The Dallas Cowboys love to find gems in the bargain bin in free agency. I mean, who wouldn’t? This front office in particular loves to do their shopping there so it shouldn’t be a surprise that their only outside free agent signings so far are edge rusher Dante Fowler (one-year, $3 million) and wide receiver James Washington (one-year, $1.18 million).
To honor last night’s Oscar awards, we are going to take a look at last year’s Million Dollar Baby (won Best Picture in 2005) and see which non-Cowboys draft picks fought their way into the rotation and were deserving of the nickname Mo Cuishle.
BASE SALARY = $990,000
Last season’s biggest free agent surprise, Kearse wasted no time showing what he could bring to the Cowboys' defense. An injury to Donovan Wilson in Week 1 pushed Kearse into the starting role, and he never let go of it, relegating Wilson to the bench after he returned. Kearse was one of just three players who logged over 1,000 defensive snaps and he led the team in tackles last season.
Kearse may be a seventh-round pick. He may be well-traveled. And there’s a reason the Cowboys got him last year real cheap. But make no mistake about it, he’s valuable in Dallas for more than what he just does on the field. There’s a reason fans are excited he’s sticking around in Dallas.
BASE SALARY = $780,000
The surprises keep coming with 2020 undrafted free agent Terence Steele. First, he shocked people by making the team. Then, he reeled off 14 starts his rookie season. Of course, that year his usage was heavily based on need as the team suffered all kinds of injuries along the offensive line, including La’el Collins missing the entire season and Tyron Smith missing a career-high 14 games. But even with Collins back in action this year (for the most part) and Smith healthier (for the most part), Steele found himself back on the field again as he started another 13 games this season. The coaching staff is so enamored with his play that they were willing to release Collins recently.
Steele even caught a touchdown pass last season, becoming the first Cowboys offensive lineman to score on a receiving touchdown in over 50 years (HOF’er Rayfield Wright, 1968).
BASE SALARY = $1,100,000
Similar to what the Cowboys did at the safety position, the team signed multiple 1-tech defensive tackles at low-cost deals. Watkins and fellow outside free agent Brent Urban were brought over to add some beef in the middle. Unfortunately, Urban injured his tricep in Week 7 against New England and missed the remainder of the season. Watkins dealt with a knee injury early in the year that kept him out two games, but the veteran DT started all other games last season. People don’t think much of Watkins, but he quietly had a very good season. In fact, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs were the only Cowboys’ defensive players who finished with a higher AV score (courtesy of Pro Football Reference) than Watkins in 2021. The Cowboys loved what they got from Watkins to where they brought him back for 2022 on another one-year deal.
And Steele wasn’t the only 300+ pound Cowboys player to score a touchdown last year.
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
BASE SALARY = $1,075,000
After years of being disappointed with punter Chris Jones, the Cowboys decided to make a change. A favorite of special teams coach John Fassel, Anger was signed on a one-year deal and he did not disappoint. All he did was set a Cowboys franchise record with a 44.6-yard net average. While the team wasn’t expected to throw more money at the punter position, they must’ve had a change of heart as the veteran agreed to a three-year, $9 million deal last week
Other notable low-cost signings...
Damontae Kazee (BASE SALARY = $990,000)
Kazee was one of the first free-agent signings fans were excited about last year as his seven-interception season in 2018 was tantalizing. While he didn’t stand out like Kearse, he was a reliable fixture in the safety position group. Kazee played in all 17 games, starting 15 of them.
Ty Nsekhe (BASE SALARY = $1,250,000)
Believe it or not, the Cowboys have done a good job finding cheap outside free agents to fill the swing tackle role recently. They hit on Cameron Fleming in 2019, Cameron Erving in 2020, and then again on Nsekhe last year. The Cowboys had depth at tackle, but Nsekhe’s services were still needed as he logged at least 18 offensive snaps in five games last year.
Cooper Rush (BASE SALARY = $920,000)
Fans were cringing at the idea that the Cowboys were putting their trust in Rush to handle the backup duties should Dak Prescott go down. In fact, Garrett Gilbert had been in the lead for the backup job until a late push by Rush earned him the job. Thankfully, Rush only started one game at quarterback, but the veteran did surprisingly well. He went 24/40 with 325 yards passing with two touchdowns and one pick, leading the Cowboys to a 20-16 come-from-behind victory against Minnesota in Week 7.
Malik Hooker (BASE SALARY = $920,000)
Hooker played the least out of the three low-cost free agent safety signings, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t valuable. He still saw the field plenty as he logged over 100 more snaps than the incumbent starter Donovan Wilson. The former 15th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has had trouble staying healthy in years past, but he played in a career-high 15 games last year. And the Cowboys must’ve liked what they saw as he’s back on a two-year deal with the team.
In all, that is a lot of contribution this team is getting from these low-cost investments. While it’s easy to get frustrated that the team doesn’t go big in free agency, it’s hard to be too upset when they're getting this much return on their investment.