FRISCO, Texas – We've put some distance between ourselves and the end of the Cowboys' season, so it's easier to look back with some perspective.
Of course, it was a year that ended in disappointing fashion. But ending the ending, there's plenty that can be learned from a journey that started all the way back in May.
This week, the staff of DallasCowboys.com is looking back at their picks for the biggest moments and contributions from the 2021 season – for better and for worse.
Today, we'll focus on the free-agent class of 2021. Unlike the 2020 season in which many of the big-named free agents turned out to be major disappointments, the Cowboys found some great players this year, on both sides of the ball and even special teams. On defense, the Cowboys landed safeties Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee, along with linebacker Keanu Neal and DT Carlos Watkins. The offensive line got some depth with Ty Nsekhe and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and the special teams added punter Bryan Anger and deep snapper Jake McQuaide.
Let's look at the staff picks for the best free-agent signing this past season.
Rob Phillips: Jayron Kearse. Not only was Kearse the most productive free agent signing this season, you can argue he was one of the best free agent signings in franchise history. On a one-year, $1.1 million deal, Kearse led the team in tackles and emerged as a leader on defense, relaying the pre-snap play calls from defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. He almost never came off the field and showed tremendous versatility, matching up against tight ends and playing down in the box in a three-safety, "big nickel" package. Credit Quinn for having a clear vision for Kearse's role. Credit Kearse for delivering a career season after being a part-time starter/core special teams player for five years in Minnesota and Detroit.
David Helman: Go ahead and find me one reporter or fan who was convinced Jayron Kearse was even going to make the team. Entering 2021, Kearse had started 12 NFL games across five seasons and had mainly been a situational contributor. His contract to join the Cowboys only guaranteed him $137,500 – which is nothing by NFL standards. It wouldn't have surprised anyone to see him lose a roster spot to a younger, cheaper option. Instead, we all know what happened next. In the decade I've covered this team, I think Kearse might be their best-ever free agent acquisition, bringing production, versatility and attitude to this defense. The only downside to such a cool story is he played well enough that keeping him in Dallas might be a tough task.
Nick Eatman: It's hard to pick just one. Kearse was so amazing because he not only came out of left field, but he played nearly every snap on defense. And with that, he also brought some much-needed attitude and toughness to the team. But let's not forget Bryan Anger. I for one, didn't understand why the Cowboys needed to do this move. I thought Hunter Niswander would be just fine. And he probably would've been. Anger was just awesome and set Cowboys records along the way and he's now going to the Pro Bowl.