IRVING, Texas – At 3 p.m. last Wednesday, 496 NFL players officially became free agents. The Cowboys were never expected to dive into the market with both feet. That's happened exactly twice this century – 2005 and 2012.
Instead, the organization did what it normally does: let the first wave pass. The second wave is here, and you can expect them to keep fishing patiently.
Whether or not you like their approach to the NFL's signing period, a few things became clear last week:
The Cowboys had too many needs to spend big on a single free agent. Yes, the salary cap is back in good shape with very little dead money. Yes, the team has created roughly an extra $14 million in space by reworking the contracts of Tyrone Crawford and Tyron Smith. But it never seemed realistic they would spend tens of millions in guaranteed money on one free agent. Look, they entered the offseason with 18 unrestricted free agents at 10 different positions. Eleven of those 18 players started games or played a significant number of snaps. And, the team must reserve a few million for their draft class. (The pick total increased to nine last week with the announcement of four compensatory selections.) If you're going to field a balanced roster, that cap space must be spread around. In the first two days of free agency the team struck deals with seven players at five different positions, all at reasonable prices. Remember, they've got a couple Pro Bowlers, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, who will command contract extensions in the coming years.
The Cowboys feel better about their individual players than their collective final record.Finishing 4-12 is as disappointing a team with Super Bowl aspirations could possibly imagine. Even with injuries to key players, the Cowboys admittedly didn't perform well enough in close games, losing six of eight that were decided by a touchdown or less. However, the team showed last week they still have confidence in a lot of their core guys. Six of those 18 free agents are already back, including two starters (Rolando McClain, Mo Claiborne) and two key role players (Kyle Wilber, James Hanna). McClain and Claiborne had their best seasons as Cowboys in 2015, and on cap-friendly one-year deals, they help fortify positions without preventing the team from drafting the best players available. Wilber tied for the special teams tackle lead and can play multiple linebacker spots; Hanna is an underrated asset to the running game.
The returning players seem to trust the team's direction. It's telling that the above-mentioned free agents chose to re-sign quickly. Clearly they don't expect another season like 2015 and are motivated to prove the 2014 division title was no aberration. That's a positive reflection of Jason Garrett's program, despite the frustration of 4-12. Claiborne is a good example. Many thought he would look for a fresh start after struggling with injuries amid expectations of a sixth overall pick. Turns out he felt comfortable coming back after having his most confident and productive season as a pro.[embeddedad0]
There's still work to be done.All that said, the Cowboys know they can't field the same exact team with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick healthy and just expect to transform 4-12 into the 12-4 performance from two years ago. Cedric Thornton, their only outside free agent signing so far, has the talent to boost the middle of their defensive line, primarily as a sturdy run stopper. It was a nice addition for a reported $6 million guaranteed. It's no secret that the Cowboys also need pass rushers; and that they would like to create competition at backup quarterback; and that they need another running back to pair with Darren McFadden; and that they could probably use another cover guy in the secondary. All will likely be addressed through free agency and the draft. Last week was a solid, not splashy, start. By no means should they be finished yet.