years of poor drafting and handing out over-inflated contracts and it’s landed this team in hot water throughout the years.
But that’s the old Cowboys. This new front office is very cautious, right?
While the Cowboys got great deals on both of these players, it was interesting that they took a more assertive approach to their free agent gatherings. What gives?
Or should we say, what changed? Well, a lot has changed within the Cowboys coaching staff this offseason as several new position coaches have been brought in. Could they have had a big influence on the acquisition of these new players?
Paul Alexander/Cameron Fleming
The Cowboys have a great offensive line, but they showed themselves to be vulnerable when they had to rely on their depth. After Doug Free retired, Ron Leary left in free agency, and Tyron Smith missed games with an injury, the next man up theory was put to the test and they failed. Despite all the shakeups, the Cowboys finished top 10 in rushing for the fourth-straight season. However, they struggled in pass protection and Dak Prescott was a sitting duck at times. The offense completely sputtered and with it - the team’s chances of a second-straight post season appearance.
Last year, Frank Pollack was the team’s offensive line coach. Pollack was along for the ride when Bill Callahan and his zone blocking majesty ruled the roost in Dallas. Paul Alexander is the team’s new offensive line coach, essentially trading places with Pollack in Cincinnati. Alexander didn’t have a lot to work with in Cincinnati. He did coach Kevin Zeitler, who then left the Bengals and is now the top paid guard in the league (at least until Zack Martin gets a new deal). As a unit, the Bengals struggled, but Alexander hasn’t had such nice pieces to work with. That will change in Dallas.
Alexander uses a little variety to his schemes as he employs a mix of zone, power, and trap schemes. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the team had interest in an intelligent player such as Cameron Fleming. The new Cowboys swing tackle is a versatile blocker. He reacts very well to combo blocks and can pass off stunts. Fleming has both the size and intelligence to stick in a power/slide-protection scheme. Alexander has a very effective tool to enable him to do the things he needs on the offensive line, with priority number one being protecting Prescott.
The Cowboys want to be able to beat the defense in different ways and I think all of us can applaud the effort to work in some new wrinkles.
Speaking of new wrinkles...
Sanjay Lal/Allen Hurns
It was surprising to learn that the Cowboys were interested in free agent wide receiver Sammy Watkins. In four seasons in the league, Watkins only had one 1,000 yards season and that was in 2015 with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills WR coach during that time was Sanjay Lal, who is now the new WR coach in Dallas. Make no mistake about it, any push to bring Sammy to the Cowboys was met with approval from Lal. Back in January, our own RJ Ochoa talked about how much praise Watkins had for his position coach.
Lal emphasizes the importance of an effective passing game to help sustain a strong running attack. His receivers are expected to be good blockers, polished route-runners, and capable of creating big chunk plays for the offense. This is exactly what the Cowboys need to help restore order in their offense.
It’s also exactly what they got in new free agent receiver Allen Hurns. While the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft (Watkins) was breaking out in Buffalo during his second year in the league, the undrafted Hurns had almost an identical season. Only four catches, 16 yards, and one touchdown separated those two in 2015. Hurns is a strong route runner, who uses great footwork to create separation. He’s also excelled at running after the catch to provide huge plays for the offense. And last, but not least - he’s a good blocker.
It’s great to see the Cowboys going strong to correct some of last year’s deficiencies. Do the new coaches have anything to do with it? It’s hard to say what the main catalyst is for this slight bump in free agent spending, but judging by the type of players they acquired, they are setting the table nicely for the new coaches to do what they do best.