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A different approach in free agency has the Dallas Cowboys playing with fire

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The front office is shaking things up a bit this offseason.

Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are splashing around a bit in free agency this year. They still aren’t opening their wallet and shelling out a giant wad of cash to outside free agents, as they remain cheap economical in their approach. Despite the low cost, the key players they’ve signed have all been Pro Bowlers at one time or another, so that’s promising. And what is even better is that these players address huge needs for the Cowboys roster.

Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe provide the team with some strength in the middle; something that has been lacking at the defensive tackle position for years. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix gives the team a coverage safety who actually makes plays on the ball. That’s refreshing. And Greg Zuerlein isn’t far removed from being the best kicker in the game, which is an area that significantly hurt the Cowboys many times last year.

All things signings are great, right? Well, maybe.

One thing about all these signings is that they aren’t the typical younger crowd the team has typically gone after in years past. That’s not to say there is a hard and fast rule about an age restriction, but the Cowboys have made a conscious effort to keep that youth movement going. Availability is ability, and you can’t make the club from the tub. Older players just have a tougher time staying healthy/recovering from injury to where they come with additional risk.

Looking back through the Cowboys last five years of free agent signings shows a pretty strong correlation between age and whether or not it was a good move. We’ve gone through the players and broken things down. For this exercise, we will classify a player as a “good decision” if they contributed in some fashion. Players who never made the roster (George Iloka), couldn’t stay healthy (Stephen Paea), or just played terrible (Byron Bell) are all considered “bad decisions” for this analysis.

Putting these players into groups based on age, gives us the following information:

That doesn’t really inspire confidence when you consider the Cowboys new crop of key free agents look like this...

Before we get too worked up about this, there are some important things to note. Some of these older players were affordable to the Cowboys because they weren’t good players. That is not the case with the Cowboys new crop. They’re good players. If they’re on the field, that’s going to mean good things for Dallas.

But then there are others that had presented some clues. Former Eagles’ players Cedric Thornton (hand injury) and Nolan Carroll (broken fibula) had some recent injuries prior to coming to Dallas, and both got hurt during their short stints with the Cowboys. Players like Stephen Paea (degenerative knee) and Marcus Martin (dislocated knee cap, ankle injury) both had huge red flags, and both didn’t waste any time getting hurt as members of the Cowboys.

While these former signings had preexisting concerns, does that mean they should be worried about this new crop of players? Both Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe have a pretty good track record, considering all the years they’ve played in the NFL. McCoy has played in at least 13 games in each of his last eight seasons; however, it should be noted that he’s only played a full 16 games in three of those seasons. Entering last season, Poe was coming off seven straight seasons where he’s played in at least 15 games; however, last season he suffered a torn quad and missed five games.

And then there’s Greg Zuerlein who has missed games three times in the last five years - 2015 (two games, groin), 2017 (two games, back), and 2018 (five games, groin). And that doesn’t even include lingering injuries that attributed to his lowest accuracy totals of his career last season.

Some good news though - Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has never missed a single game in his five-year career and he is the pup of this group at just 27 years old.

These are things that should definitely temper our expectations a bit, but there are also reasons to be optimistic. Last season, one of the teams older signings, Randall Cobb, was coming off three straight years of missing games due to injuries. Fans were a little critical of the signing because of his injury history, and rightfully so. But the Cowboys were fortunate that Cobb remained healthy last season and put up numbers he hadn’t matched since 2015. The veteran wide receiver has even gone on record praising the Cowboys training staff in keeping him healthy last season.

Cobb claims the Cowboys training staff identified his weak hamstrings as a potential limiting factor and worked with him to strengthen the muscles during the offseason. He went on to produce his most receiving yards (828) since 2015 and his best mark for yards per target (10.0) since 2014, despite being charged with eight drops. Cobb averaged 9.1 yards before the catch on his 55 receptions, compared to 3.9 in his final season with the Packers.

From the table above, Cobb is the one player out of eight from the 28 or older group that was considered a good signing.

When we look at teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and how they always seem to be hampered by injuries every year, it’s easy to just say that they make their own luck. Signing 29-year old Malik Jefferson, who suffered a season-ending foot injury on the season opener last year, or 33-year old DeSean Jackson, who has a long history of not being able to stay healthy, is asking for trouble. Philly doesn’t seem too bothered by those types of things. Their biggest free agent expenditure this season is 29-year-old cornerback Darius Slay who will cost the team nearly $17 million annually.

While fans seem pretty happy with the Cowboys signings this offseason, it should be noted that the team is taking a bit more of a gamble than they have in season’s past. The good news is that they aren’t risking a lot of guaranteed money with these investments, so if it doesn’t work it won’t bury them, but don’t be surprised if we see “OUT” listed as the game status for some of these players this upcoming season.