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Hindsight grades for free agents the Dallas Cowboys saw walk away in 2020

Hindsight is quite literally 2020.

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

We have entered offseason mode as far as the Dallas Cowboys are concerned which means that things like free agency, the NFL Draft, and OTAs are next on the docket.

Each year that the season doesn’t end in a Super Bowl victory is a disappointment for a franchise that has been in search of their sixth world championship for a quarter century now. Needless to say, certain elements of decision-making need to change if the Cowboys want their drought to end. Nothing makes you look smarter than looking back on a year’s worth of data and making a decision in the here and now about it. As the season is over for the Cowboys, it makes sense to look at some of the things that they did a year ago and evaluate whether or not they were the right decisions or not.

We know that the “big-time” free agents that the Cowboys brought in (Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Daryl Worley, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Everson Griffen late in the game) hardly worked out, McCoy is an obvious exception, but what about the players they ultimately saw walk away?

Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins

The rookie contract from the Cowboys 2015 first-rounder finally expired last offseason, and despite his low career interception numbers (which are brought up regularly), Byron Jones was in high demand on the open market.

It was the Miami Dolphins who signed him to a five-year deal worth $82.5M ($46M guaranteed at signing). To the interceptions point, Jones got his hands on two balls in 14 games with the Dolphins this season, He totaled as many interceptions in 79 games with the Cowboys.

Having another elite corner opposite of him in Xavien Howard (who led the NFL in interceptions and has immense respect for Amari Cooper, by the way), certainly helped Jones’ cause in a way that nothing else really did during his five seasons in Dallas. It’s hard to look at the fact that the Cowboys ultimately “let” him leave as anything but a failure for them.

Collectively the Miami Dolphins had one of the best defenses in the NFL (they finished 11th in DVOA) and Byron Jones was a big part of that. The Cowboys not only put out one of the worst defenses in club history, but they whiffed majorly on the free agents that they chose to sign instead of biting the bullet on a big-time deal for Jones.

Hindsight grade for the Cowboys: F

Robert Quinn, Chicago Bears

There were people who said, in full consciousness, that Robert Quinn was a better pass rusher than DeMarcus Lawrence at this time last year. It was a battle that many fought against rather nobly.

While Quinn is the only player in this evaluation who’s team made the playoffs this season, his own individual play was hardly something that you would want to see from someone who got a five-year deal worth $70M ($30M at signing). Thanks for that compensatory pick, though!

Much of why Quinn garnered so much attention in 2019 was because he had 11.5 sacks to his name (his first double-digit total since 2014). He played in one more game this season than last and only finished with a deuce as a sack total. That’s less than DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory, Donovan Wilson, and even Everson Griffen totaled with the Cowboys this past season. Yes, really.

PFF graded a number of Cowboys edge rushers ahead of Quinn (76th) in 2020: DeMarcus Lawrence (fifth), Randy Gregory (11th), and Aldon Smith (54th). To the grander point here, sacks aren’t everything in the world of rushing the passer, but they are a marker for a lot of people.

Ultimately, Quinn got to play on a team that made the playoffs so perhaps you can call him the winner in the end. However, he got to play opposite of Khalil Mack and saw a dramatic regression individually. He certainly wasn’t worth the massive pay day that the Bears gave him.

Hindsight grade for the Cowboys: A

Kerry Hyder, San Francisco 49ers

While he doesn’t have the same name appeal as either player that we’ve mentioned so far, and his team also disappointed in 2020, Kerry Hyder had quite the season with the San Francisco 49ers.

Hyder, like Quinn, only spent the 2019 season with the Cowboys and hardly made a whole lot of noise. Speaking in his defense though, he only played 41% of defense snaps with Dallas and saw that number bump up to 70% with the 49ers. Perhaps opportunity truly is the ultimate reason why he left (he signed a one-year deal with San Fran, so it wasn’t gigantic).

This idea is likely why people were frustrated to see Bradlee Anae buried on the depth chart this past season, but with the production that the Cowboys got from the likes of Lawrence, Gregory, Aldon, and in a bit of a stretching sort of way even Everson Griffen, it’s fair to see how that could happen and how they would feel comfortable letting Hyder walk away.

Still, though, Hyder (who had a PFF grade of 42nd) finished the year as the sack leader for the 49ers with 8.5 in 16 games played. Obviously that mark would have led the Cowboys as well, but again, this is just a situation that played itself out the way that it did. It’s hard to fault Dallas.

Hindsight grade for the Cowboys: B

The Las Vegas Raiders Bunch

Our final look back at 2020 departures features the mighty triumvirate that the Las Vegas Raiders poached from the Cowboys (not including Rod Marinelli): Jeff Heath, Maliek Collins, and Jason Witten.

The biggest adjustment from a visual perspective was obviously Witten, but Maliek Collins is the player whom the Raiders were undoubtedly most excited to land. Dallas wound up with legitimate defensive tackle depth (although they lost the aforementioned McCoy and eventually Trysten Hill to season-ending injuries along the way) so you could say that they upgraded, in fact, you don’t have to reach that hard to say it.

PFF had Collins as the 125th interior defender at season’s end. Literally every Cowboys defensive tackle (Antwaun Woods, Dontari Poe, Tyrone Crawford, Neville Gallimore, Justin Hamilton) all ranked ahead of him.

As much of the GOAT that Jeff Heath might be (he and Byron Jones both picked off Patrick Mahomes this season by the way), it’s hard to say that the Cowboys totally missed him as things would have really been just about the same had he stayed. His proclivity for big plays was certainly missed, but he didn’t make enough of a difference in every single game to say that moving on from him was a disaster of a situation.

What is there to really say about Jason Witten at this point? He is a lock to one day have a bronze bust in Canton, but his on-field performance overall since returning to the NFL from retirement has been subpar. Or has it?

  • 2019 Jason Witten (Cowboys): 16 games, 83 targets, 63 receptions, 529 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns
  • 2020 Dalton Schultz (Cowboys): 16 games, 89 targets, 63 receptions, 615 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns

There isn’t a Cowboys fan out there who would take current-day Jason Witten over current-day Dalton Schultz (Witten only had 69 receiving yards off of 13 receptions in 2020 with the Raiders), and there is no question that Schultz shows a lot more promise with regards to the future. After all, he entered the season having no idea that he would see the usage that he ultimately did thanks to Blake Jarwin’s injury (the same Blake Jarwin who was also a factor in 2019 with Witten in the fold by the way), plus he didn’t have Dak Prescott as his quarterback. Those are all obviously factors and if Schultz could mirror Witten’s 2019 performance while facing all of them then it is exciting to think about what he can do with a full level of preparation.

However you want to look at it the Cowboys got at the very least the same production from a tight end they had no intention of giving a high volume to at season’s beginning and got a great evaluation on him for the future, all while Jason Witten headed on out to Sin City. Not exactly a huge loss there.

Hindsight grade for the Cowboys: A

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