Are you not entertained? After their typical slow and patient start in free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have kicked it into high gear. They have made their usual bargain bin moves in free agency, but have also exhibited a noticeable shift with a couple of bigger names than we are used to seeing them go after. A couple of weeks ago, I offered my take on what their priorities should be entering free agency. Now, with all the moves since, here is a review of what they have done, and what they can still do, especially with the draft now less than a month away.
The one big failure
Let’s get it out of the way first. The team is still not close to working out an extension for DeMarcus Lawrence, who has not signed his franchise tag tender nor made any plans to get the surgery he needs. Reports indicate he is wanting something in the $22.5 million per year range on a six-year deal, with about half of it guaranteed. The team is not stepping up to that particular plate (yet).
This is the one thing the Cowboys could not really afford to mess up, but here we stand holding their beer. Things are not over, of course. It is not a certain end to their hopes for the season if somehow they lose their best pass rusher and overall best defensive lineman in both phases of the game. But it would really, really hurt. This will continue to be the biggest story for the team until it is resolved.
A big patch has gotten done
Lawrence’s importance is amplified by the possible Randy Gregory suspension, the loss of David Irving, and Taco Charlton’s lack of progress. The team needed something more than a third-tier defensive end to improve things. Now they have gotten it with the trade for Robert Quinn from the Miami Dolphins. He is coming on a one-year deal, which means Dallas is not locked into anything and has the option of trying to re-sign him if he works out.
Quinn is very different from recent offseason moves by the Cowboys. He is coming via trade, not free agency, but he is also a much more potent piece than they usually go after. According to ESPN, he had the highest pass rusher win rate of any EDGE rusher last year. He is not a potential replacement for Lawrence, but is great insurance for him as well as the possible loss of Gregory for any amount of time. He is an absolute plus for the defensive line.
There were other D line additions
The team also added a couple of their traditional bargain signings in DE Kerry Hyder and DT Christian Covington. Both have potential, although markedly less than Quinn. But taken together, the three acquisitions, plus re-signing ERFA Daniel Ross, puts the line in much better shape than it was at the start of the league year.
They didn’t get the safety they wanted, but did find one to add
The Earl Thomas dream finally ended. That really should not have come as a surprise given his expected cost and injury history. The team flirted with Eric Berry, but his injury concerns are even greater, and nothing happened there.
The consolation prize they settled on is George Iloka. He came for a pittance, and still provides some hope for an upgrade over Jeff Heath as a starter, which would allow Heath to make his biggest contributions on special teams, where he is very, very good. Even if Iloka is used more as a role player, he is a veteran who should make contributions.
Wide receiver brought another surprise
Dallas was unwilling to meet the price to retain Cole Beasley, who got his payday from the Buffalo Bills. In another uncharacteristic move, they landed Randall Cobb, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Cobb offers some real possibilities out of the slot, and can also be moved around to play out wide. His age is a concern, and he is not the force he once was. Savvy veterans are often a valuable commodity, however, and he certainly is that. He also came on strong during the second half of 2018. It looks like he can be a nice addition to the wide receiver group, and having him on the field with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup should make new OC Kellen Moore feel good.
The underrated re-signing
They brought back Cameron Fleming to be the swing tackle. That has not gotten much attention, but it is one of the wisest moves they made. Fleming showed that he can step in without things falling apart as they did in 2017 when the Chaz Green experiment finally destroyed the lab. Given the health issues that seem to crop up at some point each season with Tyron Smith, Fleming is an insurance policy they could not afford to be without.
Then there’s that future Hall of Famer
Jason Witten was already on board when the earlier article was written, but his impact is still a bit of a question mark. The top decision-makers keep saying the right things about him accepting a reduced role. For now, though, we should withhold judgment on that until camp and the real games. One thing that has always been an absolute fact about Witten is that he wants to be on the field to contribute, and it is hard to believe he could be forced to sit back when games are on the line. His skills have obviously eroded, and there is a real possibility that he could be a hindrance if he pushes Blake Jarwin or Dalton Schultz off in crucial situations.
However, that “savvy veteran” thing most definitely applies to him. If he still has something left in the tank, and if a year off from the grind helps him be more effective, he might be an asset. His ability to be an extra coach and mentor for the younger guys is also important.
The beard is back
According to all reports, Travis Frederick is set to be at or near full strength after his diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome. That is huge. The team still has the very capable Joe Looney as his backup, but Frederick was perhaps the best center in the game before his illness. If he is indeed at or near his full capacity, the offense gets a huge boost.
Other moves that helped
Mr. Perfect, long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, was brought back for another year. Justin March-Lilliard also came back to solidify the depth at linebacker. Jamize Olawale got a surprising three-year deal, the longest of any player signed so far, but the tantalizing hope that Moore can do more with him continues. Those are under-the-radar moves to watch, and none look to be bad.
The one thing yet to be addressed
Nothing has been done to add depth at running back. It looks like the team is waiting it out to find one last real bargain. And RB is a position where that can really work. Look for one more signing to take care of this before too long.
How that sets up the draft
Free agency is hardly done, and not just because of the lingering need for someone to help back up Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys can still add players if needed, and usually make signings not only in camp, but into the regular season as injuries occur and some moves just don’t work out the way they had hoped.
But now, the focus shifts to the draft, with pro days still ongoing, official visits underway, and Dallas Days coming. And this time, the team actually is in position to focus on the best available players at positions they need.
The positions to watch most closely are tight end, defensive line (both EDGE and interior), running back, wide receiver, and safety. You can rank those however you wish, but all look to have some good talent up and down the draft, which is important with no first-round pick. Will McClay and his scouting staff are now in the spotlight to help get the most bang for the buck, the Cowboys are fortunate to have a staff with such an impressive track record. And the team is still able to grab a real steal if one shows up at a position like cornerback or linebacker. Even with limited draft capital, they might also make moves up or down depending on how their own board falls out against the rest of the league.
Overall, the offseason has gone very, very well outside of the whole Lawrence mess. If they can successfully resolve that, the team could be very dangerous this fall.