FRISCO, Texas – What a difference six days make in the wild and woolly first eight days of free agency this year. With money being thrown around as if celebratory confetti and prominent players relocating faster than those college kids running through the nouveau transfer portal turnstiles.
Why, it was just this past Friday afternoon when we played the who game with the slow-starting Cowboys, as in just who would they have playing this position or that position if the season was starting the next day?
And several of the vacancies were of their own doing, trading away No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, eventually releasing starting right tackle La'el Collins, failing to convince defensive end Randy Gregory to stay put, turning their backs on starting right guard Connor Williams and realizing fourth receiver Cedrick Wilson had become too rich for their blood.
But now look, the Cowboys chipping away as if some overzealous woodpecker, filling their roster potholes faster than any infrastructure bill could possibly move through congress while minimizing their draft-day desperation.
Needed a veteran wide receiver to cover themselves, especially if Michael Gallup has not recovered in time from his ACL surgery to start the season? Signed four-year veteran wideout James Washington.
Needed a more veteran-type pass rusher at defensive end? Not only brought in veteran Dante Fowler, but also retained one of their own, signing back Dorance Armstrong.
Needed a punter? Splurged to re-sign their Pro Bowler from last year, Bryan Anger, who only set the franchise records with a 44.6-yard net average and a 48.4 gross average.
Needed desperately another linebacker? Re-signed another of their own, Leighton Vander Esch.
Needed to squeeze last year's leading tackler back onto the roster? Re-signed big safety/linebacker Jayron Kearse to go with already having re-signed safety Malik Hooker.
Needed to add some veteran depth at defensive tackle? Just got that done by re-signing 14-game starter Carlos Watkins.
Yep, all that since early Friday afternoon.
Nibble, nibble, nibble, and did so by not signing any of these guys to deals longer than Anger's three years. And unless something extravagant and unexpected has transpired with unannounced deals to Washington and Fowler, none of these 2022 salary cap hits likely will exceed that $3.38 million of Armstrong's. And if so, not by much.
In fact, though re-signing Gallup to a five-year, $57 million deal, his 2022 cap hit comes in at just $4.5 million, meaning the most exorbitant move has been franchising tight end Dalton Schultz for $10.9 million, but likely just a placeholder until working out a long-term deal to lessen that first-year cap hit.
Now then, if indeed the Cowboys had to play tomorrow, the starting defensive ends would be DeMarcus Lawrence and Armstrong/Fowler. At defensive tackle, a rotation of Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, Watson, Trysten Hill and Quinton Bohanna. At linebacker, Micah Parsons and Vander Esch, with Luke Gifford a third if needed. At safety, a combination of Kearse, Hooker and Donovan Wilson.
On offense, aside from the obvious, it would be the intended Terence Steele at right tackle, with work to be done at left guard, though, but for tomorrow, that would be Connor McGovern. At tight end that would be Schultz, Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle. That then leaves wide receiver, where CeeDee Lamb must become the guy, with Washington and then maybe Noah Brown until Gallup is ready to go and for sure eyes wide open the first two days of the draft.
Oh, punter. It's Anger, with kicker TBD.
This is not to minimize the losses of Cooper and Gregory, but at least at this point, taking a shot at contending for the elusive back-to-back NFC East titles should be expected just the same.
Going from dire straits to at least palatable in six days.
- Cap Limitations: There seems to be this notion the Cowboys have beaucoup cap space available, a couple of tracking sites suggesting around $20 million. Not really. Spotrac suggesting $21 million has not figured in the cap charges as of Wednesday noon for Washington, Fowler, Anger, Kearse and Watkins. Those five guys at least should average around $2 million each, so that's another $10 million. Plus, the Cowboys will need a projected $9.6 million pool to facilitate nine draft picks, four of those fifth rounders. That should be covered by the $10 million base salary they get back after June 1 for the release of Collins. And you must have money left over once the season starts for a practice squad and season-long operating expenses, since last year the Cowboys had 72 players drawing at least minimums on the 53-man roster. So, let's not get carried away with this notion that they still have room to afford big-buck free agents. And remember signing these types is not just about this year, but about the next and the next when Dak Prescott's cap charge in 2023 goes up to $49 million.
- Hill Topper: Good gosh, did Miami ever want Tyreek Hill, not only trading away to Kansas City this year's first and second and next year's fourth and sixth, but fully guaranteeing the speedy wideout $52.5 million of his four-year, $120 million extension. See what I mean? The Cowboys no can do. Nor can they sign 31-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Terron Armstead to a five-year, $75 million deal, and that for a guy who missed nine games in 2021 and has missed as many as six games in four of the past six years.
- Oh, Cedrick: Bet former Cowboys wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who was considered their third/fourth wideout, signed that three year, $22 million free-agent deal with the Dolphins with his eyes wide open to become the Miami's third guy behind Jaylen Waddle and Devante Parker. Now he's probably fourth with the arrival of Hill. But at least he received a $2.75 million signing bonus and $12.75 million guaranteed. Beats the $3.7 million he totaled in four years with the Cowboys. Good for him. He earned it.
- Draft Eyes: If the Cowboys are hoping for a bargain deal at wide receiver in the upcoming, draft, maybe they can finagle one of these guys in the second round, torn ACLs likely dropping talented Jameson Williams of Alabama and Georgia's George Pickens. The Cowboys have been known to take those chances on injury-recovering players. See Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee, Connor Williams and Bruce Carter.
- Money To Burn: Here is what happens over the first week of free agency when teams have cap money to burn. Jacksonville signs nice receiver Zay Jones, son or former Cowboys linebacker Robert Jones, to a three-year, $24 million deal with $14 million guaranteed over the next three years, and also sign Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal with $37 million guaranteed. Maybe it's my ignorance, but then after the Buccaneers let some starting guard named Alex Cappa walk, the offensive-line starved Bengals sign him to a four-year, $35 million contract, with $11 million guaranteed … for a guard. No wonder Collins received essentially a two-year, $22 million deal from Cincinnati, basically what he would have earned those last two years with the Cowboys. Bet former offensive line coach Frank Pollack, now with the Bengals, vouched for him.
- You Don't Say: Deion Sanders, never one to bite his tongue, was not pleased with the low NFL turnout to Jackson State's Pro Day workout. The head coach took to the Tweeter to call out the teams failing to send a representative, including the Dolphins, Broncos, Texans, Bills, Buccaneers, Ravens, Panthers, Vikings, Eagles and Browns. "You could have sent somebody," Deion said. "Our kids deserve it. You could have sent a scout … you could have sent somebody, that's all I'm sayin'. To all that came, I love you, appreciate you."
- Spring Shorts: OK, you guys know I'm a stickler for dead money against the cap, but this one takes the cake, the Falcons trading Matt Ryan to the Colts for but a third-round pick while setting the NFL record by absorbing $40.525 million in dead money against the cap … And speaking of that, the Cowboys have right at $19 million in dead money now against the cap, with already $8.6 million charging in 2023 for releasing Collins … Wonder if the Cowboys in the second or third round can draft a tackle capable of playing guard but eventually moving out to tackle. Sort of what took place initially with eventual starting tackles Flozell Adams and Solomon Page, and if we go way, way back, Kevin Gogan in 1987 and Ron Stone in 1994 … In fact, how about this oddity: In 1989 Gogan, a 1987 draft choice, and 1988 draft choice Dave Widell, platooned at tackle for several games, Gogan playing primarily on running downs and Widell coming in on nickel offense passing downs … And finally, rest in peace John Clayton, longtime writer turned ESPN analyst for more than 20 years, having passed away after a short illness this past Friday. Got to know John when he was covering the Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune before moving onward, though now erstwhile Seattle QB Russell Wilson took the time to send out this Tweet: "We will all miss your words and brilliance @JohnClaytonNFL #RIPJohnClayton."
And the last word goes to a man of few words, Dorance Armstrong, conducting an over-the-phone interview with media members after the unrestricted free agent re-signed with the Cowboys on his two-year, $12 million deal, receiving a $4.5 million signing bonus – more money than the $3.1 million he earned over his first four seasons with the Cowboys as a fourth-round draft choice in 2018.
When asked what this meant to him, Armstrong said, "Everything, man. Obviously, this is every NFL player's dream just to reach the second contract no matter where or what it is. This is a huge blessing, and I'm blessed to be able to stay here in Dallas."