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Steady course and changing tides: Cowboys free agency both familiar and strange

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The shift in free agency strategy seems more evolutionary than revolutionary. But it’s still significant.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Coach Mike McCarthy Press Conference
Maybe it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It has been just (checks calendar, since every day kinda feels the same now) eleven days since the start of NFL free agency. The Dallas Cowboys have signed six outside free agents so far. Three are possible or projected starters, two are depth players, and one is a specialist. That’s pretty good work. And a real change.

While a whole lot else is very different about this year, this is one more (extremely minor and unimportant) thing to add to the pile. In the past, at this stage of free agency, the Cowboys would just be really getting cranked up to hit the bargain bins. This time around, the team is probably down to making one or two more cost-effective acquisitions, if that. But they have gotten some key holes filled without spending freely. Gerald McCoy got a three year contract could total $18.3 million while only counting as a hit of $4.35 million against the cap this season, according to Over the Cap. That site doesn’t have figures for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Dontari Poe yet, as the whole signing process is being stretched out by the necessary reductions in travel. But both are even more economical. Clinton-Dix is on a one year deal for $4 million and is seen by some as a real steal at that price. Poe signed for two years and a total of $10.5 million.

Given that all could play important roles this year for the defense, that is really outstanding value. Outside of them, the team also gave kicker Greg Zuerlein a three-year, $7.5 million contract to ensure they have options at that position, having already re-signed Kai Forbath. And they added depth in CB Maurice Canady and TE Blake Bell for the NFL equivalent of pocket change.

Somehow, Dallas managed to hew to its well-established principle of reserving big free agent money for their own. This year that was Amari Cooper and (via the tag with a long-term deal pending) Dak Prescott. Normally, it has meant that the Cowboys get leftovers that just don’t satisfy the fans. But the top three signings so far are looked upon favorably by most. They may not have been the absolute best options, but better options would, of course, have come with bigger price tags.

Given how quickly Dallas was able to get these done is actually a bit of a mystery. You have to wonder if the bizarre and sad circumstances that have impacted the way free agency is conducted, along with everything else, made it somehow more attractive to the players to get a new gig. But I think there is something else in play.

Now, the most important voice on the team not named Jones is Mike McCarthy. It is indirect, but the evidence is nonetheless persuasive that some of the old ways of doing things were driven by Jason Garrett even more than we have realized.

Look at the positions of the big three signings. A big, run-stuffing nose tackle. A safety. And another defensive lineman that can play end, but may have the most impact from the 3-tech spot. Those are roles that have been clearly less valued in the past. To address all of them in the matter of a week or so is a big pivot.

There’s also the age, particularly for the D linemen. McCoy is 32, Poe is 29, and Clinton-Dix is 27. Previously, the Cowboys showed a marked preference for younger players. Now they are willing to go with older signees, as long as they still show evidence of having something left in the tank.

McCarthy is not the only coach whose input was important. DC Mike Nolan and line coach Jim Tomsula no doubt had things to say about McCoy and Poe. Nolan also would have been very involved in Clinton-Dix, but McCarthy’s connection to him is hard to discount.

A similar dynamic is in play with Zuelein and new special teams coach John Fassel. The timing of things may be all about having a competition, but our own RJ Ochoa may have a more accurate take.

However the process actually went, there is an unquestionable influence from the coaching staff on the way free agency has been conducted. That includes an increase in urgency as well. I posit that the slow go approach of the past was another Garrett influence, at least in part. With the way the Cowboys got some players they wanted so quickly, there has to be a suspicion that for years the team sat around too long before making a real effort to sign outside talent.

What didn’t change was going after second tier talents and staying away from the splashy and very expensive names. That still seems to be firmly controlled by Stephen Jones. And from the perspective of both cap space and real dollars, the Cowboys got three probable starters for the price of one big free agent deal.

It should have been too contradictory to pull off, but the Dallas brain trust stuck to their guns while doing things very differently. As always, we won’t know how well it truly worked until we see how it plays out on the field. Sadly, we have no real idea when that will finally happen. But for now, things look much better than just about any would have guessed less than two weeks ago.

It has been a strangely satisfying free agency for the Cowboys. It may not be completely over as the cap space is still not used up and can still be increased with the so-familiar manipulation Dallas has done so well.