There’s no denying that the Dallas Cowboys are having a massively productive offseason. In some ways they’ve stuck to their usual tactics of prioritizing internal free agents and finding value players to fill roster needs in preparation for the draft, but in others been uncharacteristically aggressive in trading for Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks.
With so much positivity this early in the offseason, an unfamiliar place for Cowboys fans to be, it’s easy to lose sight of the very first win of this offseason. The Cowboys once again brought back defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who passed up even more head coaching vacancies to pursue unfinished business in Dallas with Micah Parsons and a deeply talented defense.
The Cowboys have leaned even further into Quinn’s defense being the identity of the team with him in the fold for a third season, and trading for a veteran cornerback like Stephon Gilmore was an early sign of this. With more pressing roster needs than cornerback, the Cowboys could have been complacent here and looked to the draft in hopes of landing another steal like 2022 fifth round pick Daron Bland. Instead, they did what championship teams do and turned a relative strength on the roster into an overwhelming one, pairing Gilmore to play with Trevon Diggs on the outside and help the Cowboys try to lead the league in takeaways for an unprecedented third straight year.
With the right mix of expected moves and these big splashes so far in the offseason, the Cowboys are doing everything they can to set Mike McCarthy up for success in a decisive year for the head coach. While some moves have highlighted McCarthy’s growing influence on the team, there’s little doubt the pressure is still on him to take this team further in the playoffs. The trends he’s set should be here to stay though, most notably Dallas moving on from the model of a bell-cow running back on a big contract in Ezekiel Elliott (who may wind up with the Philadelphia Eagles of all teams).
All of this progress from McCarthy, and his lieutenant Dan Quinn, makes McCarthy’s first season with Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator feel like a distant memory. McCarthy hasn’t denied the influence that Quinn has made on his tenure though, and moving on from Nolan after one season was an early decision that could have saved McCarthy’s job.
As our Dan Rodgers pointed out, Nolan’s first season in 2020 was the seventh year of an ongoing ten-year streak the Cowboys have of acquiring a former first-round pick from another team. Keeping in mind the rightful praise the Cowboys have earned in just the last few weeks, having a steady stream of former first-round picks is a sexy headline that masks how effective it’s actually been on the team.
Signed Aldon Smith (7th overall pick in 2011)
Keeping with the theme of reviving the career of one-time elite edge rushers, the Cowboys signed Smith to a low-cost one-year deal in hopes that there was some juice left in the player who had 19.5 sacks in 2012. Smith, who had been suspended in the previous four seasons, showed up and played all 16 games for the Cowboys recording five sacks. He even picked up a fumble and scampered 78 yards for a touchdown.
Also that year...
Signed Gerald McCoy (3rd overall pick in 2010)
McCoy was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL for the better part of his career, having a stretch of six-straight Pro Bowl appearances before the age of 30. After being released from Tampa Bay, he played one year with Carolina, but he was showing signs of decline; however, it didn’t deter the Cowboys from signing him to a three-year, $18 million deal. Unfortunately, he was injured in training camp and was released before the season started, causing the Cowboys to eat $3 million in dead money.
Signed Dontari Poe (11th overall pick 2012)
The Cowboys double-dipped in free agency to beef up the interior defensive line when they put up the cash for both McCoy and Poe. And like McCoy, Poe would be a huge disappointment. While he managed to stay healthy, his performance was so dismal that the Cowboys released him midway through the season, still costing the team $4 million. In Mike McCarthy’s first year as head coach the Cowboys were uncharacteristically spending more money in free agency and they were quickly reminded why that’s not a path they like to take.
Signed Cameron Erving (19th overall pick in 2015)
It wasn’t all bad in free agency as the Cowboys got a nice contribution from one of their low-cost investments. Erving was added for depth and it was a good thing as the Cowboys had all kinds of health issues along the offensive line in 2020. Erving did a solid job making five starts for Dallas that season.
Signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21st overall pick in 2014)
With little to no attention given to the safety position, it looked like maybe things were changing when the Cowboys signed Clinton-Dix to a one-year, $3.75 million deal. A former player under McCarthy, Clinton-Dix had an All-Pro season in 2016 and fans were excited about his potential. Sadly, nothing ever manifested as he didn’t even survive the final roster cuts.
None of these players made it to the 2021 season, Quinn’s first with the Cowboys. The streak dates all the way back to Rod Marinelli’s coaching days in 2014, but with more underwhelming names like Datone Jones and Rolando McClain, the types of players Marinelli made a career out of trying to squeeze the most out of.
Not surprisingly, the names on this list take a turn for the better as soon as Quinn arrived.
Signed Malik Hooker (15th overall pick in 2017)
Hooker was a talented safety prospect from Ohio State, but unfortunately had trouble staying healthy in each of his four seasons with Indianapolis, including a season-ending Achilles injury suffered during the final year of his rookie deal. The Cowboys signed him to a super cheap one-year deal where he played a career-high 15 games. His solid play earned him a two-year deal with Dallas last offseason where he played in another career-high 16 games, including a Week 13 shellacking of his former team where he had an interception and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.
Also that year...
Signed Keanu Neal (17th overall pick in 2016)
Similar to Clinton-Dix the previous year, Neal was a safety who was four years removed from a Pro Bowl appearance and was signed for a similar price. But unlike Clinton-Dix, Neal actually made the roster and played 14 games for the Cowboys. He was also switched to the linebacker position to play to his strength in the running game. Neal never looked like the player he once was in Atlanta, but gave the team a solid piece to the linebacker group.
Veteran safety Malik Hooker earned a second contract with the team, while Keanu Neal converted to linebacker and played meaningful snaps in Quinn’s defense for a season in 2021. Instead of being rigid to a scheme like Marinelli’s and banking on coaching over talent, the Cowboys and Quinn have worked hand-in-hand to bring in players that fit his scheme like a glove.
Once they’re in the building, Quinn’s personality as a coach stands out and makes it even easier for Dallas to turn these acquisitions into high-value signings. Homegrown first round picks like Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch have been two of the most vocal in their praise for Quinn’s hands-on coaching style and relatability.
Re-signing Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler makes two more former first round picks to stick with the 2023 team, and continues to show how Quinn’s ability to develop talent has quickly turned fortunes in Dallas. Gilmore and Cooks may be the absolute best examples from this long ten year sample size of first round picks that still have plenty left in the tank to put the 2023 Cowboys over the top, and this is well before Quinn has had a chance to draft the next Parsons, Bland, or Sam Williams.
The Cowboys are set up to draft the best players available from the 26th overall pick all the way through, giving both McCarthy and Quinn the needed resources to do something special this season. If Quinn’s defense somehow still went under the radar a bit at times while the Cowboys exited in the Divisional playoffs again, they should be widely regarded as one of the league’s best entering the season by the time training camp rolls around.