We are getting a sense of how the Dallas Cowboys are shaping up for 2018. We have had three weeks of practices in Oxnard, plus the first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, to gather data. Earlier, Cole Patterson took a look at the rookies, particularly how they did in the opening game. But those aren’t the only new players to evaluate.
While the Cowboys have a now well-established strategy of relying primarily on the draft for roster building, and a clearly stated aversion to overpay for veteran free agents, they still acquire veterans every year to round out the roster. They “bargain shop” after the first flurry of big-dollar free agent deals are handed out, and this year, they were also rather active in trading for players. And after some rather lackluster or even dismal returns on those kinds of players in recent years, this season’s crop looks to have a lot more to contribute. Here is a review of the acquisitions for 2018 and how they have done so far.
(Note: This is focused on the free agents and trades that happened through the end of the NFL Draft, and not players that were added to round out the roster later. While Antwaun Woods and Darius Jackson both have flashed some, most of those later additions are basically camp bodies, and Woods is really the only one of that group that currently has what looks to be a realistic shot at making the roster.)
If there was a surprise star in the 49ers game, it was the linebacker signed to help fill the gaps left by the departure of Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber. At the time of his signing, he was seen more as a replacement for Wilber, whose main contributions during his time in Dallas were on special teams. Hitchens’ place was expected to be filled in the draft.
But last Thursday night, he showed that he could do a lot more than that. R.J. Ochoa a post to highlight his contributions in San Francisco, and they were impressive.
The mandatory disclaimer here is that it was just a preseason game but Joe Thomas tied for the team lead in the following categories:
Tackles - 3
Assisted tackles - 2
Total tackles - 5
Tackles for loss - 1
Interceptions - 1
Passes deflected - 1
With Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch (who was a bit more than just a Hitchens replacement after all), Thomas helps elevate the linebackers to one of the strongest units on the Cowboys.
Evaluation: Thomas may be the insurance the team needs to ensure the defense doesn’t fall off the cliff if Lee is injured, showing that he can man the WILL position without being a liability. Given the intent of his signing, he gets a solid A so far.
Hurns was signed before the release of Dez Bryant, but hindsight indicates that the personnel and coaching staffs knew what was coming. Hurns is not a replacement for prime Dez - but Bryant was no longer prime, having injury issues and declining production in the last few seasons. So far, Hurns has been solid and at times impressive. He seems a very good fit for the new idea of having multiple reliable targets for Dak Prescott.
Evaluation: He appears capable of serving as a bridge. He is the de facto WR1 for now, with Michael Gallup expected to grow into that role, possibly by sometime this season. Give him a B+.
Disappointing is the best description of what Ealy has (and hasn’t) done so far. The staff was very high on him coming out of college, but his career has been pretty mediocre so far, and that is precisely what he has been for Dallas as well. With Randy Gregory back in pads, Dorance Armstrong the best value for his draft spot so far, and Charles Tapper off to a good start, Ealy’s tenure with the Cowboys could end when the cuts are made - if not before.
Evaluation: Dallas had some real hits, but barring a sudden turnaround, Ealy was a whiff. At least he’ll only cost them $200,000 in dead money. He gets an F.
He was signed to be a swing tackle in case Chaz Green could not be salvaged. Well, Green pretty much foundered on the rocks and went under against the 49ers. Fleming has not been great, but as our old friend rabblerousr put it in an article, he “wins ugly, but does win”.
Evaluation: It doesn’t look like he’ll get Prescott killed or elevate an average pass rusher to All Pro status in one game. Call it a C+.
Like Fleming, he was brought in for offensive line depth, but for the interior. He hasn’t been a complete disaster, but that is about all you can say. Now he is facing possible season-ending surgery for a toe injury suffered in the 49ers game.
Evaluation: An injury means he gets an incomplete grade at this point, but he was making a D at best before.
Brought in along with Hurns to provide some options in the wide receiver room, Thompson was looking surprisingly good in practices. His speed offers a true deep threat that the Cowboys can use. But he missed the game due to injury, and that could just put him too far behind.
Evaluation: He is also an incomplete grade, but was certainly doing a lot better than Martin. He was in the B range. But the outstanding performance of Lance Lenoir and the crowded nature of the wide receiver room make his chances of making the roster an uphill battle.
It was an unusual sequence of events when the Cowboys first lost their 2017 fullback, Keith Smith, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency, then shipped a late-round pick to Oakland to acquire Olawale. But Olawale looks like a real upgrade, already factoring into the passing game as well as filling the traditional role of a lead blocker. He is an unusually athletic FB, and it looks like Scott Linehan is willing to use him to throw a few curves at opposing defenses.
Evaluation: His potential has always been very intriguing to me. Now we have to hope his effective usage can just continue. I give him a solid B.
With Maliek Collins still recovering from injury and David Irving suspended for the first four games (and attending rehab rather than practicing in camp), Ward is now a potential starter for the beginning of the season. He has looked good, and batted a pass against San Francisco.
Evaluation: Another solid B, and given his underwhelming performance while in Oakland, a really outstanding job by Will McClay and his staff to identify him. Just hope he keeps it up.
The draft day trade for Austin was a real shocker. He has a reputation for being extremely explosive, but very inconsistent, particularly in catching and holding onto the ball. The analysts at Football Outsiders have him rated as one of the least valuable contributors in the league according to their proprietary stats.
But he has been excellent in camp, and had two catches in the first preseason game. And he has mainly been used just as a receiver, with the team so far keeping things like the jet sweep and lining him up in the backfield under wraps. If he has overcome his issues with bad hands (possibly due, at least partly, to Sanjay Lal and his bricks), then he offers a real challenge to defensive coordinators with all the ways he can contribute.
Evaluation: Just gonna be a bit conservative and give him a B - but he could be a real weapon if he has indeed overcome his ball issues.
It is a mixed bag, but there are more pluses than minuses. And at least four of these (Thomas, Hurns, Ward, and Austin) could play key roles this season, with Olawale in a more limited but still valuable one. That is a really good haul of outside talent, and all done for really affordable costs. There is more than one way to win at free agency and trades, and the Cowboys seem to have found one.
Now to see if things hold up through the rest of the preseason.