Dallas Cowboys: Why Free Agency will be different this year

Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

In the past decade, the Dallas Cowboys have opted into a more conservative approach during free agency to right some of the wrongs of aggressive free-agent spending that ruled most of the 1990s and 2000s.

The recent spending mindset can be attributed to Stephen Jones’s increased control in the front office; it could also be due to the team not wanting to accrue significant dead money in the salary from big contracts that don’t end fruitfully. Now the Dallas Cowboys are signing relatively inexpensive contracts to low-value veterans. The contracts still aren’t ending fruitfully but now they don’t have to worry about accruing significant dead cap money!

However, unlike the past decade, the NFL hasn’t had to set the floor of a salary lower than projections because of a worldwide pandemic. Even with the floor at $185 million, the Cowboys have the third-most cap space in the league with $27 million. A portion of that will go to QB Dak Prescott, but depending on what contract he signs will affect how much remaining cap space exists.

A long-term extension frees up far more cap space than signing the franchise tag because the franchise tag fully guarantees Prescott’s salary. The team is surely aware of the financial implications of signing Prescott long-term as it allows them to take advantage of cap space this offseason.

Assuming the team does sign Prescott long-term, would the team be more inclined to sign a higher-value free agent than in the past? Likely not, however, this does give them more assets to either sign more bottom tier free agents or to sign free agents from a tier above. In all, the team seemingly wants to sweep up as many good-value free agents.

How could  the Dallas Cowboys approach that has generally yielded below-average results have greater success this offseason?

2020 and even the early part of 2021 have been very unorthodox from a business perspective. This is seemingly relevant to the Dallas Cowboys as for once in the past several years the team doesn’t have multiple big-name players to re-sign; the lone player is Dak Prescott.

The next highest-paid player up for contracts is Tyrone Crawford. His previous average annual salary of $9 million is roughly $22 million fewer than Prescott’s cap hit last season. After that is 35-year-old Sean Lee who made $4.5 million last season. The point in all this is Dallas’ own free agents mostly consist of aging veterans and young players that haven’t been very productive.

If the team were to re-sign these players, they likely don’t have to spend much money to lock them in for multiple years. The beauty of this is if the player doesn’t meet performance requirements the dead cap hit isn’t all that significant.

The team has fined tuned the system to accumulate as little dead money in the salary cap as possible after years of dead money hell. Unfortunately, this has left them with a subpar product on the field their fair share of times.

The system, as mentioned before, has been in place for several years. The team has opted to sign players like Benson Mayowa, Christian Covington, Daryl Worley, and many more as a result. These players have always been rotational guys with some upside. Unfortunately, in a defense that seemingly consists of mostly rotational guys with low starting potential, the team can only go so far as the skill level dictates.

That problem has been more apparent the last two years as the interior defensive linemen the team have signed have been largely unplayable at times. On passing downs, they are unable to generate pressure leaving Dallas’s fantastic edge room among the highest double-teamed edges in the league. In run support, the interior defensive line has been particularly putrid consistently being late to key the ball and engage at the point of attack allowing the offensive line to carve out holes quickly eventually leaving the team’s linebacker group in all sorts of disarray at the second level.

The front office is clearly aware of this issue as they have elected to not re-sign even releasing most of these players, but the team’s reluctance to not take risks at positions with worse talent annually is starting to have larger implications. Could the 2021 free agency class change the type of personnel the team elects to sign without breaking the bank?

Several weeks ago Mike Clay of ESPN tweeted this picture of the 2021 free-agent class.

According to Clay’s unit ranks, the Dallas Cowboys have the 16th most talent on offense and the 27th most talent on defense. The offensive rank is lower than expected because, as you can see on the quarterback list, Dak Prescott is listed as a free agent. Under units, the worst position groups are the Cowboys’ safety, interior defensive line, quarterback, and cornerback room, all of which have a grade less than 1.0.

Regardless of what you think the grades should be, there shouldn’t be much debate that the interior defensive line, cornerback, and safety position groups are not particularly strong. The current players under contract at all these positions are:

Trysten Hill, DT
Neville Gallimore, DT
Justin Hamilton, DT
Trevon Diggs, CB
Anthony Brown, CB
Rashard Robinson, CB
Donovan Wilson, S
Darian Thompson, S
Reggie Robinson, S

Outside of three players on this list, there isn’t much to get excited about. Not only is there a lack of significant talent, but also there aren’t enough players on the roster. The team currently has three DTs, three CBs, and three safeties. At each position, the number on the final roster is usually near five or six.

It is the end of February, I understand! Rosters shouldn’t be full before free agency, that is why the free agency process exists. The greater point in all of this is the team needs players, specifically good ones. The team can’t be looking to fill out their roster with depth chart bottom-dwellers.

So let’s check out that free agent class again?

All three position groups have above-average free agent classes. As expected, not all players on this list are looking to move elsewhere but even if you removed names like Leonard Williams, Troy Hill, Justin Simmons, and Marcus Williams for example, all three positions still have good names. What names am I referring to then?

Important names to watch in the interior defensive line class:

Ndamukong Suh, TB
Soloman Thomas, SF
Larry Ogunjobi, CLE
Maliek Collins, LV
Margus Hunt, NO

Important names to watch in the cornerback class:

Richard Sherman, SF
Gareon Conley, HOU
Michael Davis, LAC
DJ Hayden, JAX
Darqueze Dennard, ATL

Important names to watch in the safety class:

Marcus Maye, NYJ
Keanu Neal, ATL
Bradley McDougald, NYJ
Malik Hooker, IND
Will Parks, DEN

Why have I picked these specific players? These players have the measurables that the front office and coaching staff would ideally want at these positions and they have proficiency in the 4-3 under Cover 1/Cover 3 defense of Dan Quinn. Another big trend with all these players is that most of them are fairly young.

Thomas, Ogujobi, Conley, Hooker, Neal, and Maye are fresh off their first contracts. Collins, Hunt, Dennard, and Parks are all under 30 years old and are coming off their second contracts which were single-year deals. The oldest two, Suh and Sherman, are the only ones over 30 years old but even factoring age and injuries, these two are still incredibly productive.

These are all quality additions to a defense in need of talent infusion and most of these players won’t break the bank because they are either productive but not market-setting players, fresh off of injuries, or have been misused in the past causing their value to decline.

Realistically, the Dallas Cowboys sign one player from each position on this list or of comparable prestige. Unlike previous signings that are meant to be rotation or low floor starting pieces, these players are mid-tier starters with higher potential. This is important in the grand scheme.

More from Dallas Cowboys

The point of the NFL draft is for teams to improve their squad by picking the best player available while factoring in positional value, pick value, and player value. The team tries to sell their fans on building through the draft, but that largely is an inexact science. Signing above-average free agents to positions of need gives teams the flexibility to pick who they want at a specific pick without having to handcuff themselves to a prospect in the name of filling a hole. Signing Aldon Smith allowed the Dallas Cowboys to bring a new number 88 in town.

Signing a starting-caliber cornerback in free agency allows the Cowboys to not force a cornerback selection at pick 10. Signing a starting defensive tackle in free agency prevents the team from reaching on a defensive tackle prospect on Day 2 especially in a notably weak class.

However, the biggest benefit of signing better players in free agency is if they turn out better than expected, they prevent you from having to find replaceable talent in free agency or potentially reaching on someone who plays the same position in future drafts. The NFL landscape is completely different every five years, thus the more continuity a team has in each five-year period can only benefit them.

Five years ago, the team had their current starting quarterback, running back, left tackle, right guard, right tackle, defensive ends, and starting nickel cornerback. Drafting and signing these starters was clearly enough to give the front office optimism that they can turn the rest of the team into a playoff contender. Imagine if they spent money on better free agents how drastically different the roster might look for the better?

Next. Five Moves to fix the Dallas Cowboys (February Edition). dark

The Dallas Cowboys now have a unique opportunity to use their conservative spending approach to cash in on high upside-free agents. Last year fans saw a paradigm shift of the team signing more popular names even if they were older. Hopefully, the trend continues this season and they elect to sign popular names, but this time they sign more players coming off their first contract. If the team elects to not take advantage of their cap space and a good defensive free agent market, we might have a problem…

  • Published on 02/27/2021 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 02/27/2021 at 12:28 PM