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Everson Griffen is just the latest smart free agent signing for Cowboys

This is different than in the past. In a totally good way.

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There has been so much going on with the pandemic and all the fallout that some things have been overshadowed. It’s understandable. Things like the way the Dallas Cowboys have changed over the past year are just not that important. However, the NFL is still on track to begin the season, and it is a welcome respite from things. And with actual training camp stuff happening, we can get more into the things we normally would discuss. Like, just what has gotten into Jerry and Stephen Jones? In case you haven’t noticed, after years of doing very little in the free agent market, they have developed some real FA swagger of late. So much so, people who follow other franchises are looking on with envy.

Do you remember when the league looked on the Jones family and their leadership of the Cowboys as a joke? Now, with the exception of one notable contract, they are just killing things. From hiring Mike McCarthy, to the stunning draft, and all these free agent moves, they are doing things right.

That is a change. For years, the approach of the Cowboys to free agency was to do a little bargain shopping and get very little value in return. This is a radically different group of signings, and you might want to throw in Greg Zeurlein. These are not players that have marginal chances to even make the roster. Four of them can be penciled in as starters, five if you count specialists, and Aldon Smith is hopefully going to become a key rotational piece after he has a few games to get back into shape. Now that Everson Griffen has joined the party, the Cowboys will almost certainly roll out a starting defensive line with only one returning player, DeMarcus Lawrence. And if you only were going to keep one of your starting DL from last season, he is a pretty decent choice.

What is more notable is how all the important free agent signings are on defense. The only offensive addition of any importance is Cameron Erving, who is the likely swing tackle, or one of two if the team goes deep there. This is a focus on defense that has been another element lacking from Dallas’ approach. Add in the four defensive draftees, Trevon Diggs, Neville Gallimore, Reggie Robinson II, and Bradlee Anae, and we may be sleeping a bit on what is happening on that side of the ball. Gallimore and Anae in particular may be players who will grow and replace a couple of the rentals that the team brought in this year.

I call them rentals along with others. They have also been referred to as mercenaries. That is something that needs a bit more attention. In the past, the Cowboys were all about growing their own through the draft, and when they did go for a free agent, they focused on locking them up with longer-term contracts. While there is still an unfortunate focus on length in that quarterback negotiation you might have heard of, the brain-trust seems to have completely shucked that when they look at the free agent market. It is about time and should have gone hand-in-hand with the “grow your own” approach. The clear majority of rookies are not ready to come in and carry the load in the NFL, needing some time to learn and develop. Stephen Jones often stated that free agency was used to plug holes on the roster, but up until recently, they were willing to use any scrap material they could get to do so. Now, while all the fillers they have brought in are older and no longer at their peak, all have impressive résumés. Griffen, in particular, is coming off a season where he was still a very effective starter. If you are going to have success using those free agent gap-fillers, you have to get ones that can contribute as more than just warm bodies on the field.

This looks like a defense that will start four free agents week one, and be a better unit because of it. It is a welcome change. But why did it happen?

There are two things that probably are driving this. First is the success of the Robert Quinn signing last season. It was also a one-season rental of an older but still effective player. Quinn was the most productive pass rusher on the team in 2019, so much so, he was lured away from Dallas by the Chicago Bears. Given that he got a five-year, $70 million contract with $30 million guaranteed, it is no wonder the Cowboys didn’t make much effort to retain him. Now, they have Griffen for a $3 million base and $3 million in incentives, with no impact on the compensatory pick formula (which should net the Cowboys a very nice pick for Quinn). Oh, and some writers and analysts will argue that in 2019, Griffen was a better player. That means the team is poised to repeat the same experience, or at least is attempting to. If they pull it off and Griffen signs a big deal elsewhere and brings another high-comp pick to them, well, it will kind of verge on brilliance.

Maybe how well they did with Quinn opened the floodgates. But my theory is, while that was important, it was something else that really led to all this. That was the arrival of McCarthy, closely followed by Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula to head up the defense. They brought some fresh ideas and priorities that are reflected in these FA signings.

That leads to the idea that the almost exclusive focus on “grow your own” was at least to a degree driven by Jason Garrett. It also implicates Rod Marinelli, since we are talking about six new DL assets in just one offseason. There has been some debate about who was more responsible for drafting Taco Charlton and Trysten Hill, but it probably was a bit of a team effort. Similarly, the new direction certainly springs from a McCarthy/Nolan/Tomsula collaboration. The Jones family deserves a lot of credit for how cost-effective these signings are, but they seem to have gotten their target set from the new staff. Frankly, that is the way to go. Let Jerry and Stephen figure out how to land the fish, which they do so well. They just need the right guide to tell them where to throw the bait.

We shouldn’t forget Will McClay, who is going to be involved in evaluating all the free agent targets. But he is more like Jerry and Stephen, working to find the assets the coaches are requesting.

However it really came about, this defense looks far better with these additions than it would without them. This is a new approach for the Cowboys, although other teams have done it very successfully. Better late than never.