Free agency is upon us. It’s the time of the year that hopeful fans of the Dallas Cowboys are reminded of just how little the front office participates in outside free agency. It’s something we’ve grown accustomed to over the last decade as the team is openly thrifty when it comes to allocating funds for free agents outside their organization.
On the surface, that’s a good thing. Free agency is a house game where players historically underperform their contracts. It’s not a coincidence that a great majority of splash makers in free agency end up with negative results, but that is not to say there aren’t some who buck the trend. And every year there is always a Super Bowl winner who can reflect and identify key offseason moves that paved the way for their team’s success. Every year.
But every year there are also 31 other teams who didn’t win a Super Bowl that also made moves that ultimately resulted in them falling short. Sometimes those moves set them back a bit, but for some reason, those moves are a little more forgettable.
For the Cowboys, the issue isn’t the moves they make, but rather the ones they don’t. Unfortunately, we have no ability to evaluate those scenarios since they only exist in our imagination. But we can evaluate the ones that did happen, so before we start bringing out the torches and charging the Cowboys' front office, let’s at least see how they performed last offseason.
Trading Amari Cooper for a fifth-round pick
Amari Cooper got his share of criticism after he fell short of 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since his days in Oakland, but he was suddenly loved again when the Cowboys traded him to the Cleveland Browns for a fifth-round pick. The outrage came because of the draft compensation the Cowboys received, but that had little to do with the deal. In reality, it was all about his $20 million annual salary. The Browns were willing to take that on where no other team was (well, at least no team who would also part with better than a fifth-round pick).
This past year, Cooper was back to his 1,000-yard ways in Cleveland as well as producing a career-high nine touchdowns, while the Cowboys struggled to find a second receiver opposite CeeDee Lamb. The front office was correct in knowing that Lamb was the real deal, but they completely mis-evaluated the rest of their receiving group. Michael Gallup wasn’t the same player after returning from a knee injury and rookie Jalen Tolbert was practically invisible.
The Cowboys did sign more of their own free agents than they usually do and that certainly had a positive influence on the team as a whole, so we can’t discount that altogether, but their receiving game took a major step back without Coop around.
Releasing La’el Collins
Another move that was met with criticism was the release of La’el Collins. The veteran right tackle quickly found a home with the Cincinnati Bengals, however, it was for a few million less than what he was scheduled to make with the Cowboys. Collins wasn’t terrible last year, but he wasn’t good either. He struggled in pass protection allowing 34 pressures, five sacks and committing eight penalties. He ranked 57th out of 61 offensive tackles graded by Pro Football Focus. Collins might even be a release candidate this offseason.
On the flip side, Terence Steele turned out to be the real deal at right tackle. The team also found a future star in Tyler Smith with their first-round pick last year. And even though Tyron Smith missed most of the season again, the Cowboys got him back just in time to fill in at right tackle for Steele after he was lost for the season. Even amidst adversity, the Cowboys didn’t miss LC and that was $10 million saved.
Re-structuring DeMarcus Lawrence
After the team parted ways with Cooper and Collins, it looked as if DeMarcus Lawrence was next as there were rumblings that the team was not going to keep him around for the amount he was scheduled to make. But unlike Coop and Collins, the Cowboys were able to retain Lawrence as they worked a new three-year, $40 million deal. This not only lowered their 2022 cap hit but lowered his overall cost while providing Lawrence with more guaranteed money.
Tank continued to do Tank things, only this time it was better received because it came at a lower cost. Lawrence had the best run-stopping win rate in the league en route to his third Pro Bowl appearance. It was great work by the front office to keep one of their top defenders, yet get him at a much cheaper price.
Franchise tagged Dalton Schultz
It was great to see Dalton Schultz prove that 2020 wasn’t a fluke by surpassing his reception and yards the following year while also doubling his touchdowns. But just as the team’s young tight end was showing himself as a legit weapon in the passing game, his rookie contract had expired. The Cowboys now had to figure out if they should re-up with him or live without him.
The team ultimately hedged their bet by slapping the franchise tag on him last offseason. This guaranteed they’d have him around one more season while trying to find adequate replacements. As it turned out, the rookie additions of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot emerged as promising pieces to the offense. Schultz’s numbers dipped a bit as his target shares got distributed around to the other guys, but he should still get plenty of interest in free agency this offseason.
The Cowboys' short-term plan worked out perfectly as they secured more talent at the position at a lower cost while renting Schultz’s services for one final season.
The new kids on the block
He played in all 17 games, logging 30% of the defensive snaps where he had six sacks and two forced fumbles all for the low price of $3 million. He was cheap enough to not warrant heavy usage and be a progress stopper, but good enough to provide a great veteran presence on the edge. That’s a really good deal.
The team released Greg Zuerlein only to scramble in camp to find a viable replacement. They finally settled on a second stint of Brett Maher and all he did was knockdown 90% of his field goals, including going 20/21 inside of 50 yards. He did have a case of the yips with extra points in the playoff game against Tampa Bay, but other than that, he was fantastic.
Speaking of waiting until the last minute, the Cowboys were reluctant to sign a veteran swing tackle in free agency until Tyron Smith got hurt in training camp. The result was the 40-year-old veteran for a one-year price of $2 million. Peters played both tackle spots and even a little left guard as he just went wherever he was needed and played as well as we could have expected.
Another late signing, Barr joined the team in August to give the team depth. He actually ended up starting 10 games at linebacker, and while his performance was lackluster at times, he was decent at other times. For the cheap price of $2 million, the Cowboys got what they paid for.
The Cowboys went cheap at wide receiver and tried to score a great value pick when they signed the former Steelers WR to a one-year, $1.2 million deal. He got hurt in training camp, and when he returned in Week 13, he was non-existent. He played in just two games all year and never caught a pass. Oops.
The ones that got away
The Cowboys were really close to re-signing Randy Gregory, but then some contract wording caused the bottom to fall out at the last second causing the veteran edge rusher to bolt for the Mile High city. Gregory signed a five-year, $70 million deal with Denver, but unfortunately, his 2022 season was shortened by a knee injury that caused him to miss 11 games.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, the pass rush remained fierce. Contributions from Dorance Armstrong, free agent Dante Fowler, and rookie Sam Williams helped shore up a strong rotation that was led by Lawrence and a more involved Micah Parsons. Gregory is still a good player, but his availability has been an issue his entire career, and the Cowboys might have luckily dodged a bullet on that one. They even received a compensatory pick for losing Randy.
After a final year in Dallas that saw him leading the league in penalties, the Dolphins still awarded him with a two-year, $14 million deal, giving Dallas another compensatory pick. Unlike Cedrick Wilson, Miami did get a lot of use out of Collins as he had a much improved season this past year. The Cowboys relied on the other Connor, Connor McGovern, who played comparable to what they had last year, getting similar contributions at a much cheaper price.
Cedrick Wilson Jr.
As a fourth receiver in 2021, Wilson was fantastic catching 45 passes for 602 yards and six touchdowns. It was so impressive that it earned him a three-year, $22 million deal in Miami, earning another comp pick in this year’s draft. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, he was never a factor, catching just 12 passes for 136 yards and never finding the end zone. The Cowboys could’ve used him last year, but not for that price!
Cowboys fans will be the first to tell you that the only thing that matters is a Super Bowl win, so ultimately it’s a failed season. But if we want to provide an honest assessment of how this organization constructs its roster, we need to be fair and evaluate these individual moves to determine if they provided a positive or negative impact. To a large degree, the front office did an outstanding job. Hopefully, a coaching tweak here and a player improvement there will be what the team needs to get better because it’s not likely to get much splashier in the 2023 offseason.