The Dallas Cowboys had one of the more potent low-cost free agency offseasons last year. It was business as usual for Executive Vice President and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones as he did what he always did in free agency, which was to look for viable contributors at a bargain price.
The crop of new free agents offered nothing to be excited about as many of the players signed were either reserve-type players or veterans who were once coveted only to fall from grace. But in true Cowboys style, the search went on for guys who could fill voids on the roster while offering a bit of upside should the stars line up correctly. As luck would have it, the team actually put together a nice group of outside free agents, with some heavy contribution from the defensive side. In fact, if you look at the top 13 players in terms of playing time, eight of them were players who weren’t on the team the year prior.
And of those eight, six of them were outside free agents. Check out the amount of playing time the defense got at an incredibly low cost (cap figures courtesy of spotrac.com).
The Cowboys relied on contributions from a large number of players, but to have so many low-cost free agents step up and help improve the defense is rather impressive. Let’s take a look at some of last year’s biggest defensive free agent contributors.
At camp, he was just another guy. A new face yes, but he was a safety who spent his entire five-year career in a reserve role. Little did we know that Kearse would start more NFL games for the Cowboys this past season than he did in the previous five seasons combined. He offered skills both playing near the line of scrimmage and in coverage. He finished the year leading the Cowboys in tackles with 101, including nine for a loss. He also had two interceptions. It was a fantastic year for Kearse to the point that retaining his services would be a great get for this defense; however, after such a stellar year, the cost of doing business is going to go up.
Like Kearse, the Cowboys signed another veteran safety for less than a million. But unlike Kearse, expectations were a little higher for Kazee. A former player of Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons, the team was hoping to spice up their coverage ability by acquiring a safety that once hauled in seven interceptions back in 2018. Unfortunately, Kazee’s stock started to dwindle and hit a low point after he tore his Achilles in October of the 2020 season. The Cowboys pounced on a discounted player and got a full 17 games worth of contribution from him. Kazee was solid in the secondary and finished with two picks of his own. He probably would be more appreciated had he not been outdone by his teammate Kearse.
Defensive end Basham was the team’s most expensive free-agent investment as the team paid a little more to shore upthe edge-rushing depth. While he’s never been a perennial starter, Basham carved out a nice rotational role with the New York Jets. He played in all 16 games in each of the two prior seasons with New York. Despite a crowded house in Dallas at times, Basham was active in every game this season and managed to earn some reps along the defensive line. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks, matching the career high he had the previous season. Unlike many of the other outside free agents, Basham signed a two-year deal, meaning the Cowboys have one more year of player control.
Neal was the second former Falcons safety Quinn brought with him to Dallas. And like Kazee, Neal came with injury risks as the once Pro Bowler suffered a torn Achilles in 2018 followed by a knee injury in 2019. He was healthy during his last season in Atlanta, but there were concerns that he wasn’t the same player he once was. The Cowboys signed Neal with the plan to convert him to linebacker, which came in handy after the team released Jaylon Smith and used rookie Micah Parsons a lot as an edge rusher. Neal did okay in his first year at linebacker playing in 14 games with the Cowboys and finishing with 72 tackles.
Fans were excited when the team signed an actual coverage safety in Hooker, even though expectations were heavily tempered. Nobody expected the veteran to return to a level that saw him selected 15th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but any help fending off passes in the secondary would be welcomed by a team that has been missing coverage help for quite some time. Strangely, Hooker had a quiet season sharing playing time with the other two free-agent safeties. He played well enough to keep earning reps and didn’t show any lingering effects of the torn Achilles he suffered in 2020 that caused him to miss all but two games.
Mike Glennon with another INT, this time it's Malik Hooker.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 19, 2021
Time for Jake Fromm to get some snaps? pic.twitter.com/IxuEhjkaWR
After spending four years with the Houston Texans, Watkins joined a crowded defensive tackle group that had a lot of solid candidates, but no real star. Watkins wasted no time finding a spot along the interior defensive line and it only grew larger after another outside free agent, DT Brent Urban, succumb to injury. Watkins played well for the Cowboys and even became a member of the defensive touchdown club when he snared a pass from Taysom Hill and took it to the house.
Cowboys DT Carlos Watkins: "It’s definitely an early Christmas present. It’s every fat guy’s dream to get a pick and make it to the end zone.” pic.twitter.com/wEpgcnLctT— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) December 3, 2021
The Cowboys front office did a masterful job finding key players in free agency for a low cost. With a sharp player personnel department and another year of Quinn's influence of finding what he’s looking for in defenders, it’s very possible the Cowboys cycle through another good group of outside signings. Granted, they aren’t likely to hit like they did last year, but with the improvements shown by many of their other young players, they won’t have to.