It should be no surprise that the Dallas Cowboys will be limited in their free agency options. Between the cap situation and their history of avoiding big-name additions, players like Von Miller, Brandon Scherff, and Chandler Jones will be playing elsewhere in 2022.
But that doesn't mean Dallas will only focus on retaining their own free agents this offseason. There will assuredly be a few smaller names the Cowboys aggressively pursue and eventually sign once free agency begins on March 16th. So, who are a few under-the-radar players the Cowboys should consider?
Maxx Williams (TE)
Admittedly, Maxx Williams is a gamble. But Williams might be the guy if the Cowboys want a cheaper blocking tight end.
The reason that Williams is a risky proposition is due to injury. He suffered an ACL tear on October 10th that ended his 2021 campaign. This has been a problem. Williams has only played one full season in his six-year career, and the ACL injury is doing him no favors in shedding the “injury-prone” label.
But the gamble is reflected in his projected market price of $6 million. And for a former second-round pick, he could be valuable if he can manage to play an entire year.
In his only full season, 2019, he ranked as the best pass-blocking tight end and the best run-blocking tight end, per PFF. Finishing number one in both metrics out of the 30 qualifying tight ends has never been done in the history of PFF grading.
But that was three years ago, right? Well, in 2021, Williams played five games and finished with 117 snaps as a blocker. He ranked as the eleventh best run-blocking tight end and the 23rd best pass-blocking tight end among the 82 players that reached 117 blocking snaps.
It wasn't his best season as a blocker, but he proved that he still has it. The only question is how much the injuries will affect his play.
And Cowboys fans shouldn't expect a receiving tight end with Williams, who has fewer yards in his six-year career than Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews each had last season alone. His career average of 1.18 yards per route run would have been the nineteenth lowest among the 44 qualifying tight ends this year.
But at a $6 million projected cost, there is a chance he signs for even less than that. And in that case, taking a risk on an excellent blocking tight end might be worth it.
Jayon Brown (LB)
Jayon Brown is likely the best fit of these three players. Projected to sign in the ballpark of $5 million, Brown would give the Cowboys needed depth at a position that will likely be depleted this offseason.
As the price tag suggests, Dallas wouldn't be signing a game-changing linebacker. Over the last four years, Brown has started in 78% of the games he was available, including six out of ten in 2021. But he is a solid fill for a team hungry for linebackers.
And Brown is an athlete with his coverage ability and speed, which is exactly what the Cowboys need. This past season, Brown finished with the 34th best passer rating when targeted among 91 qualifying linebackers. And this was a down year after he finished as the 12th highest-graded coverage linebacker in 2020.
He is a versatile defender who is able to line up in the box, on the defensive line, in the slot, and out wide. Across his career, he has better stats than Leighton Vander Esch in the following metrics: missed tackle rate, quarterback pressure rate, nearly every coverage metric, and he lines up in other positions more frequently.
But he has his flaws. Compared to his previous three seasons, Brown took a massive step back in 2021. This past season he was a below-average linebacker against the run, an average tackler, and was abysmal in the pass rush. He has never particularly shined in getting to the quarterback, even at his best.
The hope lies in regaining 2019 Jayon Brown. In that year, Brown was an above-average run defender, he finished the play in the open field and, as mentioned, was one of the best coverage linebackers. This led to the 17th highest defensive PFF grade among 100 linebackers in 2019.
For a $5 million price tag, the hope of a fully healthy season such as in 2019 might be worth it. At his best, he would immediately boost the linebacking room, and at his worst, he is still solid in coverage.
He is the Keanu Neal gamble of 2022; Cowboys fans would have to hope this time it pays off. But he does seem worthy of the cost given Dallas' need for a linebacker.
Jamison Crowder (WR)
It would have been ridiculous to suggest the Cowboys pursue a free agent wide receiver two years ago. But if Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson leave, there will be a hole at the third receiving option.
To preface, there is a chance that a team wants to pay $10+ million for Crowder, and in that case, he will not be an option. Crowder is the long-shot of these three players. But if Dallas can snag the slot receiver for less than $9 million, they should consider it.
While names like Mike Williams or Chris Godwin will be too expensive, adding a reliable slot option would help this offense at a cheaper price tag. A true slot receiver has been absent ever since Cole Beasley left, and it might be time to find a new one.
While CeeDee Lamb played 34% of snaps in the slot last season and can fill that role if need be, having a player whose only job is to find a pocket in the defense and move the chains is invaluable for a quarterback. And with 76% of snaps in the slot last year, Crowder can be that guy.
Crowder will likely be cheaper due to a down year in 2021. But he hasn't played with a reliable quarterback since Kirk Cousins, which means that three years on the Jets might have unfairly deflated his market value.
Even still, his 2020 campaign (the most recent season not playing with a rookie QB) was impressive. Here is where Crowder's 2020 season would have ranked among qualified receivers in 2021:
- Yards after catch per reception: 6th (5.6 YAC/rec)
- Drop percentage: 7th (3.3%)
- Passer rating when targeted: 17th (105.4)
- Yards per Reception: 23rd (11.8 yards)
And keep in mind that Crowder was putting up all of these numbers from the slot with Sam Darnold throwing him the ball.
Crowder is not going to become the best receiver in the league. But adding a solid slot option for Dak Prescott to find when he is in trouble would be massive for the offense. Especially considering the most reliable chain-mover in 2021 was Dalton Schultz.
Crowder would give the consistent slot presence Dallas has been missing since Beasley. The only question is how much he will cost.
The obvious trend here is that the free agents the Cowboys could get at the right price come with obvious risk. Williams and Brown are a dice throw that could end in disappointment. Crowder is safer, but he could also be signed for much more than Dallas can offer.
The Cowboys will have to take their shots in free agency. But if they are going to play the game, they might as well sign players with high upside that could bring an immediate impact to this team. Otherwise, there is no use in trying.