Cowboys will again have to acquire quality free agents at low prices
The Dallas Cowboys had one of the strongest low-cost free agency offseasons last year. It was business as usual for executive vice president and director of player personnel Stephen Jones, as he did what he always did in free agency, which was to seek out viable contributors at a bargain price.
The crop of new free agents offered nothing exciting as many of the players signed were either reserve type players or veterans who were once coveted to fall out of favor. But in true Cowboys style, the search continued for guys who could fill the gaps on the roster while providing a bit of an edge if the stars aligned properly. Luckily, the team actually built a nice group of outside free agents, with a strong contribution from the defensive end. In fact, if you look at the top 13 players by playing time, eight of them were players who weren’t in the squad the previous year.
And of those eight, six of them were outside free agents. See how much game time the defense got at an incredibly low cost (cap figures courtesy of spotrac.com).
The Cowboys have relied on the contributions of a large number of players, but having so many low-cost free agents stepping in and helping improve the defense is pretty impressive. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest defensive free agent contributors from the past year.
At camp, he was just another guy. A new face yes, but it was a safety who spent his entire five-year career in a reserve role. Little did we know Kearse would start more NFL games for the Cowboys last season than he did in the previous five seasons combined. He offered skill in both playing near the line of scrimmage and in coverage. He finished the year leading the Cowboys in tackles with 101 tackles, including nine for a loss. He also had two interceptions. It’s been a fantastic year for Kearse to the point that retaining him would be a great asset to this defense; however, after such a stellar year, the cost of doing business will increase.
Like Kearse, the Cowboys signed another veteran safety for less than a million. But unlike Kearse, expectations were a bit higher for Kazee. Former Dan Quinn player with the Atlanta Falcons, the team was hoping to spice up their covering ability by acquiring a safety who had already made seven interceptions in 2018. Unfortunately, Kazee’s stock began to dwindle and hit a low point. after tearing his Achilles in October of the 2020 season. The Cowboys pounced on a discounted player and secured a 17-game contribution from him. Kazee was solid in the secondary and finished with two picks. He would probably be more appreciated if he hadn’t been surpassed by his teammate Kearse.
Defensive end Basham was the team’s most expensive free agent investment, as the team paid a bit more to shore up the depth of the rush. Although he was never a permanent starter, Basham carved out a nice rotational role with the New York Jets. He played in all 16 games in each of the previous two seasons with New York. Despite a crowded house in Dallas at times, Basham has been active in every game this season and managed to earn a few reps along the defensive line. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks, tying the career high he had the previous season. Unlike many other outside free agents, Basham signed a two-year contract, which means the Cowboys still have a year of player control.
Neal was the second former Falcons safety Quinn brought with him to Dallas. And like Kazee, Neal came with injury risks as the Pro Bowler suffered a torn Achilles in 2018 followed by a knee injury in 2019. He was healthy in his final season in Atlanta, but we feared he wasn’t the same player he once was. The Cowboys signed Neal with plans to convert him to linebacker, which came in handy after the team released Jaylon Smith and used rookie Micah Parsons extensively as a rusher. Neal did well in his first year as a linebacker, playing 14 games for the Cowboys and finishing with 72 tackles.
Fans were thrilled when the team signed a proper cover safety in Hooker, though expectations were heavily tempered. No one expected the veteran to return to a level that saw him selected 15th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but any help fending off passes in the secondary would be welcomed by a team lacking in skill. been helping for some time. Strangely, Hooker had a quiet season splitting playing time with the other two free agent safeties. He played well enough to continue gaining reps and showed no lingering effects from the Achilles tear he suffered in 2020 which caused him to miss all but two games.
After spending four years with the Houston Texans, Watkins joined a crowded defensive tackle roster that had plenty of strong candidates, but no real star. Watkins wasted no time finding a spot along the inside defensive line and it only got bigger after another outside free agent, DT Brent Urban, succumbed to an injury. Watkins played well for the Cowboys and even became a member of the defensive touchdown club when he caught a pass from Taysom Hill and took it home.
Cowboys DT Carlos Watkins: “It’s definitely an early Christmas present. It’s every big guy’s dream to have a pick and get to the end zone.” pic.twitter.com/wEpgcnLctT
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) December 3, 2021
The Cowboys front office has done a masterful job of finding key players in low-cost free agency. With a sharp player personnel department and another year of influence from Quinn finding what he’s looking for in defensemen, it’s very possible the Cowboys are going through another good group of outside signings. Granted, they’re not likely to hit like they did last year, but with the improvements shown by many of their other young players, they won’t have to.