Business is rapidly picking up for the Dallas Cowboys amid the second week of official NFL free agency. Having spent the majority of the first week focused on their in-house talent, they've since spread their wings and flown into the backyard of other clubs with the hopes of stealing away impact talent. That led to their winning out in the race to land safety Keanu Neal, but they're not done there, not that it was their first outside acquisition -- though it was by far their most notable. Dallas was set to visit with safeties Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker no later than Wednesday, sources told CBS Sports, with money and medical concerns to take center stage in the coming discussions.
On Thursday, they added Kazee to the roster, further driving home their newfound commitment to the position.
Things are beginning to take shape for the Cowboys as they ramp up free agency activity ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, set for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, and they've done just enough thus far to give us an opportunity to begin grading their moves. And, with that, let's dive right into it -- keeping in mind things will look much better for them if they agree to terms with both or either of the free safeties walking into their building this week.
[Note: This will be updated as more moves materialize.]
Dak Prescott, QB
It's been lost in the frenzy of the first week of free agency, but let's be clear on how securing Prescott to a four-year, $160 million deal is not only the biggest signing by far in Dallas, it's the biggest in the entire NFL this offseason. It might not feel that way because the team was going to keep him in uniform this season by hook or by crook, namely by using a second franchise tag, but the fact is the two-time Pro Bowler was otherwise an unrestricted free agent. And not only would the tag have created a spike in speculation regarding the future of Prescott in Dallas beyond 2021, it also would've charged the Cowboys debit card for a hefty $37.7 million and forced them into dire straits salary-cap wise, leaving them hamstrung for the remainder of free agency -- likely forcing not only restructures across the board, but possibly an uncomfortable release or two.
Instead, he'll hit the 2021 cap for only $22.2 million, and the Cowboys sidestep an overall catastrophe in the process.
Keanu Neal, DB
And with the cap relief provided by Prescott's deal, the Cowboys are now beginning to pick up steam after a slow start to outside free agency -- having spent the first two waves focused on retaining key in-house talent. As the club works to revamp its defense in Dan Quinn's inaugural season, the question of if the Cowboys would finally begin placing a premium value on the safety position is being answered in spades. They were able to woo Neal away from the Jets -- the other team in his final two -- on a one-year deal worth $5 million, and there's a reason they awarded him that deal and not former Vikings turned Eagles safety Anthony Harris, as sources explained to CBS Sports. It's because Neal will be used in a flex capacity, fluctuating between weakside linebacker and safety as needed, which left the door open for the Cowboys to add either Damontae Kazee or Malik Hooker, with Kazee getting the nod and joining the mix one week later.
You have to love what the Cowboys are cooking, assuming Neal and Co. can remain healthy.
Damontae Kazee, DB
Well well, what do we have here? A commitment to improving at safety? Sure looks like it, and the Cowboys can thank Dan Quinn for how this outlook turns out in the end. For be it Neal, Kazee and/or a top-flight safety in the draft that ultimately complements Donovan Wilson for the long-term, or someone else, the fact is there hasn't been elite safety play in North Texas for a long time -- Wilson's breakout 2020 season notwithstanding -- it's bound to work out better than simply throwing bargain bin players at the position and hoping for the best. Kazee is coming off of a season-ending torn Achilles, yes, hence the one-year, prove-it deal; but he could impact games this season once he's fully healthy. He reeled in seven interceptions in 2018, a year where the Cowboys grabbed nine as a team, and can flex to the nickel as depth behind a re-signed Jourdan Lewis, adding to his value much in the same way Neal's increased by being willing to take on linebackers snaps in addition to his safety duties.
Of course they're both gambles for the Cowboys, but they're also proven game-changers who need only remain on the field.
Jourdan Lewis, CB
This is arguably the biggest retention in Dallas of a player not named Prescott. Lewis had an uneven season in 2020, but so did most in the abbreviated Mike Nolan regime. For the most part, however, Lewis has been one of the team's few defensive ballhawks and has shown an ability to not only be a physical nickel corner, but also one you can add to pass rush packages without the opposing offense having a clue as to what's happening. With Anthony Brown again battling injury last season, Lewis saw a hefty amount of playing time and his three-year deal -- worth up to $16.5 million -- hints strongly at him potentially remaining starter this coming season and, at worst, puts an eye or two on the fact releasing Brown would garner the Cowboys roughly $4 million in savings this summer.
They could keep a capable Brown around for insurance at the position, but it's clear Lewis is in the long-term plans, and that's the smart move by Quinn and head coach Mike McCarthy, after seeing Lewis mostly shelved in his first couple of seasons due to size concerns that never showed themselves when he took the field.
C.J. Goodwin, CB
No, Goodwin isn't a defensive playmaker, so why the high grade? It's because I pay attention to what he does on special teams, and you should as well. Goodwin has emerged as the premier special teams ace for the Cowboys over the past two seasons, and was key in helping John "Bones" Fassel flip the team from the worst in the league to one that was precipitously better -- in one season flat. He remains with the team on a two-year, $3.5 million deal that'll lock him in through the 2022 season, and the special teams unit will continue to improve because of it. So, no, it's not a high grade because he's supposedly a world-beater on defense. It's because he's a world-beater in the role he needs to be for the Cowboys.
Cedrick Wilson, WR
Making Prescott a happy man financially was only one part of the equation. The other was/is to keep his slew of weapons in the armoire going forward, and Wilson proved himself worthy of a new deal after the club saw him have a breakout season in 2020 -- when Prescott was under center. They'd like to order more of that, please and thank you, with a side of what he can do on special teams when he makes the right decision. Wilson entered the offseason as a restricted free agent, and the Cowboys placed an original round tender on him. This means the former sixth-rounder will likely stay put in Dallas with a $2.133 million salary in 2021.
Antwaun Woods, DL
Woods' absence in 2020 due to injury was felt in a big way in the team's continued struggle to stop the run, and his return reasserted his role as starting nose tackle after a dismal experiment with Dontari Poe. Having now been issued the Right of First Refusal tender by the club, the Cowboys can match any offer he receives from another team to keep him onboard or let him walk with no compensation received in return. If he's on the roster this year, he'll earn a minimum of $2.133 million in salary, but he's looking for a boost in that category and the Cowboys are adding bodies on the interior line to go with Neville Gallimore and a returning Trysten Hill -- two young players they're very high on. Losing Woods might not hurt as much this time around with Brent Urban in the mix, but having him around (likely) only makes them better at a key position of need.
Brent Urban, DL
This is a sneaky good signing for the Cowboys. Urban was beloved by Bears fans after doing good work for them as a run stopper, and the Cowboys could surely use his services in that department. He heads to Dallas on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million having been rated the third-best run defender in the entire NFL in 2020, and is expected to hit the ground running -- pun intended -- to prove his worth for a potential re-up one year from now. Urban was active for all 16 regular-season games in Chicago last season, and started in eight of them, adding 2.5 sacks and 36 combined tackles to his prowess as a brick wall run stopper. Sure, the Cowboys could've gotten a bigger name instead of Urban, but this is one hell of a consolation prize.
A big-bodied, blue-collar player with ability who likes hitting things is never a bad thing.
Ty Nsekhe, OT
After seeing their offensive line become a turnstile due to the losses of both Tyron Smith and La'El Collins at the edges, Nsekhe gets a nod. Cameron Erving was signed last year to provide aid in such an event, but his play was wildly inconsistent and he ultimately ended up on injured reserve himself -- his season ending prematurely. With Erving now gone on a two-year deal to the Panthers, not that the Cowboys had much interest in seeing him return, they turned their attention to Buffalo and signed Nsekhe as the replacement swing tackle, now tasked with playing alongside Brandon Knight in that role on the depth chart.
Nsekhe is an exceptionally athletic addition, and should shore up things behind two starters returning from season-ending injuries.
Ron'Dell Carter, DL
This one is tough to grade because there's not much to go on at the NFL level, but that's in no way due to Carter lacking any sort of talent. The former James Madison superstar has the ability to flex between 3-tech and 5-tech as needed, but Nolan and Jim Tomsula -- the 2020 defensive line coach fired this offseason -- chose to not unleash him to find out what they have or don't have there. Carter mostly suffered the same fate as Bradlee Anae, and despite the Cowboys having to outbid 24 teams to acquire him in undrafted free agency. He was also protected several times by Dallas on their practice squad and the moment he wasn't, he was poached by the Indianapolis Colts.
He returned to the Cowboys and has now signed his ERFA tender, hoping to add firepower to the needy interior line so, until further notice, this is definitely a solid keep with a high upside.
Tarell Basham, DL
On its face, this move is fragrant of a willingness to move on from Aldon Smith in 2021. The team still has some interest in keeping Smith onboard, but there are a lot of variables that would need to be worked through for that to happen. Enter Basham, who joins the team having produced at a rate parallel to Smith, outpacing him in a category or two, had he been awarded the same number of starts with the Jets as Smith landed with the Cowboys. Randy Gregory will likely be the starter opposite DeMarcus Lawrence in 2021, and Anae will possibly get a fair shake behind him, and this all adds up to a capable Basham being a better fit -- unless Smith wants to take less money to play less time.
At worst, this signing is a wise insurance plan to ensure the pass rush doesn't take a step back and, at best, more more more.
Jake McQuaide, LS
How does one climb out of the shadow of a legend? And with only one year to prove he's worthy of having been giving the chance to do so? Those are questions McQuaide will need to locate the answers to, and fairly quickly. Be not mistaken, the three-time Pro Bowler is no slouch at long snapper, but he's also not the literal perfection enjoyed by the Cowboys in their 16 seasons with Canadian legend L.P. Ladouceur. Considering Ladouceur hadn't made a decision on if he'd retire or not prior to Dallas deciding to move on -- Fassel again rubber stamping his control over the special teams unit -- the call was both unexpected and thrust McQuaide into the frying pan. You won't see a long snapper critiqued the way he will be in 2021, and on a one-year deal wherein he works to try and earn a second contract. There's pressure, and then there's what he's about to experience under the white-hot lights in Dallas.
The move lands an average grade not because of any lack of ability, but because the team created a need to fill said need.
Jayron Kearse, S
It's not Neal, nor is it Kazee or Hooker, but it matters for the Cowboys. This is because while they also need another headliner to join Neal and Donovan Wilson in the safety unit, they'll also need depth at the position. That's what they're hoping Kearse can provide for them, along with another talented body on special teams, but on a one-year deal. Additionally, in a pinch, he brings an ability to enter as starter, having logged seven starts for the Detroit Lions in 2020. This is as much a signing for Fassel as it is for Quinn, and the Cowboys like that very much. The team is still working on deciding what happens next with Kazee and/or Hooker, but they wasted no time signing Kearse after making him a last-minute add to the visit list in the second official week of NFL free agency. And what's more is how Kearse doesn't change their draft strategy whatsoever.
For now, let's grade this a C, though, because he couldn't stick in a poor Lions secondary -- film now needed of him under Quinn.
Noah Brown, WR
At one point, Brown was the owner of a fairly rabid hive of supporters in Cowboys fandom, but injury halted his progress in a major way going into the 2020 season. He returned and stuck around for the full ride last season, though, active for all 16 regular-season games. That's all the Cowboys needed to see to give him a chance to stick around and continue building with Prescott as WR5, awarding him a one-year, prove-it deal for 2021. That's exactly what he'll need to do over the next several months, considering he'll soon see competition for his spot by way of undrafted free agency and some residual free agent signings that will inevitably create intense competition for his spot in training camp.
Nothing is guaranteed for Brown, who definitely has the ability but also had several back-breaking plays/drops when targeted last season.
Carlos Watkins, DL
Speaking of having something to prove, Watkins must do the same. He'll enter camp as the second former Houston Texans defensive lineman to join the Cowboys in a matter of months -- the team having traded for Eli Ankou in October 2020. The latter performed poorly for the most part, but Watkins is hoping for better luck. His one-year deal doesn't give him a lot of time to impress Quinn and Co., but he does enter the mix with 18 NFL starts under his belt, and was once awarded First-Team All ACC honors at Clemson. Additionally, he's being added to an interior that -- as often mentioned in this piece -- is in need of a lot more beef than it has had in a long time. At face value, Watkins has an uphill climb to survive final cutdowns in August, but it's not impossible.
It's just a matter of him showing he deserves to stick around, or that he doesn't.
Malik Turner, WR
Turner is seeking a long-term home in the NFL but, thus far, he's been unable to. The former undrafted free agent joined the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 and spent two seasons there before joining the Green Bay Packers in 2020, only to be released and claimed off waivers by the Cowboys in September. Mostly relegated to special teams duty in Dallas, Turner logged only two offensive snaps all season, but is also struggling to see the field on special teams -- participating in only 92 snaps (20%). The team opted to not issue a tender on him as a restricted free agent, not seeing enough value to do so, but Fassel does see enough to have convinced the Cowboys to re-sign him after waving off said tender.
And, as such, he gets another shot at trying to grow roots in Dallas on a loaded WR unit that will see more turnover at the bottom of the ladder before it's all said and done this offseason.