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This past Wednesday was free agency’s two-week birthday. The official window now squeaks when moved and there’s been a substantial level of activity at The Star in Frisco with eight external signings, as well as around the league. The Dallas Cowboys were extremely focused on the defensive side of the ball in the early throes, as they should be. The club made a handful of transactions during the tampering period, and then systematically went about addressing individual positions over the following days.
The team has filled holes with both replacement-level players and players with some upside. It’s not the haul most fans crave, but in typical Stephen Jones fashion, it opens up the team’s ability to maneuver through draft weekend without feeling obligated to take one position or another. Fans shouldn’t get this statement wrong. Things are not ideal at several positions, most notably the three biggest needs of the team; cornerback, safety and to a lesser degree defensive tackle. Upgrades can still be made, still need to be made. But there is a starting lineup carved out based on the additions that have been made.
How well did Dallas do in each of those decisions? What about for the players who were with the club but have been allowed to go someplace else? Here’s a look at each transaction, the financial details of each and how well Dallas did in their strategy.
Contract details are all from the incomparable Over The Cap unless otherwise noted.
Re-signing QB Dak Prescott: A+
(AP Photo/LM Otero)
Maximum Contract: 4 years, $160 million - $164 million 2021 Base Salary: $9 million 2021 Cap Hit: $22.2 million A lot of people hemmed and hawed about Dallas' failure to ink Prescott, but did the club lose as badly as everyone thinks? Back in 2018 and again in early 2019, I suggested Dallas pay Prescott an average of $29 million a year. His average salary in the new deal is $40 million a year. But when looking at how much they "saved" over 2019 and 2020, the five-year window of those seasons and the three (of four) guaranteed years of the new deal, the average is under $31.88 million. Dallas lost, but it's not quite as catastrophic a loss as everyone thinks. Also, the money not being spent until 2021 was likely drawing a hefty amount of interest not to mention being used to invest, so that $15 million on the cap is mitigating even more when it comes to actual cash. On the field, this is a no brainer. Prescott back makes the Cowboys NFC East favorites again. The rest of the team makeup will have to prove its worth as Super Bowl contenders.
Re-signing CB Jourdan Lewis: B-
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 3-year, $13.5 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.25 million 2021 Cap Hit: $2.65 million Lewis is a solid enough short-term investment with immediate cap savings after the first year. The move allows someone with a veteran presence with a dedicated skill set. There's hope for improvement in coverage, but Lewis is an absolute terror as a cornerback around the line of scrimmage. He finished second to edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence in plays made behind the line.
Signing DT Carlos Watkins: C-
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.75 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.1 million 2021 Cap Hit: $1.75 million Hopefully Watkins proves to be better than what the film shows. He has capabilities but doesn't seem to be anything but a JAG (just another guy). It should not surprise to see him end up being a place holder, released during training camp, but maybe he could surprise. In 542 snaps for the Texans defense last year, Pro Football Focus gave him a 46.6 grade out of 100. He's 28 and stands 6-foot-3, weighing 297 pounds and will likely be an interior defender.
Signing DL Brent Urban: A-
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.75 million2021 Base Salary: $1.25 million2021 Cap Hit: $1.75 million At 6-foot-7, 300 pounds Urban is a towering player who will greatly improve Dallas' run defense. That was their biggest weakness last season and the 30-year old will be able to help in that regard for a cheap price. He had one of the league's best run grades in 2020 at 83.7, with an overall 76.5 grade over 391 defensive snaps for Chicago.
Signing Edge/LEO Tarell Basham: B+
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 2-year, $5.5 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.25 million 2021 Cap Hit: $2.5 million Basham is an extremely solid addition at 27, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 269 pounds. He is a perfect rotational compliment for Tank Lawrence as a base end who is good as stopping the run and can occasionally generate some pressure. He will compete with Dorance Armstrong for snaps and is likely insurance in case the new staff can't figure out how 2020 fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae can help the rotation, either.
Bringing back ST DB CJ Goodwin: A
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Maximum Contract: 2-year, $3.5 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.2 million 2021 Cap Hit: $1.6 million Goodwin's importance grew with the hiring of trick-play ST coach John Fassel. It grew when he showed he was capable of having a role on defense when he was asked to play spy on Jalen Hurts and shut down the Eagles rookie after two consecutive scintillating performances to start his career. This kind of depth is key to having a winning team, though it doesn't make headlines.
Signing OT Ty Nsekhe: A-
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.75 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.25 million 2021 Cap Hit: $1.75 million Nsekhe rounds out the depth at OT with a solid veteran presence who has shown capable of quality performance when asked to step in. He prevents Dallas from being married to any of the young tackles, and depending on the size of the deal doesn't stand in the way of any of them surpassing him in training camp
Signing Keanu Neal: B
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Maximum Contract: 1-year, $4 million 2021 Base Salary: $1 million 2021 Cap Hit: $2 million Neal's deal includes $3 million in signing bonus but with that hit spread over two seasons thanks to void years. Still, it means the team isn't moving on from him at all, which is fine. Him being used as a linebacker makes sense, and for this type of money he's an upgrade from say Joe Thomas. As long as the belief is he's first a LB and not a safety. It's unknown whether the 2020 version of him was the "first year back" from major leg injuries version or the "this is who he is moving forward" version. A big hitter, Neal made very few impact plays in 2020 and was a liability in coverage. As a linebacker, if he can regain some of what he was in 2016 and 2017, this could be a home-run signing with the problems Dallas has had getting quality versions of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch on the field.
Not bringing back Chidobe Awuzie: B
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Maximum Contract: 3-year, $21.5 million 2021 Base Salary: $1.35 million 2021 Cap Hit: $6.05 million Awuzie never ascended to what Dallas needed him to be as a second-round pick. A team just can't award a second contract to a player who is still about potential and although he signed for CB2 money in Cincinnati, it wasn't a deal the Cowboys should've made. More power to Awuzie who in getting a fresh start with another set of coaches, could thrive. Awuzie is currently in the comp pick ledger as a fifth-round pick.
Not bringing back QB Andy Dalton: A+
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $10 million 2021 Base Salary: $2.5 million 2021 Cap Hit: $5 million Absolute no brainer. Dalton signed a one-year deal to backup Dak Prescott and got the perfect opportunity to show what he could do outside Cincinnati. At first, it was no good, but a late season run into contention for the floppy NFC East gave Dalton a chance to showcase what he could do when comfortable and the Bears and Matt Nagy wanted some. $10 million puts Dalton in the comp pick formula as a fourth-round possibility. That's a win.
Losing Cam Erving to Panther: A+
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 2-years, $10 million 2021 Base Salary: $990,000 2021 Cap Hit: $2.24 million So, the Cowboys signed Erving for $2.5 million last year. He didn't get much offseason work in, lost the swing tackle job to Terrence Steele, a UDFA from Texas Tech, went on IR twice and only starting five games. And he signs a deal for $5 million a year average and will qualify for the comp pick formula at a sixth-round level (currently cancelled out)? Win.
Retaining WR Noah Brown: B
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $988k 2021 Base Salary: $990k 2021 Cap Hit: $988k It took a while for Brown to find a role, but as WR5 he is a quality retention. A great blocker who shows the ability to get open for a big play when the defense isn't paying attention to him, he's a perfect role player. If someone else emerges in camp, the loss of only $137k in signing bonus is sneezable.
RFA Tender Decisions: A
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Cowboys retained two players worth $2 million a year in DT Antwaun Woods and WR Cedrick Wilson and let go free two players who weren't worth $2 million a year in WR Malik Turner and OT Greg Senat. No brainers here. Woods has been a starter for three years at nose tackle. Wilson is the offense's and special teams gadget guy. Neither contract is guaranteed so if the club ends up stacked at the position they retain ultimate flexibility.
Re-signing WR Malik Turner: A
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $920k2021 Base Salary: $920k2021 Cap Hit: $920k Turner was an RFA the club didn't tender, bringing him back on a much lesser amount. He'll cost them nothing to release if he doesn't make the club. Last season's addition played in six games as a special teams contributor.
Letting LB Joe Thomas walk: B
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.5 million 2021 Base Salary: $1 million 2021 Cap Hit: $1.5 million Thomas played in Dallas for three seasons, but he isn't a major loss to the team on the field. Jaylon Smith's play last season really took a turn for the worse whenever Thomas was paired with him, so an upgrade should be relatively easy to find.
Not bringing back LS L.P. Ladouceur : C
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Currently unsigned After 16 seasons, the long snapper extraordinaire is no longer going to wear the star. There had been rumblings a separation could occur, and now it has been confirmed. He is a standout player and an even better person from all accounts.
Bringing in LS Jake McQuaide: A
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 2021 Base Salary: 2021 Cap Hit: If a team is going to replace a 16-year vet with a Pro Bowl under his belt, bringing in a two-time Pro Bowler in 10 seasons is the way to go. Familiarity with ST coach John Fassel clearly a reason here. Also: Subscribe to Catch This Fade on Patreon. https://twitter.com/KDDrummondNFL/status/1375660951857401857
4 Team Releases: C Marcus Henry, TE Cole Hikutini, WR Jon'Vea Johnson, WR Chris Lacy
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade) None of these guys move the needle much and are just lopped off the ledger. No cap implications because they weren't Top 51 guys.
Signing Damontae Kazee: B
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.1 million 2021 Base Salary: $990k 2021 Cap Hit: $990k Signing Kazee has no significant risk based on the amount of the contract. It's a deal with glorious upside, but the issue is that he's recovering from a Week 5 achilles injury and him being the ball-hawk he was prior is certainly in question for Year 1. For him to be the only free agency solution at the safety position is concerning, as despite lining up there in the second half of 2020, Donovan Wilson should be the team's box safety in the Quinn defense. Kazee's 10 interceptions over two seasons is certainly worth the low-cost gamble, it just shouldn't be the only solution the Cowboys give themselves. Read more here about the bargain-bin shopping of the Cowboys.
Signing ST/Safety Jayron Kearse: C+
Maximum Contract: 1-year, $1.2 million2021 Base Salary: $990k2021 Cap Hit: $990k A special teams guy who actually started several games down the stretch of 2020 for the Detroit Lions. Kearse is a huge dude physically and perhaps he'll be able to carve out a role in certain situations for the defense as a third safety.
Losing safety Xavier Woods: B
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Maximum Contract: 1-year, either $1.75M or $2.25M 2021 Base Salary: 2021 Cap Hit: Woods' total contract is being reported by CBS Sports to be for $2.25 million and Spotrac at $1.75 million. The former puts him in the comp pick formula, the later does not so the difference could mean a fifth-round pick to Dallas because of cancellations. As a player, Woods had one of the roughest years of any Cowboys defender, but prior he was seen as an ascending player. Admitting he doesn't go full out in a down year is not the look that endears one to coaches or teammates, so his exodus was seen as a virtual certainty.
Overall Free Agency Grade (Thus Far): C+
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The whole is less than the sum of the parts in this case. Dallas' moves have all been fairly wise additions for low costs and little long-term investments. However they've failed to take any risks, which is somewhat imperative when trying to bounce back, and instead are putting all of their eggs in the 2020-mulligan basket. Injuries were ridiculous, the ask of revamping the defense during a pandemic was too much too soon. Still, not taking advantage of the opportunity to add any premiere talent is questionable as NFL rosters age every year. The additions they made, the ones that matter most (Neal, Kazee) are injury question marks. Things could have been worse, but it's a dangerous gamble Dallas is making to maintain the status quo while the rest of the league actively fought to improve themselves. On the bright side, if Dallas doesn't make any additional moves of significance before the comp pick formula window closes, they appear to be in line to get a fourth for Dalton and a fifth for Awuzie. The team should rather have better players right now, but that's a decent consolation prize.