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2023 NFL free agency: In one day, everything changed for the Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have looked a little different this time around in free agency.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Chargers
Could they finally be charting a new course?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Are you not entertained?

After years of bemoaning how the Dallas Cowboys never did anything of significance during the first few days of free agency, there was a very loud splash heard at The Star in Frisco. Or maybe it was from Jerry Jones’ mega yacht. In any case, one of the biggest headlines on day two of the open tampering period was that Dallas had traded their second of two fifth-round compensatory picks to the Indianapolis Colts for cornerback Stephon Gilmore. This was on the same day they got two very important re-signings done, safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

And the league year was still a day away.

There are plenty of articles discussing how each of this is a win. (Click the links here to read up on Gilmore, Wilson, and Vander Esch.) But the biggest win may be that the team finally made an aggressive move to win now with the Gilmore signing. For years, we have been longing for the team to put their cap space where their mouth is. This is the first time in over a decade they are doing so. Gilmore is coming to the Cowboys with just a year left on his current contract, and given his age (32), he looks very much like a one-year rental. That is a major shift in their approach. He represents a nearly $10 million slice of the precious cap pie.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

They have done more. On Wednesday they released Ezekiel Elliott, the former fourth overall pick with a very expensive contract, freeing up an expected $10.9 million more in cap space after June 1. That also is a noteworthy change, as the ownership has displayed a hard-to-justify attachment to him. He was once one of the most dangerous running backs in the league, but with a combination of injuries, offensive line changes, and some questionable usage, his value to the team has plummeted. There should be no celebration of his departure, but it shows a rational approach to roster construction that has not been much in evidence for several years. Additionally, they have restructured the contracts of Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence to free more cap space. They clearly are not done yet.

This is arguably the first time a “win now” approach has been evident since the signing of Brandon Carr and the trade up to draft Morris Claiborne both failed. That may be the most important aspect of all this. For a decade, there has been a good deal of evidence that the management has been holding the team back by not using all the tools at their disposal to build a championship caliber roster. They have relied almost entirely on the draft for talent acquisition while sticking with a bargain shopping approach in free agency.

However, it must be noted that Gilmore was a trade, not a free agent signing. While they have not used trades much, they have gone that route before when they felt forced into it. The most obvious example was the mid-season trade for Amari Cooper, which was an instant success. It did not last, with the team trading Cooper away for a fifth-round pick last offseason over perceived issues with the player, but in the short term, it certainly did elevate the offense.

That could be an indication that the team is still leery of investing in outside free agents, preferring to put their cap space toward re-signing their own, as they did with Vander Esch and Wilson, and are reportedly trying to do with Dante Fowler. Things may not have changed as much as we might wish.

What may be happening is that the current philosophy in approaching outside talent has aligned with a very weak group of free agents. We still may not see a “splash” free agent signing. But there are some early signs of downward pressure on the cost of acquisition this year. That may allow the team to ride out the first couple of waves of free agency as they prefer and still pick up some useful talent. While it is still not their preferred method, trading for established players like Gilmore is not as far outside their comfort zone as free agency.

There are good reasons to feel optimistic about what the team has done already, but there still is no real evidence the team has made a major pivot. They have completed one of the biggest trades this offseason, which is very good. But we have to see how free agency plays out, or if they go back to the trade well again. These encouraging developments may be more a case of the talent situation this offseason aligning with what the front office prefers to do.

It still has some exciting implications for a team that still is trying to get over the hump in the playoffs. And it all comes down to what the team does this year, rather than focusing on a long-term view. If that has changed, it alone could signal an important shift in thinking.

The moves so far look to be very smart. Maybe they have a few more of these up their sleeve.

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