FRISCO, Texas — Compared to some other teams, the Dallas Cowboys have not been overly active when it comes to NFL free agency. But compared to recent offseasons, the Cowboys’ activity in March was abnormal.
The Cowboys’ six additions puts them near the middle of the pack, with five teams having more agreements so far in free agency. The Washington Redskins, as of Wednesday, led the NFL with 13.
Since free agency began with the legal tampering period on March 16, the Cowboys have added five unrestricted free agents: defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, cornerback Maurice Canady, tight end Blake Bell and place-kicker Greg Zuerlein. The sixth and seventh additions, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive end Aldon Smith, were technically street free agents, since the Carolina Panthers did not pick up Poe’s 2020 option and Smith has not played since 2015.
The previous time the Cowboys added this many unrestricted free agents in an offseason came in 2017, and there are plenty of contracts and failed seasons to look back on from that year and more to know that Dallas needs better luck in 2020.
The 2017 offseason is when tackle Byron Bell, safety Robert Blanton, cornerback Nolan Carroll, defensive end Damontre Moore and defensive tackle Stephen Paea joined the Cowboys. Carroll was the prize signing of that 2017 class, getting a three-year, $10 million deal that included $4 million guaranteed.
And Carroll was cut after two regular-season games.
Before McCoy agreed to his three-year, $18 million deal with the Cowboys on March 17, Carroll was the most recent unrestricted free agent to sign a multiyear deal with Dallas.
Byron Bell, Blanton, Moore, Paea, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, offensive lineman Marcus Martin, tackle Cameron Fleming, defensive end Kony Ealy, wide receiver Randall Cobb, defensive tackle Christian Covington and safety George Iloka came to the Cowboys since Carroll on one-year deals.
By far, Cobb (55 receptions, 828 yards, three touchdowns) was the most productive of the Cowboys’ recent signings.
Blanton, Martin, Ealy and Iloka did not play in a regular-season game because of injury or ineffectiveness. Fleming started three games in 2018, was re-signed in 2019 and started three more. Byron Bell started two games after the Chaz Green disaster of 2017. Thompson was supposed to be part of the wide-receiver-by-committee corps the Cowboys implemented, but he caught 14 passes for 124 yards before he was cut during the season. Paea could not overcome a history of knee issues, and Martin suffered a season-ending toe injury in the preseason.
Since 2015, the Cowboys have signed eight unrestricted free agents to multiyear deals, and their success rate there has not been great.
In 2015, the Cowboys signed linebacker Jasper Brinkley to a two-year deal that included $2 million guaranteed. He didn’t make the final roster. In 2016, Dallas signed defensive tackle Cedric Thornton to a four-year, $17 million deal, and he played one season.
The best signings were center Joe Looney (two years, 2016) and running back Darren McFadden (two years, 2015). McFadden’s second season with the Cowboys was a wash because of a broken elbow, but he at least finished fourth in the league in rushing in 2015. Looney is about to enter his fifth season with the Cowboys, having re-signed on a one-year deal.
McCoy is the closest the Cowboys have come to dipping their toes into the deep end of the free-agent pool in recent years. His three-year deal can be worth up to $20.5 million. Poe’s two-year deal is worth a max of $10.5 million. Zuerlein was guaranteed $2.25 million of his three-year, $7.35 million deal. Clinton-Dix can make up to $4 million on his one-year deal. Blake Bell and Canady can make up to $1.7 million and $1.5 million, respectively.
None of this spending approaches what the Cowboys did in 2012, when they signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal. They also signed guard Nate Livings to a five-year, $18.7 million deal; backup quarterback Kyle Orton to a three-year, $10.5 million deal; guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to a four-year, $11 million deal; linebacker Dan Connor to a two-year, $6.5 million deal; fullback Lawrence Vickers to a two-year deal; and safety Brodney Pool to a one-year deal.
Only Carr and Bernadeau played out the length of their contracts. Livings lasted one season. Orton played two, threatened retirement before his third and was cut. Connor and Vickers lasted one. Pool did not make it out of training camp.
As much as it looks like McCoy can be a disruptive pass-rusher, Poe can eat up blockers, Clinton-Dix can take the ball away, Zuerlein can make big kicks, Blake Bell can be a complement to tight end Blake Jarwin, Canady a depth piece for a secondary in need of help and Smith might be able to get after the quarterback (if he’s reinstated), the Cowboys’ past offseason splurges offer up an important lesson.
Often, free agency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.