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Contract by contract, the NFL’s free-agency pool has drained. Stars have changed addresses, depth charts have bolstered and division powerhouses have reinforced.
And the Dallas Cowboys – touting 22 straight seasons of maybe next year – haven’t been a part of any of it.
If there has been an eyebrow-raising oddity in this young NFL offseason, it’s this: One week into the league’s free-agent talent pageant, Dallas has been left as the only team in the league that hasn’t signed a single player. (No, they’re not getting credit for re-signing their own long snapper.)
Perhaps even worse, there’s a pressing reality that has to be gnawing at Cowboys fans right now. Not only has Dallas failed to add tangible assets to a roster in need of additions, the Cowboys haven’t been genuinely close to signing any first- or second-wave players. Beyond failed low-end pitches to the agents of wideouts Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, Dallas has once again slept through the first week of free agency.
In the case of a well-stocked roster with few holes, taking a slow roll during a period of historic overspending is prudent. But the Cowboys have problems. And they go beyond some of this month’s roster attrition, which has seen linebacker Anthony Hitchens sign with the Kansas City Chiefs and experienced (albeit perpetually injured) cornerback Orlando Scandrick land with the Washington Redskins. If 2018 wasn’t already a make-or-break season for this Dallas coaching staff, it will be after another idled offseason has put all the pressure on asset development.
The problem? It’s not simply that the Cowboys again lost more talent than they gained in free agency – they’re also seeing the rest of the NFC East attempt to address problems.
The Philadelphia Eagles suffered minor losses from a Super Bowl team, but buoyed themselves with long-term core extensions and two defensive line additions (Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata) that will keep them entrenched among the NFC elite. The New York Giants are beginning a micro-rebuild that could take a big long-term step with the drafting of a franchise quarterback with the second selection in the draft. Even the Washington Redskins have tried to put some lingering quarterback drama to bed, swapping out Kirk Cousins for a longer-term commitment from Alex Smith.
The rest of the NFC East shows tangible problems with meaningful attempts to find lasting solutions. Meanwhile it appears Dallas is hoping and wishing its pressing issues away.
Wishing wide receiver Dez Bryant would take a pay cut, while hoping the coaching staff can improve the scheme around quarterback Dak Prescott.
Wishing for more on-field production from an aging Jason Witten, while hoping the offensive line is healthy and properly aligned.
Wishing for multiple offensive starters in the next crop of rookies, while hoping the 2017 defensive draft class can take a big leap forward.
And running back Ezekiel Elliott … well … let’s just say the Cowboys are embracing a sustained combination of hoping and wishing. Not to mention plenty of praying.
For Cowboys fans, that’s a lot of unknowns to endure heading into a 2018 season where the championship window was already supposed to be wide open. It’s that kind of uncertainty that makes this franchise so hard to peg. Dallas could put it all together and snap its string of 22 seasons without a Super Bowl appearance. Or it could fall flat again and end the 2018 campaign by firing the entire coaching staff. Nothing is out of the question at this stage. This puts immense pressure on every move (or lack of move) this offseason.
For now, fans should understand that another year of lagging moves in free agency isn’t simply a matter of Dallas learning from the past contract mistakes of Cedric Thornton, Greg Hardy, Nolan Carroll, etc. It’s the culmination of decisions that have either backed the franchise into a corner, or are about to wreak havoc in coming years. The dead money lingering from Tony Romo’s contract has hurt. The (thus-far) overpriced extension of Tyrone Crawford has been a burden. Bryant’s play hasn’t lived up to his production since 2014.
If all of that isn’t enough, some added contract pressure is coming. The wide receiver depth chart will need investment. Prescott is on deck for an extension following the 2019 season. And in the more immediate future, guard Zack Martin is expected to sign a new deal that will make him the highest-paid guard in the NFL. That will leave the Cowboys with a sizable salary cap chunk invested into four offensive linemen – Martin, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Travis Frederick. That also doesn’t take into account the possibility that Smith could hold out for a reworked contract in the next few years, given that his $12.2 million average salary has fallen out of whack for the top offensive linemen in the NFL.
In an NFC East that is changing around them – and with the Eagles suddenly outpacing the Cowboys every offseason – there is no shortage of problems in Dallas. Both now and moving forward. That has played a major role in one of the league’s cornerstone franchises transforming into one of its most dormant in the month of March. And one of the most pressurized (even for Dallas) heading into next season.
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