A disclaimer right up front. This is not what I think the Dallas Cowboys should do in free agency. It is an attempt to figure out what they plan to do. It is based on the established desire by Stephen Jones to use free agency to plug obvious holes with low-cost signings outside of a few of their own players. This is not designed to make the roster better, but to tread water until the draft. Jones sees drafting as the only logical way to make significant improvements to the talent. The logic for him is that rookie contracts are much cheaper than veteran deals. Use them for four years, and then let them walk to repeat the cycle.
We aren’t going to rehash the arguments about how ineffective that is for the team. Instead, that is the framework for this projection. The Cowboys came into free agency with certain holes they needed to fill to insure against missing out on those positions in the draft. This would at least allow them to field a team, even if the players on the field were not nearly as good as they could have been. Here are the main needs.
Let’s get the painful one out of the way. We still are wounded by the botched attempt to re-sign Randy Gregory. They did sign DeMarcus Lawrence to a new, cap friendly deal. They reached a deal to bring back Dorance Armstrong, who appears to have been their fallback plan if they didn’t succeed with Gregory.
Here’s the bad news. They may be done with the position for free agency outside of a real bottom of the barrel signing for or near the vet minimum. In addition to Lawrence and Armstrong, they also have Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston. Micah Parsons can now be expected to play a larger role as a pass rusher. With that group, they probably feel they are covered.
Using Parsons primarily as a pass rusher means they are really short at linebacker, with only Jabril Cox and the unknown Devante Brown currently under contract. For their next move here, they probably will see if a market emerges for Leighton Vander Esch. If it is weak, they will probably offer him a low-cost deal that he may take just because it is the best he can do. If Vander Esch gets a more attractive offer and goes elsewhere, they will then have to scour the remaining linebacker options. Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard could also be brought back from last year’s roster. Both are well known and also contribute to special teams, a strong factor for linebackers. Neither, however, is exactly exciting on defense. Hopes for Bobby Wagner can be abandoned. They are not going to pay his price. There will be at least one or two new faces in the linebacker group prior to the draft, but they won’t be ones that will excite you. However, one possibility if LVE lands elsewhere might be Anthony Barr. He is solid if not spectacular against the run, and is good rushing the passer. He might be someone Dan Quinn could use very effectively paired up with Parsons.
They have already locked up Malik Hooker, which is one smart thing they have done. Now the question is whether they can get Jayron Kearse back. That should be the goal, and he is one player whose performance last year could get Jones to part with some of that precious cap space. He was valuable enough to the team to justify paying to keep him. If they get that done, the safety room will consist of those two plus Donovan Wilson, Israel Mukuamu, and Tyler Coyle. I suspect they will be comfortable with that, and then they will spend a late-round pick, probably one of those fifth-rounders, to try and find something to add.
The current players under contract here are CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, T.J. Vasher, and Brandon Smith. But there is a wrinkle with reports that Gallup is not expected to be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from his injury. That could have them looking to bring back Malik Turner to assure they have a way to cover for Gallup’s absence. My bet is that otherwise they will stand pat until the draft, and use both a pick or two plus the UDFA signing period to beef wide receiver up for camp.
If there is an outside free agent signing made, look for a “Stephen Special.” That is the term for a player coming off injury but possessing a strong pedigree. It is a gamble that has a low chance of succeeding but a high payout if it does. This could be a player like Julio Jones. If his injury history and poor performance last year keep his market depressed so the Cowboys could get him at a low price, then he would give Jones a flashy name to try and con us into thinking he is not a cheapskate.
This one has me very curious about the thinking of the staff. The team let Connor Williams go in free agency, and may well be relying on Connor McGovern to start if they don’t find an upgrade in the draft. That thought gives me the heebie-jeebies. The only other options on the team are little known Braylon Jones and even lesser known Aviante Collins. It would be smart to add someone from outside before the draft like Oday Obushi, who would at least be a comparable replacement for Williams, although not much of an upgrade. He does have position flex having played on both sides of the center in his career. This is the other position that seems worthy of using a first-round pick on.
That is generally how I think things will play out. There are other positions that where draft capital or even a little cap space will be invested, but that don’t generate as much concern at the moment. Free agency will once again be desultory for the Cowboys with any signings not moving the needle much for any of us. This is what the track record tells us will happen, and so far, things are going exactly that way.