We are just a few days from the 2018 NFL Draft, so it is understandable that most of our processing power tends to get locked in on what the Dallas Cowboys are going to do with their ten overall selections. With focus on that, it is easy to overlook something that directly impacts the way Dallas is going to approach the NFL Christmas: The offseason, on balance, has really been atypically good for them.
Of course, as with all things, we cannot really evaluate the effects of everything that happened between the end of the 2017 season and now until we find out how it plays out. But based on reasonable expectations, it looks like the Cowboys took care of a lot of business successfully. Things were not perfect, but when you step back and consider everything, the results are good.
Here is a review of what the team did, and an early evaluation of the various moves.
The bad stuff
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. The Cowboys had one really big problem that they handled poorly, the release of Dez Bryant. While there is a question of whether it was a mistake or not to move on without him (given the uncertain status of the wide receiver room and whether Dak Prescott will bounce back from last year’s struggles), there is no question that the team, namely Jerry and Stephen Jones, let this turn into an unnecessary circus and wound up treating Bryant rather shabbily in the end. The process of arriving at the decision to release him was dysfunctional and the actual release was delayed for no real reason. Now Bryant has a sizable chip on his shoulder, and wants to land with an NFC East rival to get as much revenge on the Cowboys as he can.
However, while it would have been more fair to release Bryant before the start of free agency, when wide receivers were landing overpriced contracts, the delay may have the result of keeping him out of the division in the end. That shouldn’t be an excuse, but it may work out better in the long run.
Previous to all that, Dallas almost made a big mistake and it was tied directly to moving on from Dez. They reportedly offered one of those bloated free agent contracts to Sammy Watkins, and the plan evidently was to release Bryant immediately if they had signed him. However, Watkins signed instead with the Kansas City Chiefs on a three-year, $48 million deal ($21 million guaranteed). It is highly doubtful he would have been worth a similar cost to the Cowboys, who wound up unintentionally dodging that bullet.
In retrospect, those look like the only two really bad moves Dallas even attempted. And the Bryant release may turn out to have been the right call after all. Time will tell.
The good (and just OK) stuff
The first thing the Cowboys did was a significant rebuild in the assistant coaching ranks. While there are many who would argue that the changes should have gone much higher and included Jason Garrett and especially Scott Linehan, this may have been something that was becoming overdue. The team was unhappy with some of the former assistants, particularly wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, and others were ready to move on for what they saw as greener pastures. And they scored one major coup in bringing in Kris Richard, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks and their Legion of Boom. Richard now has the responsibility for the pass defense, and is suspected to be the new heir apparent to Rod Marinelli. Matt Eberflus was long seen as being next in line, but he was no longer willing to wait and landed the defensive coordinator job with the Indianapolis Colts.
Other moves are more controversial, particularly the hiring of former backup QB Kellen Moore as the new quarterbacks coach. But the team seems committed to making some significant changes, and new blood was probably a necessity.
Once the team had the staff positions filled, it was time to move on to free agency. That has been a dangerous minefield for Dallas in recent years, with things pretty much hitting bottom in 2017, where exactly none of their major outside free agent signings that offseason even made it to the end of the season on the roster. But early returns are that the Cowboys have done much better this time around.
Two significant free agent moves involve their own players from last year. The big one was putting the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence. While the hope is that the team can work out a long-term deal to keep the player that has finally become the “war daddy” Jerry Jones has been lusting after, the two sides are far apart on that. Now they have him in the fold with another year to try and work things out, he gets a big payday, and at the moment it is a win-win.
The second move was making a second-round tender to David Irving, who has tons of potential but has been inconsistent in staying on the field. At the time, there was criticism for not making it a first-round tender, with the worry that some other team would see him as worth a second-round pick. But the staff turned out to be right, and they now have another year to see if Irving can be the force he has been at times for a full season. Then they will be able to decide whether he is worth trying to lock down long term.
This year’s crop of outside signings certainly looks to have more promise than in recent years. Once the Watkins deal fell through, the team went back to its practice of waiting out the first wave of egregiously overpriced contracts and got a group of players that seem to fit well with the needs, setting them up for maximum flexibility in the draft.
The biggest signing was Allen Hurns. The wide receiver is not a replacement for Bryant, at least what Bryant was in his prime, but he does give them what appears to be a functional X receiver. Deonte Thompson effectively replaces Brice Butler on the depth chart for now to help stock up the WR room.
Kony Ealy is an intriguing, low-cost signing to add some pass rusher depth. He is no lock to make the roster, but carries a minimal dead money hit ($200K) if he doesn’t. (All cap considerations are based on Spotrac’s numbers.)
Linebacker Joe Thomas adds more badly needed depth with the loss of Anthony Hitchens in free agency, and also can replace Kyle Wilber on special teams if needed. Two other important signings were OT Cameron Fleming and OG Marcus Martin. While they may be part of the eventual solution at left guard, at the moment they look to be key depth signings.
As a result of the frugal free agent spending, the Cowboys now have approximately $8.5 million in cap space going into the draft - and Spotrac’s numbers do not appear to include the $2.75 million in space that they will net from James Hanna’s retirement. That puts them in pretty comfortable position to get the rookies signed and still have some cap to work with for any last minute needs.
One other move also could have a significant future impact. The Cowboys have now made it official that Byron Jones will move back to cornerback, which should only benefit him after years of being something of a Swiss Army knife in the secondary. It has allowed them to use the fifth-year option on him at a reduced price for 2019 since the figures are based on him playing the less expensive safety position in 2017. And that all seems to have flowed directly from the influence of Richard on the staff.
Byron Jones said ever since Kris Richard was hired as the Cowboys' new DBs coach he talked about moving Byron back to CB. "I think it will be a good move for me and the team."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 16, 2018
There is a lot of metaphorical water that still has to go under that bridge, but right now, the offseason looks like it was mostly very well done for the Cowboys. And it leaves them in very good shape for the draft.