Something changed a year ago for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that had become well-known, even notorious, for relying almost exclusively on high draft picks and some late round steals to build their roster suddenly did an abrupt about face. They sent their 2019 first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders to add Amari Cooper to a struggling wide receiver group. It was the kind of move that had not been seen since the worst missteps of the “Trader Jerry” days. At the time, it was a transaction that was widely panned for Dallas, even derided.
Amari Cooper has now played in 16 regular season games with the Dallas Cowboys:— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) October 21, 2019
- 126 targets
- 91 receptions
- 1,346 receiving yards
- 14.8 yards per reception
- 11 touchdowns
- 7-0 against NFC East
Instead of being a waste of a premium draft pick, Cooper has been one of the best trades in recent years. It was a trade that the Cowboys were largely forced into making as the “wide receiver by committee” design had all the success of the Edsel. (Look it up if it doesn’t ring a bell, because it is a cautionary tale all should heed.)
But things were not so dire when the Cowboys engineered their next trade. During free agency, Dallas was looking for some help on the defensive line. Rather than spend a lot of cap space for an upper-tier free agent, or rely on the recent bargain acquisition of Kerry Hyder, they shipped a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins to get Robert Quinn. Captain Obvious notes that the cost was far less than for Cooper, but the return on investment has been even better. All Quinn has done is lead the Cowboys in sacks with six this season, almost doubling DeMarcus Lawrence’s 3.5. Doubling might be the operative term here, as teams sometimes are having to pick their poison between the two. There has been some complaints about Lawrence lagging behind, but it is a red herring as his contributions not only come from drawing attention that helps free Quinn, he is also having an excellent year in run defense.
Still, the Cowboys have not had the volume of sacks they desire. So once again, they entered the trade market, almost a year to the date after the Cooper deal. This time, they traded a 2021 seventh-round pick (that is almost certain to become a sixth-rounder under the terms of the deal) to the New England Patriots for Michael Bennett. He walks into the Star as likely the third-best pass rusher the team now has - and may wind up being more productive than that. He is able to rush from both the edge and inside, and offers the tantalizing prospect of being on the field with Lawrence and Quinn for passing downs.
It is not the way the Cowboys used to do business. And that is a very good thing in many minds.
Not gonna lie, the way the DAL front office has operated the last 12 months it feels like they’re reading my tweets...— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) October 25, 2019
Trading for Amari, Quinn & now Bennett, and signing Cobb are the exact kinds of moves I’ve been advocating for for what feels like years now.
Although we still have to see how Bennett works out on the field, the rest of the moves have been very, to extremely, successful so far.
It is a visible evolution of the way the Cowboys do business. Likely it is largely due to the influence of Stephen Jones, with some key input from Will McClay. But it also reflects a remarkable amount of flexibility and open-mindedness in Jerry Jones. You don’t often see 77-year-old men in any role who are willing to make such a significant course correction.
It bodes well not only for this season with Bennett coming in to juice up the defensive line. It offers hope that the team will continue to pursue all avenues in putting as good a roster together as they can. The only thing they still are avoiding are the big-name, high-cost free agents. History shows that the failure rate for those makes it a wise policy. But getting Randall Cobb shows a willingness to at least go after some higher profile free agents than in recent times, as long as the price is right.
Cobb, Quinn, and Bennett also exemplify another refreshing aspect. That is opportunism. Cobb was, of course, available to anyone who wanted to bid enough to get him, but the Cowboys put together the most attractive package in his eyes. Quinn and Bennett were both players that were surprise moves, and showed that the staff was quick to jump on some talent that became somewhat unexpectedly available. The Bennett situation developed rather quickly with him getting in trouble over his frustration due to a lack of playing time. Like Quinn, he was also in a system that did not seem to suit his skill set well. Then the Patriots’ trade for Mohamed Sunu to bolster their own WR group put New England under sudden cap pressure, as they had to shed enough cap cost somewhere else to fit in his deal according to Over the Cap. Dallas getting the trade done before any other NFC team could (Bill Belichick would have been very unlikely to ship Bennett to any AFC team that he might have to face in the playoffs) was a great example of being very aware of what was going on elsewhere in the league and moving very aggressively - and still getting it done for a song that doesn’t even have be sung for over a year.
There is one more aspect to this, and it is a shift in the value the Cowboys place on late-round picks. This one is more subtle, because they have never exactly shied from trading those low-value picks away. But this looks like an added emphasis on finding more effective ways to spend those low probability selections. As for what they got out of them, the value of Quinn has already been proven, and the probability of a similarly large payoff from Bennett is pretty good.
It has been an excellent twelve month period for the Cowboys’ personnel staff. And the best part is that they may well have more of these very smart deals coming.