It's been easily the most explosive NFL free agency in recent memory, and the Dallas Cowboys have played a large part in it -- though not necessarily how they would've preferred when trying to figure things out after a wasted 12-5 season. They expectedly made zero splashes in the first wave of open market shopping, well, at least not as it relates to acquiring talent. It was their decision to trade four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns versus restructuring his contract that initially kicked off their list of moves, but what happened (er ... um ... didn't happen) with defensive end Randy Gregory eclipsed that headline quickly.
Gregory and the Cowboys agreed to terms on a five-year extension that imploded and sent Gregory into the arms of the Denver Broncos, a team CBS Sports reported was the frontrunner to poach him one day before they succeeded in doing so. It sent the Cowboys reeling into their contingency plans at defensive end, having narrowly dodged parting ways with All-Pro edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence due to a contract dispute, but then came the release of starting right tackle La'el Colllins to add another wrinkle to the Cowboys young offseason.
Collins immediately joined the Cincinnati Bengals to protect Joe Burrow, and the Cowboys must now figure out the offensive line in front of Dak Prescott, something they needed to do prior to jettisoning Collins. It's not been all bad and/or questionable for the Cowboys through mid-March, however, with the club making several promising and/or downright mandatory moves to stop some of the bleeding -- so let's talk about those, grades in hand for each.
We'll dig into the overall grade thus far as well.
(Note: Grades are listed in descending order.)
James Washington, WR
Contract: One year, $1.035 million
Now here's a guy (sorry, I couldn't help myself) who I was very high ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft, following a stellar career in walking the footsteps of Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State. Washington had hopes of keeping his Bryant ties rolling along by being selected to the Dallas Cowboys, but it was instead the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbing him with the 60th overall pick. Flash forward four years and the Steelers are in flux with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger and Washington took the opportunity in free agency to join the Cowboys on a one-year deal, instantly adding talented depth after the trade of Amari Cooper and loss of Wilson.
It feels as if an aging Roethlisberger helped rob Washington of what might've been a very good first four seasons with the Steelers, but he'll now enter Moore's offense with a much sharper Dak Prescott at the helm, and without the pressure of having to put up huge numbers on a weekly basis. Washington will be viewed as WR3 (WR2 until Gallup is fully healthy) and that will allow him to mostly go unnoticed by opposing defenses en route to re-establishing himself as a talented threat in the league. Losing Wilson as WR3 definitely hurt the Cowboys, but if Washington plays like he did at OSU (and, at times, in Pittsburgh), they'll be fine. If he doesn't, well, there's a chance they'll draft another WR anyway and his contract is one easily exited.
Dante Fowler, OLB/EDGE
Contract: One year, $1 million
One year ago, it was Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee following Dan Quinn over from Atlanta to Dallas. This time around, it's Fowler, whose ties to Quinn extend further than the NFL. It was Quinn helping to recruit Fowler to the University of Florida as the Gators defensive coordinator in the early 2010s, and the two then found their way back to each other with the Falcons -- Quinn being the head coach at the time. So when Fowler hit free agency this year, and in the wake of losing Gregory to the Broncos, Quinn made a bee line to Fowler, and the Cowboys acquiesced to his want with a one-year deal to give the two a shot at doing something special for the Cowboys in 2022.
Both Neal and Kazee got off to strong starts in 2021 but neither finished well, much more of a knock to each player (Neal was also in his first year as a linebacker convert, but he's done with that experiment) than to Quinn, who can usually get the best out of defensive players. Fowler combines with Armstrong to help salve the wound opened in the Gregory controversy, but the Cowboys can't get comfortable at the edge and still arguably need a more definitive war daddy opposite Lawrence. The average grade isn't a pass nor a fail, nor is it a knock to what Fowler might be in 2022, but more a knock to context of what's going on at the position and concerns over if Fowler is the Rams version of himself (11.5 sacks in 2019) or the Falcons version (4.5 sacks in 2021).
Michael Gallup, WR
Contract: Five years, $62.5 million
It's science, but not the kind needed to power rockets: don't create need at positions wherein you don't have any. This needed to be the mantra for the Cowboys as it relates to their WR corps, one that was easily the deepest and most talented in the league the past couple of years -- alas, they broke bad when decided to trade away Amari Cooper. Their top solution was to re-sign Gallup, a smart move even if Cooper was still in tow, a player who has repeatedly stated he wanted to remain in Dallas and often points to Dak Prescott as being the top reason why. The torn ACL takes center stage in any conversation about Gallup's ability to elevate to WR1 (WR1a or WR1b, more specifically) in 2022 though, and justifiably so, but he's not expected to miss much time next season -- if any at all.
A receiver cut from the same cloth as Dez Bryant, as far as physical abilities go, there's now a ton of pressure on Gallup to become "the guy" beside CeeDee Lamb. When grading the Gallup signing, it's key to not apply demerits for what happened to Cooper, but to instead understand Gallup's talent and potential aren't something Dallas should've let walk regardless of Cooper's outcome.
Jayron Kearse, S
Contract: Two years, $10 million
All Jayron Kearse does is ball. Signed to a one-year deal a year ago, he was wildly overlooked due to the signing of Damontae Kazee and eventually Malik Hooker later in the summer. But when injury to Donovan Wilson caused the Cowboys to look to Kearse as a starter, he tied his stock to the space shuttle and headed straight for neighboring galaxy. The 28-year-old not only proved himself a ballhawk and a special teams contributor, but also a top-shelf coverage guy who could delete any tight end you put in front of him -- even if they are an All-Pro (ask George Kittle). Coming off of what was far and beyond his best season as a pro, the Cowboys knew they can't find this kind of versatile TE deleter just anywhere, and he was expected to get an offer that extended beyond 2022.
He and the Cowboys engaged in long, up-and-down contract negotiations this offseason that ultimately ended in common ground being found to the tune of a two-year deal worth $10 million, a source told CBS Sports, one that could earn him up to $11 million if he continues to do over the next two seasons what he so effectively do last season: ball.
Bryan Anger, P
Contract: Three years, $9 million
Yet another fantastic addition to the Cowboys free agent class of 2021, all Anger did in replacing longtime punter Chris Jones was to earn both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro honor last year. The 33-year-old was a weapon for the Cowboys, consistently putting the opposing team in worse field position than they would've liked whilst averaging a career-best 48.4 yards per punt with no blocks, and his "prove-it" deal was parlayed into value strong enough to warrant approaching him with a question of his owned aimed at a Dallas team that doesn't want him to leave: "OK, now you prove it."
And so they did, agreeing to terms with Anger on a three-year deal with above average compensation at the position to show him they don't want to re-enter the market for a punter to replace him until at least after the 2024 season. With this deal now in place, the ball is back in Anger's court to replicate his 2021 production in 2022 and beyond or he'll discover his contract isn't actually for three years at all, but this is another ace of a re-signing.
Jake McQuaide, LS
Contract: One-year, $1.03 million
It's always difficult following in the footsteps of a legend, and even more so when the legend is literal perfection at the position -- i.e., L.P. Ladouceur -- and even more so than than when the legend didn't think he'd be pushed out before he was ready and/or before he actually showed any semblance of a decline. And yet, this was the frying pan full of bacon grease that McQuaide was tossed into ahead of the 2021 season, but the fact you didn't hear his name called during the season means he did his job. And in doing so, he helped Anger have a dominant season that led to a Pro Bowl nod and nearly being priced out of Dallas in free agency.
But having finally struck a deal with Anger, the Cowboys will also escape having to also locate a capable long snapper and/or punter in 2022, and that's kind of a big deal. Because while many overlook just what these positions mean to an NFL team, and the importance of chemistry between long snapper and punter, let's just say they help determine field position, and regularly. And field position is what NFL games are won and lost on.
Dorance Armstrong, DE
Contract: Two year, $13 million
With the loss of Randy Gregory, the Cowboys immediately pivoted to contingency plans at the right defensive edge, and retaining Armstrong jumped to the top of their list of to-do's. NFL pass rushers often take a couple of years before they find their legs, and Armstrong gradually progressed over his first three seasons before putting his best on film in Year 4. A team-favorite and most certainly one who has the eye of owner Jerry Jones, it was unknown just how much Armstrong would cost to keep around -- his eventual deal being a win for both sides. Armstrong finished the season with a career-high five sacks and a defensive touchdown, and still has room to grow under Quinn, especially if played in tandem with another talented edge rusher opposite DeMarcus Lawrence ... and in rotation with Lawrence at the left defensive edge.
Another full offseason under Quinn should see Armstrong level up yet again in 2022, and on a deal that is very easy to absorb by the Cowboys. The grade here falls a bit due to the unknown of what Armstrong will be if asked to ascend to the role of starter, but the mark is still high because he needed to be re-signed regardless of the surrounding variables -- a locker room and front office favorite who has developed well regardless of the face he's now on his third defensive coordinator in only four seasons.
Malik Hooker, S
Contract: Two years, $8 million
It was a slow start to the 2021 season for Hooker, largely because he was a late addition to training camp and working to return from a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in 2020 -- similar to Kazee, with the difference being Kazee was signed in the spring after both were giving a simultaneous look. But the former first-round pick began to find his groove on the back end of the season, helping to anchor a defensive backfield that saw Wilson battle injury on more than one occasion and Kazee cooled down considerably from his red-hot first few games in a Cowboys uniform.
It's worth seeing if Hooker can continue his upswing when given a complete offseason under Quinn, as what should have been and turned out to become one of the more friendly contracts of this bunch, and one with some serious upside from a potential production standpoint. The only reason this isn't an A+ is because Hooker wasn't the contributor Kearse was last season and, as such, it's impossible to grade them both equally here but, again, Hooker stands to be a major impact player for Quinn in 2022.
Dalton Schultz, TE
Contract: Franchise tag (non-exclusive) - signed
A tight end who can make plays will forever be at a premium in the NFL, and Schultz has taken full advantage of his time at Tight End University with All-Pro playmaker George Kittle, and his added reps in the wake of injuries to Blake Jarwin, but he's also suffered a very real tailspin in his run blocking abilities, something he was drafted for coming out of Stanford as the Cowboys fourth-round pick in 2018. It's been a weird trajectory that's seen Schultz become a great pass-catcher -- some errant drops notwithstanding -- at the sacrifice of his blocking, but teams have been known to overlook the latter when you're catching first downs and touchdowns; and his chemistry with Dak Prescott is well-documented.
That said, it's also true the Cowboys might've been wise to not handcuff $10.8 million against the salary cap in tagging Schultz when there were other capable replacements, one example being O.J. Howard, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Buffalo Bills in March. This combines with concerns on Schultz's overall (as in, it's not always poor) regression in his blocking to lower this grade, but it's still a very good retention for the Cowboys, who put themselves in position to arguably overvalue Schultz by parting ways with Cooper and/or not doing their ... say it with me... due diligence on the TE market before applying the tag. They'll now look to draft a complement as they continue working on what they hope is a long-term deal, or a player that might be his eventual replacement if a deal isn't struck.
Carlos Watkins, DL
Contract: One year, $1.035 million
Watkins signed a one-year deal in 2021 that was mostly overlooked and/or looked upon as one that wouldn't survive training camp, but he became a key player in helping the Cowboys try and bolster their interior defensive line. The veteran interior defensive lineman also came on strong when the team needed it most on the back end of the schedule, including delivering a pick-six to help defeat the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome and then showing his ability to be a contributor on special teams as well. With Quinn staying put, you could bet the team's defensive coordinator wanted to see more of Watkins as a rotational player with a motor and a chip still resting angrily on his shoulder.
That's because while he was able to secure another deal, it's still not longer than one year, which means he still has plenty to prove in 2022 as he tries to make a case to NFL teams that he deserves some career security. That kind of fire should again pay off well and, in rotation with the likes of a healthy Neville Gallimore and some promising young upstarts reeled in from last year's draft, there's no reason to label this re-signing as anything but a strong positive for the Cowboys. Watkins feels like he's becoming a bit of a glue guy in Dallas, and every team needs several of those.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB
Contract: One year, $3 million
LVE has devolved from the beloved moniker of "Wolf Hunter" to everyone wondering if he'll ever truly return to the form that saw him land Pro Bowl honors as a rookie. He finally batted down concerns about his durability by starting a career-high 16 games for the Cowboys in 2021, delivering 88 combined tackles and an interception to go along with a sack, but it was a mostly uneven showing that saw him waffle between being an impact player and a liability in Quinn's defense. The Cowboys opted to not exercise the fifth-year option on the former first-round pick to force him into a prove-it year, and now have Micah Parsons as the leader of the defense (something they had initially hoped LVE would be), and they saw enough last season to bring him back at what will ultimately reveal itself as a reasonable one-year salary.
For Vander Esch, it'll be about keeping a position of need for the Cowboys from becoming that much more so ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft, while also hoping to continue his upward trend alongside Parsons and a returning Jabril Cox -- a promising rookie who saw his first year derailed by a torn ACL. It's now about securing depth behind those three players, and that's where they hope the next player mentioned can provide some assistance. It was assumed Vander Esch might look for greener pastures elsewhere in 2022, but he instead remains as an above-average re-sign for the Cowboys, although this money should've been tossed in a jar labeled "Wagner Fund".
Noah Brown, WR
Contract: One year, $1.03 million
Like Cedrick Wilson, who took his talents to the Miami Dolphins in 2022, Brown landed a one-year extension from the Cowboys in 2021 and used it to increase his value. But unlike Wilson, and while he showed improvement over seasons past, Brown hasn't built the reputation of being able to change the outcome of a game on any consistent basis. He remains a quality depth player though, and one special team's coordinator John "Bones" Fassel also deployed on special teams in fairly large chunks, so it stands to reason "Bones" wanted to see him return.
The same is true for Kellen Moore, because even though Moore has (and has had) bigger and better weapons at his disposal, Brown established value as a WR4 or WR5. Any hopes he had of potentially ascending into Wilson's role as WR3 were dashed in recent days, however, by the Cowboys decision to sign former second-round pick James Washington to the roster. Brown will continue playing double duty going forward, and don't discount his importance to special teams, as noted above. It's easy to overlook Brown's value in his role, because of what his role is, but I'll give him more credit than most probably will -- especially considering he averaged a career-best 11.5 yards per offensive touch last season, quiet as it's kept. He's had issues with drops though, and that explains why he couldn't beat out Wilson on any given week.
Luke Gifford, LB
Contract: One year, $$ TBD
Gifford has yet to see his potential fully realized at the NFL level, following a very promising rookie preseason that gave way to an injury bug that's bitten him more than a time or two since. An undrafted signee in 2018 and the only restricted free agent on the Cowboys roster this offseason, Gifford fought through said injuries early in his young career to return and become a key special teams contributor for Fassel while also providing some semblance of depth at the LB position. He was worth attempting to retain -- in a low-cost scenario -- entering his fourth year in the league.
That's precisely what occurred, with the Cowboys opting to not issue a more expensive tender on him and instead re-signing him to a separate, new deal that will likely pay him the veteran minimum in 2022. That is, of course, assuming the club doesn't sign players between now and the start of the season that make him expendable. It feels like Gifford is one step from being a strong rotational talent on the defensive depth chart, so good job by the Cowboys to give him another shot at proving it. He's entering Year 4, however, and is still mostly a special teams player who isn't a world-beater on that unit, either. Gifford rejoins the Cowboys on a very noticeable bubble that can burst at any second.
Jeremy Sprinkle, TE
Contract: One year, $1.035 million
This doesn't move any sort of needle for me. Sprinkle was signed to a one-year deal with the Cowboys in 2021, primarily as a blocker, and while there were times he graded well in that category (mostly in pass protection), there were also several games in which he graded very poorly (mostly in run blocking). Additionally, despite injuries to both Blake Jarwin and Sean McKeon, there was little to nothing Sprinkle provided the offense as a receiving threat, diminishing his overall value that much more in my eyes. His best season as a pass catcher (2019) saw him produce 241 receiving yards and a touchdown for the Washington Commanders, but he logged only 31 receiving yards and zero touchdowns for the Cowboys in 2021, and that was despite being available for all 17 regular season games and taking the field as a starter on four occasions.
He averaged only 0.2 receptions per game and 1.8 yards per game last year, throwaway numbers that likely wouldn't have existed at all if not for the aforementioned injuries, and though his blocking can be solid at times, he's not Blake Bell. This signing feels more like camp insurance than anything else, and a combination of a draft pick who can block more consistently (and/or undrafted free agents) plus a healthy McKeon might pop Sprinkle's bubble at some point before the beginning of the 2022 season. There's better to be had at the position behind/beside Schultz, and the Cowboys plan on finding it before things get underway in September.
Overall Grade: D
The grades on the Cowboys re-signings include plenty of high marks and several of the highest possible so why, you ask, does their overall grade through March 22 come in barely above failing?
Well, to answer plainly, it's because what they haven't done in outside free agency is mostly unforgivable, save for the two additions above. But neither Washington or Fowler move the needle enough to balance the debacle involving Gregory, the trade of a talent like Cooper, and the jettison of Collins (who, rather you believe is better than Terence Steele or not, is still capable of starting at left guard -- where they currently have no starter at all). And while you would've been foolish to presume they'd go crazy spending in the first week of free agency, had they not created issues with the aforementioned three moves, their absence in the open market would've at least contained some semblance of a plan.
No Von Miller. No Za'Darius Smith. No Chandler Jones. No Bobby Wagner traction as of yet (if at all).
These are just a handful of examples wherein the Cowboys could've and should've made at least one major splash to balance the errors they've arguably made so far, but kudos to them for the work they've done in retaining several key players that help put wins on the board. All told, Randy Gregory notwithstanding, the re-signings are being mostly aced as the days roll along, but the lack of new firepower to both replace the firepower lost and/or to upgrade the team lands them a below average grade.
The Cowboys are currently a worse roster than the one that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and you don't land honors as valedictorian for that accomplishment. Time will tell what their ultimate plan is going forward, seeing as we're having this conversation in March, but there's so much more to be ironed out than simply trying to ace the final exam -- i.e., the 2022 NFL Draft -- because the mid-term (free agency) is just as important to their final grade (postseason success).