Dallas Cowboys fans are desperate for the team to give them a shiny free-agent signing, but this offseason has once again fallen short of that expectation. Adding James Washington, Ryan Nall and Dante Fowler is better than nothing, but it is far from the name-value that Dallas was rumored to be interested in.
As a result, it is difficult for any move that the Cowboys make to be considered “underrated,” when fans analyze every transaction with a microscope. After all, it is not difficult to parse through their activity. But, which moves have been ignored that fans should be happy about?
Jeremy Sprinkle was quietly an important piece of this offense in 2021. While retaining Sprinkle is not flashy and few will be wearing his jersey during game day, this was a great deal for the Cowboys.
You didn't hear much about Sprinkle in 2021 because he blocked on 88% of his snaps, more than any other tight end in the league. There are “blocking tight ends” and then there are offensive linemen playing tight end, Sprinkle falls into the latter.
And he finished with the best pass-blocking grade amount tight ends, not allowing a single sack, quarterback hurry, quarterback hit, or quarterback pressure. There were only six tight ends last year that blocked on more than 20 passing plays and didn't allow a single pressure, Sprinkle was one.
His run blocking grade was around the league average. He didn't excel in this aspect of the game but he wasn't detrimental.
But he signed for one year at $1.2 million, and that is the reason this move is underrated. The Cowboys got a reliable blocking tight end for essentially the veteran minimum. It is not flashy, and it is not as if they re-signed a player with an All-Pro ceiling, but is a solid, cheap move.
Leighton Vander Esch
It is hard to believe that the name Leighton Vander Esch and underrated would ever appear in a sentence together, but here we are. After the Cowboys declined his fifth-year option and let him test the waters of free agency, most assumed he would not be returning.
However, he re-signed on a one-year, $2 million deal. Not only is his salary $7.1 million less than the fifth-year option price tag, but it is only $.9 million more than his fellow teammate Luke Gifford.
Regardless of how you feel about Vander Esch, it is a great deal.
Vander Esch looked like a different player over the back half of 2021 and thus this is likely a prove-it deal. From weeks nine to eighteen, LVE was the eighth-highest graded linebacker by PFF. Over this span he was top twenty (out of 98 qualifying LBs) in missed tackle rate, run defense stops, penalties committed, PFF run-defense grade, PFF coverage grade, and interceptions.
Does Vander Esch have the same upside that fans once believed he had? Probably not. But over the back half of the year, he was a solid contributor for the defense. This led to his highest PFF grade since his Pro Bowl rookie season.
Considering you get the hope that he can build off the success from the back half of 2021, paired with the fact that he isn’t even in the top-100 highest paid linebackers, makes this an underrated deal. And if you need additional proof, Dallas will be paying Jaylon Smith $4.8 million more than Vander Esch in 2022.
The story of Bryan Anger’s career so far with the Dallas Cowboys can be defined as underrated. Because while many were happy that Anger was returning to Dallas, it might be one of their best re-signings so far, yet it is not treated as such.
He was a Pro Bowler last season and deservedly so. However, his three-year, $9 million deal is the only eighth largest punter contract in the league. The size of the contract for a special teams player has been criticized by fans, but it is a solid deal for a great punter. That is what makes the Anger retention underrated.
If you need proof of how good Anger was in 2021, he finished fourth by yards per punt, first by net yards per punt, 41% of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, only 37% of his punts were returned, and while this might be a testament to John Fassel’s squad, he finished with the third-lowest yards per return.
This led to the second-highest PFF grade among punters. And the only punter ranked higher than him, A.J. Cole, will make $3 million more than Anger over the entirety of their two contracts.
Outside of Micah Parsons and maybe Zack Martin, Anger was better at what he does than any other Cowboys player in 2021.
Sure, it is a punter and we hoped that one of the biggest signings wouldn't be a special teams player. But if you are going to have a flashy special teams re-signing, it is a huge win for that player to be Anger. For $3 million per year, this deal is underrated and should be considered one of the best of the offseason.
If we take the term “underrated” with a grain of salt, there are moves the Cowboys made during free agency that have been solid. Not every re-signing is treated equally, so the fact that Dallas was able to retain Sprinkle, LVE, and Anger on team-friendly deals are underrated moves.
All three players will contribute to the team in 2022 to varying degrees. Obviously, fans hoped for more, but this is where the Cowboys are just weeks before the draft. The fact they were able to fill a few holes for cheap is a minor win and should be properly appreciated.