Think back with me for a moment.
A year ago, a very common opinion was that the rest of the NFC East had really improved their teams during free agency, while the Dallas Cowboys had just tread water. Now, with a very pleasantly surprising level of aggression, Dallas is considered to have made huge strides, considered by some league-wide analysts to have had one of the very best offseasons in the NFL.
It will all depend on how the season actually unfolds, of course, but it is hard to find fault with those who are judging the Cowboys to have done an excellent job this year. Free agency is just over a week old, and they are already in a position to go into the draft able to take the best player available without having to focus on any particular position. It does feel like the team has fallen into the Twilight Zone, but one with a very happy ending.
If you just look at the NFC East, no other team has done as much to improve. The biggest moves for the New York Giants are extending QB Daniel Jones and trading for TE Darren Waller. They placed a non-exclusive tag to Saquon Barkley. That last seems to be the opposite philosophy from what Dallas finally used this year, releasing Ezekiel Elliott in acknowledgement that the former first-round pick is not making the contributions to justify his cost. They also tagged Tony Pollard, which he signed on Thursday, but he seems to be a player who is ascending.
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The Philadelphia Eagles’ biggest moves were retaining their own players: Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox, James Bradberry, Darius Slay, and Brandon Graham. All will be in their 30s and do come with the risk of a decline in the future. That is something the Cowboys could also face with their biggest acquisitions, Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, who are both seen as short-term rentals to help this season.
Their two biggest re-signings, Donovan Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch, are still at least a couple of years from hitting the big three-oh. That is also true of Pollard and Terence Steele, who was offered an RFA tender. The Eagles don’t have any outside acquisitions that move the needle the way Gilmore and Cooks do.
For the Washington Commanders, the biggest thing they did was reach agreement on a four-year extension with Daron Payne (originally a recipient of the franchise tag). His $90 million contract is very pricey for a defensive tackle, but he is a true force for them, and the cost is justifiable. Not in Dallas, perhaps, but it makes sense for Washington. The biggest outside moves for them were signing OT Andrew Wylie and OG Nick Gates, unless you are a big Jacoby Brissett fan. But he could well be the starter for them, so that is not an unimportant move for them. The only question is how good it is.
None of this makes any kind of argument that the Cowboys have not outpaced the rest of the division. That is my take, but others see it the same way. On Wednesday, Garrett Podell of CBS Sports assigned grades for all teams’ free agencies, and he was also impressed by what Dallas has done. The Cowboys were one of only three teams to get a A in this evaluation. He was particularly impressed by the Cooks trade, describing it as “a major victory.”
The Giants got a B-, and in Podell’s eyes, it was drug down by the Barkley deal. He also makes this interesting observation concerning Jones.
This deal could put a Blake Bortles-like ceiling on the 2020’s Giants like the former top five pick quarterback’s contract extension did for the late 2010’s Jaguars.
Philadelphia gets a B. Their retentions are the main positives in this analysis, with their biggest outside acquisitions being RB Rashad Perry and QB Marcus Mariota.
The Commanders also were awarded a B. The moves to improve their offensive line were certainly needed.
That bodes well for Dallas. After a 12-win season they have been the most aggressive and successful team in the NFCE in improving themselves. This all is in pursuit of getting over the playoff hump. There are certainly indications the team is more in on doing that than they have been in a long, long time.
This is not just about the division, however. The rest of the NFC should be considered. And there, the Cowboys still have an edge in Podell’s evaluation. The only other NFC team to be graded with an A was the Seattle Seahawks, and they came into the offseason with a much weaker roster than Dallas. The San Francisco 49ers, our new nemesis, were close, though, with a B+. It is just one factor, but the odds of having to face them in the playoffs seem extremely good.
Another look at free agency is this:
This looks like a very mediocre result for the Cowboys and rather favorable for the Commanders, but it is looking at the expected improvement or decline in point differential from last season. Dallas had the third best in the NFC, +125. The 49ers were tops with +173, and the Eagles were just ahead of the Cowboys at +133. This projection has Dallas staying about where they were, with San Francisco falling back just a bit and Philadelphia basically plunging off a cliff. It’s just one indicator, but it hints that the Cowboys are going to reclaim the NFCE crown which has not seen a repeat winner since 2004. And the Niners look to be their biggest obstacle in the playoffs.
The Cowboys continue to make moves like signing LS Trent Sieg and bringing back Takk McKinley to add some depth at pass rusher. But the big moves seem done. At the moment, they have about $16 million in cap to use, and will have to pay their draftees and keep some in reserve for signings during the season to fill holes caused by injury. They might be thinking about extensions, but that is most likely going to not happen this year. Now, the focus of the team is going to be on the draft.
For the first time in many years, the draft is going to be about finding possible upgrades rather than filling obvious roster holes. That is how you want it to be. It puts every position in play for the first two days.
We have had many criticisms of the way this team has been managed over the past few years. Right now, the Joneses are outpacing the entire league, and there are not many big names left out there to move the needle for any team. Now if they can find some really good players in the draft, this year’s Dallas team could be something to behold.