Training Camp | 2020

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Spagnola: This Everson Really Rocks The Roster

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​FRISCO, Texas – You guys know me, always leery of signing free agents, and especially skeptical of signing successful veteran players their teams allow to even reach free agency.

And know by now you're probably sick of me saying, if these guys are so good why did (insert team) allow him to reach free agency?

​Sure there are exceptions to my self-imposed rule. Contract and salary-cap ramifications. Disgruntled player with his situation just won't re-sign.

​So when the Cowboys signed 32-year-old Everson Griffen, a four-time Pro Bowler with the Minnesota Vikings for but a one-year, as much as a quite modest $6 million deal, my antennas went up.

Come on, this guy, despite in his 10th season, was a 2019 Pro Bowler. And that was not a blue moon. Griffen earned Pro Bowl honors in four of the past five seasons. Plus, he did not earn that Pro Bowl honor on just his name. Registered in 2019 eight sacks, 41 tackles, 11 for losses and 24 QB hits. A most respectful slash line. On top of that, a six-time team captain.

Hmmmm. Something fishy.

Then I found this on Griffen's 2019 season:

"Maybe as good as I've seen him play since he's been here."

That from Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

And then this, too, from Zimmer:

"I'd love to have him back."

Now look, I know Mike Zimmer. We first met back in 1979 in Columbia Mo., he a grad assistant coach at the University of Missouri, me covering the Tigers for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Then we both end up in Dallas, Mike coming aboard as first a defensive assistant, then secondary coach and finally defensive coordinator from 1994-2006.

Zimm has always been a straight shooter. He doesn't mince words. He has no clue what politically correct means. He doesn't say stuff just to be saying stuff. Or to be, well, nice. Look up what he had to say about Bobby Petrino, who hired Zimm as his defensive coordinator in 2007, only to walk out on the Falcons and his staff with a 3-10 record to become head coach at University of Arkansas, leaving his first-year staff and team in a lurch. In football, that's a huge no-no.

Hey, if Everson Griffen, who doesn't turn 33 until three days before Christmas, is good enough for Zimm, he's good enough for me.

So when seeing what Zimm had to say about Griffen, it was like, now how in the world did another one of these moonbeams land in the Cowboys' lap, just as Andy Dalton did to become the backup quarterback with nine years of starting experience; just as Aldon Smith did once reinstated from indefinite NFL suspension after not playing since Nov. 15 of the 2015 season.

Heck, just as CeeDee Lamb did in the draft, the Oklahoma receiver some considered the best one in the 2020 draft lasting until the Cowboys selected 17th in the first round. And to think he was the third receiver taken.

And for sure, just as Mike McCarthy did as the Cowboys' ninth head coach in their 60-year history after his successful 13-year run in Green Bay expired the final month of the 2018 seasonjust happening to be available.

While asking around, the Cowboys simply shrug, not wanting to look a gift horse in the face, as the saying goes, when someone like me comes wondering how in the world did Griffen end up signing with them.

But as you might suspect, Griffen had a common relationship to lean on, one with now Cowboys senior defensive assistant George Edwards, who is back for his second tour of duty on the team's coaching staff. See, Edwards was the Vikings' defensive coordinator from 2014-19, coinciding with Griffen's emergence as a premier NFL defensive end, becoming a fulltime starter for the first time in his fifth NFL season and then a first-time Pro Bowler in 2015, an honor stretching forward for three consecutive years.

When asked if that Edwards connection might have led to his signing with the Cowboys, Griffen's face lit up with this huge smile. Huge, now.

"I love George, man," Griffen said. "George Edwards, he's a very good coach. I been knowing him ever since I got in the league when I was drafted, I took my first (Top 30) trip in Buffalo when I was drafted, remember George Edwards (Bills defensive coordinator 2010-11)."

Who would have realized this connection goes all the way back a decade.

"We talked a lot," Griffen admitted. "He was a decision-maker for me . . . when he told me this is the place you want to be. But the biggest thing is McCarthy's philosophy. His philosophy is work hard during the week and he's going to take care of you. So, with this schedule and what we got going here, if players are really honing in on going out there and giving it all you got, because he's going to take care of you, I think we're gonna make some big hay this year."

Then it was, well, these were simply the Cowboys, his favorite team growing up, an inherited liking from his uncle and dad, who liked the Cowboys so much named his son after former Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls.

So many snowballing of coincidences. Griffen first deciding he wanted out of Minnesota, to the point of voiding out the final three years of his Vikings contract for the right to become a free agent in 2020, to his relationship with Edwards, to being familiar with McCarthy since he had played against the Packers twice a year during his 10 years with Minnesota.

To me, this Griffen signing is huge – the best free-agent signing of the offseason. Yes, better than that of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, better than McCoy or Dontari Poe, better than Daryl Worley or Greg Zuerlein. His current quality is right up there with the signing of Dalton.

And on the need-omometer, a most critical signing. Remember, at the right defensive end spot the Cowboys were wax paper thin after the free-agent loss of last year's sack leader Robert Quinn. Sure, Smith is a talent, but again, he hasn't played a down of NFL football over the past four seasons. If you want inactivity in months, by time Sept. 13 rolls around, it will have been a 58-month stretch.

Guess on an at-need basis, Tyrone Crawford could have slid out there to defensive end, but remember, he's coming back from dual hip surgeries that short-circuited last season. Plus, with the already season-ending injury to McCoy and his release, Crawford likely will be needed inside at defensive tackle.

Then there is last year's fifth-round pick Joe Jackson, playing all of 72 defensive snaps last year. Last year's seventh-round pick Jalen Jelks has already been released. And really, the only other guy over there of note since Dorance Armstrong is considered a backup behind Lawrence, is Bradlee Anae, but a raw rookie and fifth-rounder at that.

Yeah, talk about a need, and a grave one at that.

And the McCarthy coincidence is a two-way affair, the head coach certainly knowing the quality of player he had to deal with to protect Aaron Rodgers when playing the Vikings.

"He was always the primary focus for us offensively, going up against him," McCarthy said of dealing with Griffen twice a year. "He's a relentless player. He brings it every down, has great passion for the game . . . I think he's going to be a great fit for our football team."

So does defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

"Any time you get a veteran who carries himself as a pro and preparation and everything, it helps our youngers players," Nolan said, cognizant of losing that quality with the loss of McCoy. "You get more out of it than just his individual play, how he rubs off on the younger guys.

"His play speaks for itself. He's been very productive and a very good NFL player."

Dak understands Griffen's value, too.

"I was so excited we were able to sign him and make that addition to our team and addition to our defense," Dak says. "Nothing but positive thoughts."

Especially come Nov. 22 since Griffen won't be chasing him down again when the Cowboys face the Vikings, as he did this past season, registering five tackles, half-sack and four QB hits in that 28-24 Vikings victory over the Cowboys.

Well, after hearing all that about Griffen, sure glad they all agree with me.

Darn quality signing.

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