NFL free agency has often been a time when the Dallas Cowboys sat out the first few days and then just picked up some of the leftovers. While they have still not exactly made any huge splashes this year, the players signed so far look a bit more intriguing than in some years past. Ty Nsecke looks like a very good swing tackle to have given the injury histories of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, Brent Urban offers some real hope they may already have the middle of the offensive line shored up to stop the run, and Keanu Neal is very interesting due to reports that he may be used as a WILL linebacker at least some of the time.
Neal was the first player that it looks like the Cowboys beat out another team to acquire his services, in this case the New York Jets. Probably a big factor in his choice of where to sign was that he is reuniting with his former head coach with the Atlanta Falcons. Dan Quinn was hired to try and correct the manifold woes under Mike Nolan. Neal may not be the only former Falcon that comes to Dallas, either. The team is hosting safety Damontae Kazee this week. There may be a decision made between him and Malik Hooker, but it is not impossible that both might be offered contracts given the needs in the secondary. The visits reflect the need to determine how they both have recovered from some serious injuries of their own, and physicals will play a significant role.
Often the tendency of coaches to bring in their old players is looked at skeptically. It is a form of football nepotism and sticking with players they are comfortable with rather than focusing on the best options available. But this is a case where Quinn has the challenge of installing a new system, albeit one that is believed to bear many similarities to the one before Nolan failed with his.
That adds some real value in having a player or two that already know a lot about the kind of scheme being put in place. They can become teachers and on the field coaches for the rest of the defense. It should help accelerate the learning for the rest of the defense. How much is hard to predict, but after the massive struggles last season, any bit has to help. That may give Kazee a leg up on Hooker, although we should hope that the team will not overvalue the experience with Quinn in making a final decision.
Regardless of how the Kazee/Hooker situation plays out, Quinn already has one asset to deploy. He also has an enormous advantage in the expectation that there will be a somewhat normal offseason, with OTAs and minicamp to work with, followed by a full training camp including a return to Oxnard. Nolan lost that, and it clearly impacted his defense. Still, even as the season wore on and there was time to catch up, the improvement was extremely disappointing. Things did get a bit better, but still were far from where they should have been by the latter stages of 2020.
Neal brings some obvious positives to the team, having played all but one game for Atlanta last year while amassing 100 tackles, two passes defended, a sack, and an interception. He should be a help in the secondary, and the ability to play both WLB and safety adds flexibility that Quinn seems to like. Familiarity with his defensive coordinator is just another plus that will hopefully pay dividends.
Improving the defense is paramount this season, and both Neal and Urban look like big steps in the right direction. Should Kazee join them, it might further help. Of course, Hooker may be the better choice, but as mentioned, one does not mean the other cannot be added as well.
In any case, Quinn seems to be having a big and favorable impact on personnel decisions. Urban is a proven run-stuffer who also exhibits the important trait of helping keep the linebackers clean. Neal also may be more valuable against the run than the pass, which is not at all a bad thing after we watched the run repeatedly gash the Cowboys last year. If the reports are at all correct about how he will be used, then he may also provide better coverage in the WLB role than we saw.
It is not a certainty, but it already looks like Dallas is being smarter in free agency than they have in a while. Bringing in some of Quinn’s old players is one reason why that may be more than just a pipe dream.