The Cowboys have been surprisingly active in free agency this year, even though they haven’t come close to setting any markets. In addition to retaining some of their own players - such asAmari Cooper, Sean Lee, Joe Looney, and Anthony Brown - they’ve significantly beefed up the interior of the defensive line with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, as well as shoring up the safety position with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
But there’s still work to be done for the Cowboys. There are particular holes at the third wide receiver spot, and at the right defensive end position, and while they have a lot of bodies at cornerback there’s questions about who will be the top guy. The Cowboys were reportedly interested in both Emmanuel Sanders and Phillip Dorsett, but both receivers have signed elsewhere. And while rumors have linked Jadeveon Clowney and Everson Griffen to Dallas, it seems like both have a higher asking price than the Cowboys are willing to meet.
Yet there are still some names out there who could be valuable additions to the team at a relatively low price. And given that the Cowboys currently have just over $21 million in cap space according to Over the Cap, they have some money to work with. With that in mind, here are six free agents the Cowboys should be looking at bringing aboard.
WR Rashard Higgins
Higgins would be an intriguing addition to this receiving corps. For one, he’s a Colorado State alum like Michael Gallup, although the two didn’t actually play together at the same time. Secondly, like both Gallup and Amari Cooper, Higgins offers the ability to play outside and in the slot.
As a fifth-round pick by Cleveland in 2016, Higgins got extended playing time as a rotational receiver in both 2017 and 2018, putting up 66 catches for 884 yards and six touchdowns over the two seasons. His playing time declined sharply in 2019 when he butted heads with now-fired head coach Freddie Kitchens, but Higgins has a lot to offer a team.
From 2017 to 2018, Higgins averaged three yards of separation on all of his targets, which matches what Randall Cobb’s figure was in 2019 and is higher than both Cooper and Gallup. What’s more impressive is that Higgins did so with an average pre-snap cushion of 5.6 yards, the same amount Gallup had in 2019.
With all the attention Cooper and Gallup are bound to get in 2020, Higgins’ versatility and ability to create separation could make him a valuable asset in this offense.
WR Cam Phillips
Here is the first of two XFL stars to appear on this list. Phillips played for the Houston Roughnecks and quickly emerged as the best receiver in the entire XFL. His 31 catches, 455 yards, and nine touchdowns all led the league by wide margins. Operating in June Jones’ run and shoot offense, Phillips ran a diverse route tree that saw him line up all over the field.
Phillips went undrafted in 2018 and was briefly on the Bills practice squad before joining the XFL, so it’s not entirely clear how he’d translate to the NFL. But if he dominated in the XFL, Phillips maybe could be able to carve out a nice role as the third option in Dallas. And given that he made somewhere around $55,000 for the whole year in the XFL, Dallas can offer a cheap deal that would still be a massive pay raise. Phillips offers a low risk, potentially high reward option at receiver.
WR Tavon Austin
Even if the Cowboys sign Higgins or Phillips or some other receiver, they should give a hard look at bringing Austin back as well. Obviously he offers a lot of speed as a return specialist, and his best year returning punts (by far) was with the Rams under John Fassel, who’s now in Dallas.
But beyond that, Austin can be used as a utility option with some effectiveness. That was the plan the last two years, but it may actually come to fruition under Mike McCarthy given how the new head coach used to use Cobb in Green Bay. He knew how to use Cobb’s skill set as a runner, and over seven seasons he gave Cobb 59 carries for 352 yards. He had a good understanding of ways to get him involved aside from just running routes.
Austin can do the same thing, and his speed makes him a viable deep threat on sub packages as well. It’s just a matter of being creative enough to deploy him properly, and with McCarthy and Kellen Moore working together on the offense, that could finally manifest for Austin, who can be had at a very cheap price.
DE Jabaal Sheard
A lot of Cowboys fans are calling for either Clowney or Griffen to get signed, and while either would be great additions to the team, price tags are a concern. But Dallas could get Sheard at a fraction of the cost while offering similar levels of productivity. In 2019, Sheard had a solidly above average pass rush win rate despite being fifth in the league in double team rate among edge rushers:
I've shamelessly taken @SethWalder's chart of Pass Rush Win Rate (Y axis) versus double team rate (X axis) and circled some key free agents.— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) March 4, 2020
Wouldn't be surprised if whoever ends up paying Ngakoue (at the price he's rumored to be going for) comes to regret it pic.twitter.com/ycqcyEjOdo
Sheard also has recorded 28.5 sacks in the last five years, including 4.5 sacks last season, which is more than Clowney had last year. As can be seen in the above chart, both Cowboys edge rushers - DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn - were very high in double team rates, an unusual metric for two players on the same team. It suggests that opposing offenses paid little to no attention to the Cowboys’ defensive tackles, instead focusing solely on the edge rushers.
But after adding a consistent penetrator in Gerald McCoy and a massive space eater in Dontari Poe, teams won’t be able to afford that same approach in 2020. And if Sheard was able to get 4.5 sacks on a roughly 19% pass rush win rate while being double teamed almost a quarter of the time, imagine what he’d do with this new Dallas defensive line.
DE Anthony Johnson
Here’s the second XFL star on this list. Johnson went undrafted out of LSU in 2014 despite posting seven sacks and 22 tackles for loss in three years as a defensive tackle. He bounced around between five NFL teams over six seasons, eventually transitioning to a defensive end role, before trying out the AAF and CFL and then landing in the XFL.
That’s where he caught fire with the DC Defenders, becoming one of the league’s best pass rushers. Johnson recorded 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits through five games; he was constantly applying pressure and frequently got double teamed as a result. Plus, he’s got a similar quarterback-hunting swagger to Tank:
Much like Phillips, Johnson would be a very low risk signing that could potentially provide a high reward. And if indeed Randy Gregory is able to return to football in 2020, Johnson could form a nice rotation with him as Gregory gets back into football shape.
CB Prince Amukamara
The Cowboys already have a lot of cornerbacks on the roster, with the top five being Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, CJ Goodwin, and Maurice Canady. But none of those players are considered top cornerback options, and the only currently under contract beyond 2020 is Brown.
Needless to say, Dallas is likely to still add at least one more player at the position, and while they’re probably looking to the draft for that, Amukamara is an intriguing option that’s for some reason still available in free agency. Amukamara has been a consistently reliable corner, playing in at least 14 games each of the last four years. He’s only had three interceptions over that period, and all of them came in 2018, but he’s also been tight in coverage and dependable in run defense.
Amukamara wouldn’t come close to the talent level of Byron Jones, but that says more about Jones than it does Amukamara. He’s been the top corner for a vaunted Bears defense the last three years, and could fill a similar role in Dallas, even if it’s only for a short-term deal. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt Dallas to explore the option.