2019 NFL free agency starts on March 13th. For many fans of the Dallas Cowboys, that means unending complaints and laments about the team’s failure to jump in and spend a bunch of money to sign whatever player is seen as the magic bullet to put Dallas over the top.
But like it or not, the Cowboys do not seek outside free agents as the primary way to build their roster. They focus on drafting talent, then re-signing key players to a second deal. This year, DeMarcus Lawrence is the big fish for the Cowboys. They also have to look at extending Amari Cooper, and eventually will have to work things out with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and others.
Free agents are still important to Dallas, just as “hole pluggers” rather than foundation pieces. The team still needs depth at several positions, and it strongly prefers having a possible solution already in place before they get to the draft. Signing a free agent at a given position does not mean they are foregoing it in the draft, either. The free agents are short-term solutions(one or two year), where draft picks are more for the long-term (three to four year). They still are very unlikely to dive into the first wave of big-money deals. Their method is to find more affordable options that are not likely to burden the team with a bad, very expensive contract. And age is not as crucial a consideration (although the team may weigh it more heavily than this article assumes).
So here are some positions where the Cowboys have a pretty obvious need to fill - and a suggestion for how they might fill each.
This may be the most glaring need for the Cowboys, assuming they do not try to bring back Rod Smith. If they don’t they are down to just two backs on the roster, Elliott and the very untried Darius Jackson. They need a backup for Zeke, who was showing signs of being a bit beaten up last season.
And the free agent market for RBs is not terribly strong, with the way the position has been devalued and how often teams are able to successfully plug and play at the position. So there are likely to be some very price-effective options out there.
Possible solution: Adrian Peterson
Yes. I said it. It may finally be time for the pipe dream to come true. Peterson is 33, but last season with Washington showed he can still get the job done. He played for the minimum salary there. And he has an affinity for the Cowboys. Get him on another one-year rental. It would be cheap and splashy all at once, and he still looks to be a viable talent.
The Cowboys could still bring back Geoff Swaim, but that seems unlikely. This looks to be a very strong draft class, with some really good pass-catching options out there. And while he may make it into camp, Rico Gathers is on borrowed time, and in my opinion, at least, does not really factor into this discussion.
So in free agency, the target may be more of a known blocking talent to fit into the running game. That is the kind of player who is not likely to be in the mix for a bidding war.
Possible solution: Luke Stocker
The eight-year veteran only has 68 career catches, but is known as a very good blocker. Given that TEs out of college tend to be weak in that part of the game, Stocker would be a complementary acquisition.
The Cowboys have to be careful here, because WR is one position that seems to be overpriced. And it is also one that the team often dives into the UDFA market. Things didn’t work out so well with Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson last year, although that is partly due to Hurns’ severe injury. But the position is still light.
Possible solution: Re-sign Tavon Austin
It’s a bit of a cheat, and it would be better to bring Cole Beasley back - but Beasley is almost certainly going to be too desired by other teams for the Cowboys to be able to get him at a price they would pay. And there seems to be a bit of bad feelings involved as well.
Get Austin back, use the draft, and then go after some UDFA talent as well.
It would be a good deal for the Cowboys to bring back Cameron Fleming - but he saw enough action filling in for Tyron Smith last season that he, like Beasley, can probably get paid more elsewhere, possibly with a starting job. And the tackle market is pretty slim pickings, because good ones are locked up by their teams. So this is a matter of finding a player with some upside but not too much of a resume.
Possible solution: T.J. Clemmings
It all depends on the medicals, since he was on IR with a knee injury last season with the Oakland Raiders, and the previous year had an ankle issue in Washington. While the past two years have been struggles, he started 30 of his first 32 games in the league.
The Cowboys only have three DTs on their roster at the moment, and that includes Tyrone Crawford, who really is a utility lineman that is in the interior due to need. It’s a good draft for interior DL, but they definitely need to shore things up.
Possible solution: Rodney Gunter
He’s 27, a solid run-stopper, but can get some penetration as well. He might take a little bit more aggression from the team given that he is pretty well regarded. Still, DT is another position that is not as highly regarded as it should be, so the Cowboys might be able to fit him in their budget.
Yeah, saved the big one for last. Jeff Heath is a really good special teams guy, but the Cowboys need to upgrade to a better starter.
So they are going to go all in for Earl Thomas, right? Well, maybe not. Thomas is one of the top three FA safeties on the market, and despite the campaigning he has done to get Jerry Jones to come after him, it still is not a smart bet to think the Cowboys will get into anything resembling a bidding war.
But the safety group is perhaps the best position in free agency in terms of depth of talent. That means there are other solid options out there, and while Dallas may have to step up to the plate a bit, they don’t have to break the bank to get someone who can help.
Possible solution: Tre Boston
It will take some real timing, since Boston is seen as somewhere in the second five of available safeties, but he is best known for his coverage skills, which seems to be just what the Cowboys need. Xavier Woods gives them the hard hitter, so he and Boston would bring complementary skills to the secondary. Boston would come with a not-too-small price tag, but it would likely be on the order of what Hurns cost last year. It would not suit many who want a truly big splash, but it might be just big enough to make things work for the team.