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Cowboys free agency is moving, but they need to stack more good players on the roster

The rule for the Cowboys should always be to bring in every good player you can find.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans
Brent Urban could be a major upgrade for the run defense, but that doesn’t mean Dallas should stop looking for more.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys free agency mood: Cautiously optimistic.

Yes, we’ve been fooled before. Badly, I might add. But so far, the signings for Dallas look like there is a real plan, and it’s not just to get through free agency with the spare change collected from the Draft Yacht cushions. Coming into free agency, the Cowboys had some clear needs:

  • Interior defensive line
  • Safety
  • Cornerback
  • Offensive tackle depth
  • Linebacker depth

Here are the outside free agents signed to date, and how they fit.

LS Jake McQuaide

Our hearts broke a little to see long time fixture L.P. Ladouceur not brought back. But McQuaide looks cut from the same cloth, just much younger. It certainly wasn’t a splashy move, but you have to have all the positions filled.

If they had to move on, this was a good choice, and he reunites with special teams coordinator John Fassel.

OT Ty Nsekhe

While Brandon Knight and Terrance Steele grew a lot over the season, the early going was rough, to put it kindly. The team seems to believe that Tyron Smith and La’el Collins will be back this season to handle the starting jobs, but they clearly aren’t going to be caught in the same situation they were last year. With Cam Erving, who also wound up injured, now gone to the Carolina Panthers, the team wanted another experienced veteran to be the swing tackle. Nsekhe seems to be just that. We hope we never see him called on, but that seems unrealistic given the past several seasons, especially for Smith.

Solid fit.

DL Carlos Watkins

Watkins did not exactly light things up with the Houston Texans. There is a thought that he may have been ill-suited for a 3-4 base scheme and will do better in Dan Quinn’s defense as a defensive tackle. But overall, he looks like someone brought in just in case the draft doesn’t yield a better answer. Of the additions so far, he looks the most likely to not make it out of camp.

Pure insurance policy.

DL Brent Urban

The same day that the Cowboys announced the deal with Watkins, they also brought Urban on board, and he is a lot more intriguing. His strength with the Chicago Bears was stopping the run. The biggest defensive weakness for Dallas last year was stopping the run. It makes perfect sense, and he seems to be a bargain.

Just what they needed to do.

DE Tarell Basham

This was not on many radars, but there is a saying you can never have too many pass rushers. It is worth noting that the team is undecided about bringing back Aldon Smith.

Basham wasn’t as productive as Smith last year, but was not that far behind. The team may let Smith walk and roll with Basham as a rotational pass rusher behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.

Not a bad signing, but no slam dunk by any means.

S Keanu Neal

This vies with Urban as the most encouraging signing so far. The Cowboys have long shown reluctance to invest much at all in the safety position. Neal was a sought-after commodity, with the New York Jets reportedly in the hunt as well. Now we wait to see just how he will be utilized, with multiple reports that he will be more a hybrid S/WLB. There is some concern over him taking snaps away from Donovan Wilson. We have to see how the coaches deploy their defensive players first.

Very positive move.

That still leaves cornerback and linebacker depth to be addressed, plus there is still a need to address free safety, since both Neal and Wilson seem to be better suited to play in the box. But the Cowboys are bringing in both Malik Hooker and Demontae Kazee for visits this week, which roughly translates to doing physicals for both players because of their recent injury history. It is expected they will sign one. Hooker has the better résumé, but Kazee played all but one game last season, and has the Dan Quinn connection from the Atlanta Falcons.

Or why not both? Free safety has been a glaring need for several years, and if you have some lingering concerns about their health, getting both on the roster brings built-in insurance.

Nothing has been done at cornerback, at least as far as we know. But the market seems to be moving slowly league wide, with several well-regarded names still available, including long-time crush Richard Sherman. It is not unlikely that the team has reached out to some agents to test the waters. If not, they may be getting to that soon with the recent news of draft prospect Caleb Farley having a procedure done on his back, which may drop him enough on the Dallas draft board to make him no longer a consideration at 10. We also haven’t heard anything about linebacker depth, which might still be addressed.

Free agency is far from over, and already the Cowboys have filled some holes with a few players that certainly look like more than the bargain-basement plugs they have used in recent years. They still have some work to do, of course. There is still have plenty of cap space they can generate with restructures, and if they see opportunities, they absolutely should.

And that really frees up the draft to try and get the best player available that fits the needs of the team. Free agent signings should never restrict what you do with your draft picks. Many have assumed the Cowboys would be locked into cornerback, but now that Farley may well slip down the draft board with the obvious question about his health, the idea of taking Rashawn Slater and making him the starting LG until they need to move him to tackle looks very appealing. It also could make TE Kyle Pitts very viable. His outstanding performance at his pro day, where he put up a CB worthy 40 time, may actually move him up out of Dallas’ range, but if he is there, the presence of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz should not keep them from pouncing if he is there and the highest ranked player remaining on their board. We all saw how that worked when they took CeeDee Lamb last year, and it would be worth trying to catch lightning in a bottle again if Pitts is available.

Of course, Lamb is essentially a starter for Dallas, which primarily deploys 11 personnel. You aren’t going to have many times you’d want to line up with three TEs on the field. But two of them would no longer be an obvious running down. Jarwin is excellent going down the slot, and Pitts seems to have the ability to run a multitude of routes and haul the ball in. Tight ends that can stretch the field are a concept the Cowboys did not use in the era of the glacial Jason Witten. Now they could really make things interesting with a bit of daring on draft day. Besides, they lost their starter almost immediately last season, so once again, some insurance is attractive.

And just imagine the situation the team would be in if they had not been interested in finding a quarterback with potential in the 2016 draft, even though they had their starter in place. We all know how that turned out, and it was that extra bit of talent they got in the draft that led to Dak Prescott and his $160 million payday.

This is a principal that should apply everywhere on the roster. Focus on getting player in both free agency and the draft that can compete for a spot and minimize the need for camp bodies to fill things out. Get as much talent as you can to bring into camp, and then sort it all out to establish the 53-man roster. While we bemoan the lack of real spending in free agency by the Cowboys, the contracts so far are not ones that would make cutting some of the new signings too difficult. Just make the right decisions when the time comes, and let’s see what this edition of the team can do.