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Revisiting past offseason moves and examining where the Cowboys excel and where they mess up

When it comes to building a roster, the Cowboys are good at some things and not so good at others.

NFL: SEP 22 Dolphins at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Training camp is almost upon us and it won’t be much longer before we get a better feel for how the Dallas Cowboys’ offseason moves will play out. It feels like every offseason the team makes its share of controversial decisions. Sometimes the Cowboys end up looking like geniuses, and other times their miscalculations come back to bite them. Which will it be this year?

Before we pass too much judgment, let’s look back at the last half dozen offseasons and re-evaluate how the front office performed since we have the benefit of hindsight. Did they go about it the right way? What things worked and where do they keep messing up? Grab yourself a snack and let’s revisit some of the work the Cowboys front office has done in recent years.


Brandon Carr Chidobe Awuzie Draft
Barry Church Xavier Woods Draft
Ron Leary Jonathan Cooper Free Agency
Morris Claiborne Jourdan Lewis Draft

The Cowboys lost a huge chunk of their secondary in 2017, starting with Brandon Carr who led all defensive players with 1,011 snaps that year (96%). Other defensive backs lost were Barry Church (64%), J.J. Wilcox (53%), and Mo Claiborne (38%). Fortunately, they were able to find solid replacements in the draft in Chidobe Awuzie (second round), Jourdan Lewis (third round), and Xavier Woods (sixth round).

The team also got lucky when low-cost signing and former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper was able to step in and replace Ron Leary at left guard.


Dez Bryant Michael Gallup Draft
Jason Witten Dalton Schultz Draft
Anthony Hitchens Leighton Vander Esch Draft
Jonathan Cooper Connor Williams Draft

The Cowboys had a fantastic draft in 2018 with four of their first five draft picks covering key losses that offseason. In addition to the list above, they also drafted Dorance Armstrong to replace Benson Mayowa who had led the team in sacks in 2016.

But the biggest loss suffered that year came at the wide receiver position when they released Dez Bryant, let Brice Butler leave in free agency, and traded away Ryan Switzer. The Cowboys addressed this not only by eventually drafting Michael Gallup, but also by signing free agent Allen Hurns and trading for Tavon Austin. It turned out not to be enough causing the team to relinquish a future first-round draft pick to acquire the services of Amari Cooper midseason.

It should also be mentioned that while neither Chaz Green nor Byron Bell was considered a key loss that offseason, their abysmal performance the prior year caused the team to place a stronger emphasis on the swing tackle position and they signed veteran Cameron Fleming. It was a wise move as Fleming started three games in each of the next two seasons when Tyron Smith got hurt.


Cole Beasley Randall Cobb Free Agency
David Irving Robert Quinn Trade
Rod Smith Tony Pollard Draft

The Cowboys' losses that season were relatively minimal. Many thought they’d miss Cole Beasley, but the Randall Cobb signing was just what they needed as he finished 2019 with 55 catches for 828 yards. It was more receiving yards than they had gotten from Beasley in all but one of his seven seasons in Dallas.

But the real score for the Cowboys was acquiring veteran edge rusher Robert Quinn for a future sixth-round pick and a one-year, $8 million cost. Quinn would be rebooted in Dallas leading the team with 11.5 sacks and it was his first double-digit sack season in five years.


Byron Jones Trevon Diggs Draft
Travis Frederick Tyler Biadasz Draft
Robert Jones Aldon Smith Free Agency
Randall Cobb CeeDee Lamb Draft

If there ever was an offseason to remind people what the Cowboys were good at and what they weren’t, it was 2020. They kicked things off by spending more money than usual on outside free agents that included Gerald McCoy, Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Sadly, some of these guys never saw the field, and the ones that did, didn’t see it for long.

Fortunately, the Cowboys had a killer draft similar to 2018 with four of their first five draft picks filling the voids left by some of their biggest departures. Starting with the surprising availability of CeeDee Lamb, the team immediately upgraded from Cobb. Then, Trevon Diggs fell in their lap in round two making the loss of Byron Jones much more tolerable. And even the unexpected re-retirement of Travis Frederick was handled when they were able to land another eventual Pro Bowler Wisconsin center in Tyler Biadasz.

The Cowboys also secured another reliable swing tackle in Cam Erving who replaced Cameron Fleming who signed with the New York Giants.


Sean Lee Micah Parsons Draft
Chidobe Awuzie Kelvin Joseph Draft
Xavier Woods Jayron Kearse Free Agency
Tyrone Crawford Osa Odighizuwa Draft

By this point, the Cowboys' front office became very sold on their process and focused all of their attention on the draft. They still signed several outside guys, but almost all of them were low-cost, one-year deal investments. This included Carlos Watkins ($1.75 million), Jayron Kearse ($1.1 million), and Malik Hooker ($920,000). They also signed another reliable swing tackle for relatively cheap in Ty Nsekhe ($1.75 million).

Their only real “misstep” that offseason was banking on one of the top collegiate corners being available when they were on the clock on Day 1 of the draft. Fortunately, it lucked them into scoring defensive sensation Micah Parsons but forced them to roll the dice too early on Kelvin Joseph as they were in search of another outside corner to replace the departed Chidobe Awuzie.


Amari Cooper Jalen Tolbert Draft
Randy Gregory Sam Williams Draft
La'el Collins Jason Peters Free Agency
Connor Williams Tyler Smith Draft
Cedrick Wilson Jr. James Washington Free Agency
Blake Jarwin Jake Ferguson Draft

Last year was a scary offseason as they moved on from three key starters in Amari Cooper, Randy Gregory, and La’el Collins. New acquisitions like Dante Fowler and Sam Williams and more edge rushing snaps from Parsons helped them not miss Gregory at all as the Cowboys had one of the top edge rushing win rates in the NFL. They also didn’t miss La’el Collins as Terence Steele showed everyone why the Cowboys were wise to release the veteran right tackle.

The player they did miss was Amari Cooper, who the Cowboys learned they had no replacement for. With many different options that included free agent James Washington, third-round draft pick Jalen Tolbert, former USFL MVP KaVonte Turpin, and returning youngster Simi Fehoko, you’d think someone would present themselves as a viable option, but only Noah Brown elevated his game. And with Gallup still not a full health, this put the Cowboys' passing game in a tough spot.

And now, moving on to this offseason...


Connor McGovern Chuma Edoga Free Agency
Dalton Schultz Luke Schoonmaker Draft
Ezekiel Elliott Ronald Jones Free Agency
Carlos Watkins Mazi Smith Draft
Noah Brown Brandin Cooks Trade
Luke Gifford DeMarvion Overshown Draft

This offseason, the Cowboys have done an excellent job upgrading certain positions starting with the spot that ailed them last year, wide receiver. The team traded to get the savvy separator Brandin Cooks. And while some don’t consider Anthony Brown a key loss, he was still the best they had on the outside after Diggs. The Cowboys traded for Stephon Gilmore and now they have two strong outside cornerbacks. Carlos Watkins’ contributions were admirable, but drafting Mazi Smith will give them some much-needed power along the interior defensive line. And the loss of Dalton Schultz will eventually be a distant memory as the much more athletic Luke Schoonmaker takes his spot.

The Cowboys still have some questions, starting with who will be starting at left guard for them in 2023. Between Leary, Cooper, and the two Connors, the team has been able to survive over the years, but it’s anyone’s guess who fills that role this year. Last year’s first-round investment Tyler Smith may end up being their best option.

And finally, all eyes will be on the running game as the backfield will be without Ezekiel Elliott for the first time in eight years. It’s Tony Pollard’s show now, but the team is hoping new additions like free agent Ronald Jones or sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn can help alleviate some of the workload.


While not all of them work out (Amari Cooper), the Cowboys show a very high percentage of being right when they get out from under big contracts or allow key contributors to leave Dallas for a bigger payday. They are also very smart in finding these low-cost outside free agent contributors year in and year out. They don’t hit on all of them, but the investment is so small that it doesn’t hurt them when they miss. And they’re hitting on enough to make a difference. In fact, of the defensive players who logged at least 275 snaps last year, 29% of them (five players) were outside free agents who were signed at a bargain price.

And of course, the beauty in all of this is that this team is one of the better drafting teams in the NFL. The proof is right in front of us. From All-Pros in the early rounds to strong contributors later, this team does well when it comes to the draft. Do they hit all the time? Of course not, but their success rate is fantastic.

Finally, “roster building can’t just come from the draft” is a mantra that many of us have cited and for good reason. There has to be more. When the Cowboys are able to trade away late-round draft capital for a proven veteran at an area of need like Robert Quinn, great things happen. This is why we are so excited about the Cowboys offseason this year because they not only did that once, but twice with the acquisitions of Gilmore and Cooks. That is how you spend Day 3 draft capital.

It feels like the Cowboys are recognizing what they do well and doing more of it while avoiding the things they don’t do well (spending big in free agency). Hopefully, the moves they’ve made this offseason will serve them well and provide a better blueprint for how to operate going forward.

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