So, how do you find real success in improving your roster in NFL free agency without signing any outside free agents? Go address a couple of your biggest roster needs via trades. At least that is the plan of the Dallas Cowboys so far this year as they have now acquired both Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore in trades that cost mere spare change in draft picks. We won’t know the actual impact until the regular season rolls around, but to find another offseason that looked this smart and aggressive for the team, you have to go back all the way to the 20th century.
For the first time since then, the biggest moves by the Cowboys, including the re-signings of Donovan Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch, have a true “win now” look. While the two returning players involve a longer view, both the trades have a real “hired gun” feel to them. Cooks comes to the Cowboys with two years remaining on his contract, but only the first is guaranteed. In 2023 he is scheduled to make $18 million, but his former team, the Houston Texans, are paying a third of that, so he only costs $12 million in cap space. Dallas has the option of bringing him back in 2024 if he has a good year, or can walk away with no dead money after this season.
Gilmore only has one year left on the contract the Cowboys picked up, and in a pinch could be released for only about a $4.5 million dead money hit. They are tied to neither of these players.
This is one of the most encouraging things about this duo of trades. They only have relevance for this year. They are being brought in to make the team immediately stronger. At the same time, Dallas is now positioned to use the draft more effectively, since need is much reduced as a driving factor. They only traded away a pair of fifth-round picks this year and a 2024 sixth in all. That is basically spare change. And it still leaves them with a pick in each round this year.
More subtly, it is all but certain the team is now out on any deal to sign Odell Beckham Jr. Cooks is far less risky, and may come at a fraction of the price Beckham will cost some other team.
Another reason this is clearly a move to make this year’s version of the Cowboys a better contender is that both players are old in NFL years. The team is trying to get one more good year out of both before their abilities erode too much. It is a gamble, but the same one you take with any free agent signing.
It also represents another good thing, the Cowboys looking at draft picks as more than just a way to hunt for talent coming out of college. This represents a more comprehensive view of picks as a way of acquiring talent, no matter the source. Completing both these trades for so little draft capital is, well, brilliant. We (it me) like to criticize the snot out of Stephen Jones, but these maneuvers deserve nothing but applause.
Something else is different about these. There seemed to be no one that saw these trades coming. In the past, there were often leaks and the intentions of the Cowboys were signaled ahead of time. Those leaks may have been plugged, which may be a way Mike McCarthy is influencing the ownership.
This is all a fresh approach for the Jones family. But it is not revolutionary. This is an evolution, which still maintains some long standing traits.
First, both are acquisitions whose cap cost all land this year, if the team chooses. They also have the option of keeping Cooks around in 2024, or could negotiate an extension with either if they felt they really have a lot left in their respective tanks. However, these trades do not create any long term cap headaches for Dallas at all. That is very important as the team faces some big decisions on the futures of CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, and Micah Parsons in coming years. It is easy to see how those likely played a big role in shaping this year’s approach to the offseason.
One of the criticisms of Stephen Jones mentioned above is how he avoids big moves in free agency like the plague. He is going to do so again this year. Instead, they may have found a way to accomplish very similar things to bringing in high-level free agent talent by doing so via trades. What is different is that a top level free agent is going to want a long term deal, usually for three years, with fairly big guarantees. Those deals can become a cap millstone for teams. Now the Cowboys have avoided that, and will just be looking through the bargain racks this offseason again. Instead of being frustrated by it, we can just relax in the knowledge that the biggest roster issues are cleaned up already, giving them much more flexibility in the draft.
These also seem likely to satisfy Jones’ desire to always win trades. When all you are giving up are mid-to-late round trade chips and not committing big chunks of cap space for some players with good track records, that is coming out ahead.
It’s hard to believe the ownership could make such effective looking strides forward in building a roster without a major, almost inconceivable change in their approach. The way they have finessed that is impressive. Most importantly, this offseason is a true attempt to get the team over the hump in the playoffs. Gilmore helps shore up a secondary that was hurt by injury last year, and Cooks is a legitimate weapon added to help Dak Prescott.
This may even be a viable way forward for the team. The Cowboys are the most active trader in the league this year. There have been only been seven others in all so far, at the time this was written. This might well be exploiting a market inefficiency.
There is real hope that Dallas has truly made themselves better in the offseason. And the official league year is still less than a week old.