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Glass half full: Why 2022 could be the year Cowboys offseason approach pays off

The Cowboys wide receiver group is definitely in flux.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys will enter the 2022 season with a 26-year streak of not reaching the NFC Championship game, and fan morale is low after their latest 12 win season ended in yet another first-round playoff exit. Through good times and bad, the Cowboys always find a way to stay in the headlines, and so far this offseason the news hasn’t exactly been encouraging.

Head coach Mike McCarthy has fought off Sean Payton rumors, Stephen Jones has already teased that the roster building process will be largely the same, and star players Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence are potential cap casualties.

The Cowboys prioritizing their own free agents is nothing new, and it’s a testament to how well they’ve drafted in recent seasons. Dallas even got better-than-usual contributions from their free agent class this season, with Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal, and Carlos Watkins all making an impact.

It will take a perfect storm to execute a similar plan against this year’s cap crunch, and it’s fair to criticize the Cowboys for not working out long-term deals with some of their current free agents sooner, but 2022 could be the season the Cowboys see the best results from their normal offseason strategy.

Mark Lane and I discussed this topic with SiriusXM NFL Radio’s Zig Fracassi on the latest episode of Hidden Yardage on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure you subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

The Cowboys list of upcoming free agents is daunting, but history tells us these are the players the Jones’ will do everything they can to retain. In years past, the Cowboys have overvalued their homegrown talent in this process, and are still paying the price for it. Their current free agents include more proven players like Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup, and Dalton Schultz.

Where the sky starts to fall on this sunshine and rainbows outlook is when players like Cooper or Lawrence are floated as tradeoffs for Dallas to reup their expiring deals. The Cowboys would also have to get even more creative to find their outside free agents, this year’s version of Jayron Kearse who proves himself as a valuable starter. There is enough room in the Cowboys current contracts for restructures to make this all possible, and of course April’s NFL draft looms as Dallas’ best bet to add more young talent.

This isn’t a perpetually underachieving franchise touting the return of their own players as a miraculous reason for things to get better. Finding a way to bring back a pass rusher like Gregory, complementing one of Cedrick Wilson or Michael Gallup with another receiver, and potentially franchise-tagging Schultz gives the Cowboys legitimate reason to think they’ll remain atop the NFC East.

Defensive end is always a position that draws big dollars in free agency, but Gregory ranks 14th among defensive linemen set to hit the open market in sacks from this season. Pro Football Focus says it “wouldn’t be surprising” if Gallup remains in Dallas after tearing his ACL in week 17, and the importance of keeping Schultz increased greatly on Thursday with news of Blake Jarwin’s surgery.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

An “extremely disappointed” Jerry Jones told the media immediately after the Wild Card loss to the 49ers that the NFL is designed to take from the best and lift up the worst teams each year. Three such struggling teams reside in the Cowboys own division, and all of them have made strides this offseason to bridge the gap with Dallas, with draft capital to continue gaining ground. Most Cowboys fans would say this is the reason the team needs to take a long look at how they team build. Instead, the Cowboys simply need to be smart about which starters they feel are replaceable in the second and third waves of free agency or the draft, and do everything they can to re-sign the ones that aren’t.

By doing so, the Cowboys wouldn’t just be “running it back”, but standing their ground on a process that Mike McCarthy is taking into year three. While the Jones’ might not be feeling the same heat that McCarthy is to deliver results quickly, the Cowboys have done just enough to trust that this offseason can at least keep them as strong playoff favorites. Their quarterback situation is far-and-away the clearest in the division, the defense took major strides under Dan Quinn who returns for an encore as defensive coordinator, and their roster needs line up nicely with the strengths of this draft class.

The NFC East hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2003-04, and the Cowboys haven’t consecutively made the playoffs since 2006-07. The standard at The Star will always be about delivering a sixth Super Bowl, but let’s not pretend building a perennial postseason qualifier wouldn’t be a welcome result ahead of this 2022 season.