We are currently performing the annual ritual of bemoaning how little the Dallas Cowboys have done during NFL free agency. The team has once again spurned any big moves to acquire outside talent. Their focus, as usual, has been on re-signing their guys, which we are told they really like. This, of course, is seen as one more way they are not keeping up with the rest of the league. There is a growing consensus they have not improved the roster from last year’s 12-5 regular-season performance and one-and-done playoff appearance.
Sometimes, or maybe all the time, we can get too focused on what Dallas does. So instead lets look at the league wide free agency tracker at CBS Sports to try and put what the Cowboys have done in perspective. Some interesting things emerged.
One thing that jumped out was that Dallas was far from the only team that was quiet in free agency. It seems to be a slower year in general around the league, with a handful of big trades the biggest news rather than a bunch of major free agent pickups. Several teams were content to do little, or take a similar approach in mostly bringing back their own.
Currently, the New Orleans Saints have done the least in free agency. That is probably driven by their need to do some major restructuring just to get under the cap. They only have made three free agent moves to date. They did manage to get a couple of big ones done, bring back QB Jameis Winston on a 2 year/$28 million deal, and adding S Marcus Maye from the New York Jets with a 3 year/$28.5 million contract.
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But in terms of just outside free agency moves, the defending champion Los Angeles Rams were the least active, with no additions at all. That reflects the quality of their roster, and they only have had to re-sign five of their own. Like Dallas, they really haven’t improved their roster. Of course, that is a very different thing when you have a shiny new Lombardi Trophy in hand.
For years, they have been very free in trading away top draft picks, but the success of last season after the blockbuster trade to get QB Matthew Stafford set them up to mostly stand pat and not have to do much at all. They are going to be one of the preseason favorites, and being able to do so with so little effort in free agency indicates they have done an excellent job in managing contracts. They did hand out some big money, with $110.5 million going to just three of those re-signings. Of course, those deals will not all pay out the full amount, since all are for three years, which as we know are really two-year deals where the real cost is in guarantees.
Those are not the only teams that were quiet. The Baltimore Ravens just had four total deals, three for outside players. The Indianapolis Colts only brought in one outside player via free agency, although they had the big trade for QB Matt Ryan plus another trade to acquire DE Yannick Ngakoue. The Arizona Cardinals have been content to just pick up one outside free agent while the Green Bay Packers only have done five new contracts, two from other teams. And the NFC East in general has not made much noise outside the Washington Commanders being the latest team to convince themselves that QB Carson Wentz is really what they need. The Philadelphia Eagles were even quieter this year than the Cowboys, with just two new faces added plus four of their own getting new deals.
For many of these teams, the lack of activity during free agency was a departure. Dallas has been very consistent with their approach over the years. Just adding two outside free agents in WR James Washington and DE Dante Fowler is unusually low, and an indicator that they will still make some more bargain-bin moves. They have about $15.5 million to work with, and are not likely to use much on any one addition. The most likely place to spend a bit more than a vet minimum contract is OG, but don’t expect anything major.
This was the plan all along, and for the most part, Stephen Jones has stuck to his guns. He has long disdained big contracts to lure new talent to the Cowboys. If you go back and look at what has happened, he had a clear strategy for this offseason. The faults were in the validity of his approach, which has been often criticized, and in some very poor execution.
In hindsight the decision to move on from both Amari Cooper and La’el Collins were made some time ago. Both seem to be driven by some off the field issues, at least as perceived by the staff, and some questions about just how well they were living up to their contracts on the field. The execution in both situations was hampered by the inability of Jones to keep things close to the vest that led to only netting a fifth-round pick for Cooper and getting nothing for Collins.
The plan to re-sign Randy Gregory was good, but was blown over contract language. It was completely unnecessary and is one of the biggest mistakes of the offseason. It is worth noting that Jones maintains that the failure to get that deal done was “flipped” to re-signing Dorance Armstrong and adding Washington and Fowler. Would they have made any of those moves had Gregory been retained? It is an interesting thought.
The handling of Greg Zuerlein, while not involving a lot of money or cap space, was certainly flawed. Releasing him in the first place made a lot of sense, as he has been the worst in the league at kicking extra points as well as inconsistent overall during his tenure in Dallas. The revelation that the team wanted to try to bring him back at a lower cost would have negated the wisdom of the original move. Zuerlein signing with the New York Jets did the Cowboys a big favor.
The best move of the offseason to date was the new deal worked out with DeMarcus Lawrence, which got him more guaranteed money while freeing up the cap space so coveted by Jones. But even it was marred by the way Jones clumsily tried to put pressure by negotiating through the media back in February. Their biggest move was the new contract for Michael Gallup, which was made necessary by the Cooper trade, but now has the shadow of Gallup likely missing some games to start the season as he recovers from injury.
Clearly re-signing their own was the major thrust of free agency in Dallas, which again is very consistent. They were certainly very active there, with nine players brought back, plus the franchise tag for Dalton Schultz. We can criticize the logic of the plan. What is so puzzling is how they have what appears to be a very clear blueprint of what they want to do, but are clumsy in its execution.
It is informative to see that the team is not the outlier that many might think. They are, however, just bad at getting things done.