FRISCO, Texas – At the very least, you've got to admire the Cowboys' consistency.
By this point in my time following this team, I am convinced that there's a handbook somewhere within their front office – "5 Steps to a Cowboys' Offseason," or something similar. They clearly follow those instructions quite closely.
By 2021, the déjà vu is pretty eerie. Walk through the steps for yourself and you'll see what I mean.
- It typically starts with bringing back some affordable talent from within the roster. This year they did quite a bit of this type of tinkering. The headliner is re-signing Jourdan Lewis to a three-year, $13.5 million deal, but they also brought back C.J. Goodwin and Noah Brown. Throw in the one-year tenders for Cedrick Wilson and Antwaun Woods, and they held on to a solid chunk of last year's team.
This is an understandable first step, because the Cowboys have a better grasp on who these players are than outside free agents, and they can secure them for a low cost. In recent years, we've seen them do the same type of deals with Blake Jarwin, Anthony Brown, Darian Thompson, Jamize Olawale, Jeff Heath and James Hanna, to name a few.
- Next comes the experienced swing tackle. This year it was 35-year-old Ty Nsehke signing on for one year at $1.25 million, bringing his 81 career games and 17 career starts with him. This has been a specialty in Dallas, with Cameron Fleming filling the role in 2018 and Cameron Erving signing on for 2020.
- After the swing tackle is locked in, next up is the veteran competition. This typically happens at a problem spot on the roster, which is the defensive line this year. In the span of a day or two, the Cowboys inked Tarell Basham, Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins to shore up the depth along their defensive front.
We've seen them do this a lot over the years with mixed results. Christian Covington and Kerry Hyder fit that bill on the defensive line in recent years, while Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson were brought in to offset the release of Dez Bryant. The two best examples of these signings working out are Joe Looney, who signed a two-year deal in 2016 and has become an integral part of the offensive line, and Jeremy Mincey, who signed a two-year deal in 2014 and was the team's sack leader that season.
For the most part, though, these are low-cost signings that are meant to shore up any holes in the roster before the draft, without putting the team on the hook for any significant salary cap charges.
- When that's done, in comes arguably the most important step – the lottery ticket.
The Cowboys have made it clear over the years that they aren't going to compete at the top of the free agency market. They haven't splashed that type of cash in nearly a decade, when they signed Brandon Carr to a $50 million contract in 2012.
What they will do is buy low on additions with high upside. The Cowboys are well aware what blue chip talent looks like, and they've made a tradition of zeroing in when outside circumstances bring down the cost.
Injuries are often the circumstance in question. Arguably the two biggest additions of this free agency class, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, struggled with injuries during their careers in Atlanta. The result is that the Cowboys were able to secure the services of two of the Falcons' best defenders for a grand total of $3.2 million in guaranteed money.
Sometimes it's outside issues, as we saw last year. The Cowboys bought low on Aldon Smith last spring after the former first-round pick spent four years out of the league due to various suspensions. Smith rewarded that gamble with a 5.5-sack season. They managed a similar steal in 2014 when they signed former No. 8 overall pick Rolando McClain for pennies and saw him make 25 starts and 161 tackles over two seasons.
The Cowboys are clearly enticed by the idea of buying low and striking it rich. Last offseason, their three biggest free agency acquisitions were veteran defenders who had all made at least one Pro Bowl – but who were seeing a reduced market because of age, injury or both. The trio of Gerald McCoy, HaHa Clinton-Dix and Dontari Poe signed for a grand total of about $15 million in guarantees.
McCoy never saw most of that, as an injury clause in his contract prompted his release after he tore his quad during training camp. The guarantees on Clinton-Dix's and Poe's deals were small enough that they were gone by Week 1 and Week 8, respectively.
It's easy to see a theme here. The Cowboys have developed a knack for finding players with strong NFL resumes – but the money involved gives you a more realistic sense of what the expectations are.
- All of this sets them up for the heart of their offseason – the NFL draft.
It's the Cowboys' preferred method of building their team, and to be fair, they're pretty good at it. Adding cheap, veteran talent allows them to be flexible with who they pick, as they ideally won't be pressured into drafting purely to fill holes in the roster.
End of handbook.
To be honest, I perfectly understand the approach. Teams often get caught making bad decisions when they spend at the top of the market. Investing in cheap, boom-or-bust prospects gives you the chance to strike it rich in production at a fraction of the cost. And finding the cornerstones of the team through the draft allows you to keep costs down over four and five-year increments.
At the same time, I can't help but think about something Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said a few weeks ago, when he was joking about the money he gave to Dak Prescott.
"The truth is, most anything I've ever been involved in that ended up being special, I overpaid for. Every time," Jones said. "Any time I've tried to get a bargain, I got just that. It was a bargain in a lot of ways, and not up to standard."
If you've been following the Cowboys over the last few years, that probably resonates with you. We like to say that this team bargain hunts in free agency, and the recent results have not been up to standard. And yet, every offseason, we crack open the handbook once again.
It reminds me of one of those monstrous slot machines at a casino – the kind where you can feed it a $20 bill and sip on a drink while you take a shot at the jackpot for $1 per pull.
Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time, and the jackpot hits. And there's no more gratifying feeling than hitting it rich for simply pressing a button. More often than not, it doesn't, and you're left wondering how you spent $60 in a half hour.
So maybe let's change the phrasing and call this what it is. The Dallas Cowboys are not bargain hunters, so much as low-stakes gamblers. Rather than splash cash at the high rollers' tables, they're content to sit at the slot machines and wait for their win.
Maybe it pays off this time, and the Cowboys will hit their jack pot – a low risk, high reward free agent group that perfectly complements their talented draft classes, allowing them to take that long-awaited next step.
It hasn't yet, though. And all we know for sure right now is that they have $20 bills to burn.