FRISCO, Texas – When asked a couple of weeks ago what's the Cowboys' No. 1 priority in free agency, that assuming the team would either sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal or franchise him, my answer was surprising to some.
Since those figuring my answer would be like cornerback or safety or defensive tackle.
Nope. Backup quarterback.
Was then. And especially now.
Back then, it was the Cowboys hoping the market value for last year's backup QB Andy Dalton would be flat, that no one would evaluate him as a staring quarterback or worth the price to compete for a starting job or wouldn't overpay to become a bridge to a rookie quarterback.
Maybe then the Cowboys could re-sign their valued backup for, oh, say, $3 million.
Not so much.
The Chicago Bears, after Plan A didn't pan out – offering to trade three firsts, a third and two starters to Seattle for Russell Wilson, who had put the Bears on his list of four agreeable destinations if the Seahawks did decide to trade him, which they have not – went to Plan B.
Coax Dalton out of the comforts of his home in Dallas on a one-year deal for $10 million with another $3 million in incentives and nearly a guarantee of starting. Andy, the wise man he is with 10 years of NFL experience at age 33 and having majored in marketing at TCU, quickly said, where the heck do I sign?
Which he was eligible to do so at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the start of the NFL's 2021 league year, which should be renamed Fast & Furious to reflect on the speed and level of activity already having taken place.
This leaves the Cowboys in somewhat of a lurch. Yeah, they could just say, well, Garrett Gilbert is the guy, for a cap-savings of $920,000 and not sweat it, while giving last year's seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci a year to grow with what just could become a normal offseason, a normal training camp and the five preseason games for the first time in his career.
But don't the Cowboys at least want to find someone to compete with Gilbert, someone with more than his seven games and one start of NFL experience?
The pickings are slim, though. When it came to quarterbacks in NFL.com's list of the Top 101 free agents, Dak was No. 1, Jameis Winston No. 23, Cam Newton 26, Ryan Fitzpatrick 30, Dalton 48, Jacoby Brissett 63 and Tyrod Taylor 82.
Well, they've all been signed.
The current remaining pool of familiar names includes the likes of Alex Smith, Chase Daniel, Nick Mullins, Colt McCoy, Joe Flacco, Blaine Gabbert and Mitch Trubisky, who made the Top 101 list, but at … 101. The longer guys like this remain on the market, the lower the price on a one- or two-year deal becomes. Especially after these first few days of free agency pass.
Plus, with as many as five quarterbacks being projected in the first round of the NFL Draft, the backup QB market will be stocked the first of May. Who knows? The Cowboys could bite their tongues and wait until then to take their _shot_.
- Priority No. 2: That being backup offensive swing tackle, and prioritized in my books way before even last year's veteran backup Cam Erving signs a two-year, $10 million deal, with $8 million guaranteed, with Carolina. Seriously, that much? For a guy who played all of six games last year, with five starts and finished the season on injured reserve? Maybe the Panthers know something I sure didn't see from him in those six games. The Cowboys must have been prepared for this one, already cutting a one-year deal with eighth-year veteran Ty Nsekhe, who played his high school ball at nearby Arlington Bowie and then college at Texas State. After kicking around for years in the Arena League, on practice squads and in the CFL, the 35-year-old Nsekhe would spend four years with Washington and the past two with Buffalo, having signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract. The Cowboys are signing him for a reported $1.75 million.
- Zack Attack: And I'll stick to my guns. If either Tyron Smith or La'el Collins are injured for an extended period of time, like more than two games, my backup tackle just has to be Zack Martin and then figure out the right guard spot. Maybe Connor McGovern, and hear that Nsekhe has some O-Line versatility. And none of this precludes drafting an offensive tackle in the middle rounds.
- Priority No. 3: With Cincinnati valuing Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie at three years, $21.75 million, far too rich for the team's salary-cap blood, that should put the Cowboys in the market for an experienced corner. While Dallas is expected to re-sign Jourdan Lewis, basically giving them Lewis, Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs, Rashard Robinson and Deonte Burton, with the possibility of returning last year's fourth-rounder Reggie Robinson from safety to corner, a more experienced hand would be wise. Even if they select a corner in the first round of the draft.
- Priority No. 4: What about linebacker? With Joe Thomas heading to Houston for one-year, $2 million, only a million more than what he earned with the Cowboys last season – an example of the Cowboys valuing every million vs. the cap – and Sean Lee unknown, that leaves just Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard and Azur Kamara. Need me a somewhat experienced LB with special teams ability, and why even drafting a linebacker in the draft, as high as the first, could be qualified.
- How 'Bout 4A: Defensive tackle experience. Should Tyrone Crawford decide it's time to hang 'em up after nine seasons, that would leave the Cowboys at DT with third-year Trysten Hill, second-year Neville Gallimore, restricted free agent Antwaun Woods, Eli Ankou and … and … uh, see what I mean? Only Ankou previously has spent more than three years in the NFL, but only one more than that. Maybe the Cowboys would consider moving DE Aldon Smith inside, but remember, he, too, is a free agent in need of re-signing.
- Safety Last: While starting safety Xavier Woods is unrestricted, and many don't think he's a priority to re-sign, just know on the Top 101 list he was ranked 66th, followed by this: "Any Cowboys defender associated with last season's meltdown figures to come at a discount. Woods was quietly an effective player before defensive coordinator Mike Nolan arrived." Hear, hear, but remember, market value matters.
And this week's last word goes to Dak, saying when asked last week when will he be 100 percent recovered from his season-ending ankle injury, though most unable to see him rehabbing on the practice field and running awfully well just a week more than five months removed from surgery: "So when I first got hurt, the one thing I said I wasn't going to do was put a time point on it because there were so many different variables and things that could come up. I am ready and I am getting close. I feel good. You saw me walk out here. I can do a lot of things I couldn't do weeks ago or even days ago that I am doing today.
"So it's hard to say I will be ready at this time or that time. I will be ready when it matters. I will be more than healthy and better than I was before."
A rather nice shot in the arm to hear.