Dallas Cowboys’ lackluster results in free agency put onus on Dak Prescott, NFL draft

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Clarence E. Hill Jr.
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It is widely agreed that signing quarterback Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract was the best thing the Dallas Cowboys have done since the end of the 2020 season.

It was their biggest priority following a 6-10 season in Mike McCarthy’s first year as head coach — a campaign that was marred by Prescott missing the final 11 games with a fractured right ankle.

Prescott’s return alone puts them back in contention in the NFC East, but what about the rest of the moves in free agency, including the addition of a team-record 10 unrestricted free agents to largely bargain-basement deals?

Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, punter Bryan Anger, defensive linemen Brent Urban, Carlos Watkins and Tarell Basham, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, deep snapper Jake McQuaide and safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse will count roughly $14.7 million against the 2021 cap combined.

If you let several league analysts tell it, the team’s nickel-and-dime approach to free agency is akin to John Wooden’s famous quote: “never mistake activity with achievement.”

“They are better because the quarterback comes back and he masked a lot of issues,” said Bucky Brooks, a scout for NFL Media. “If you go back now and look at the season you have a greater appreciation for how well he played and how his play masked the offensive and defensive woes that the team had.”

Brooks said the hiring of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator in place of Mike Nolan, whose unit set a team record for points allowed in 2020, should foster improvement.

“I can’t say they have done enough to really upgrade their personnel,” Brooks said. “It’s kind of a wait and see. The best thing the Cowboys can hope is to get the offense so lethal is that it puts pressure on other teams to have to play a certain way against them.”

ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a former general manager with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, says the free agent moves don’t move the needle for him, either.

He likes the potential of Neal and Kazee, if they can stay healthy, but calls the rest a bunch of rotational backup players.

Tannenbaum believes the biggest improvement will come with Quinn being able to get defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebacker Jaylon Smith playing at a Pro Bowl level again.

“They got to get more of what they had,” Tannenbaum said. “They need DeMarcus Lawrence to be DeMarcus Lawrence. That is where this team has fallen short. Their front line guys have to play better, like Jaylon Smith and Lawrence, more so than filling in with some of those backup players. Their biggest hope for improvement is the players they have getting better.”

Tannenbaum refuses to criticize the team’s financial approach to free agency — a modus operandi to shop for free agents for bargains after the first wave.

They haven’t made a splash in free agency since 2012 when they signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal.

The team has drafted well and has prioritized signing its own free agents to big money deals.

With Lawrence, Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott counting $25 million, $22 million, $22 million and $13.7 million against the cap in 2021, the Cowboys were forced to be prudent in their spending.

“They have done a great job drafting,” Tannenbaum said. “When you pay those guys, that is what’s going to happen. You would rather pay your own first. You have to give them credit for that.”

Former NFL agent Joel Corry, now a cap expert and writer for CBS Sports, agreed with Tannenbaum.

“They haven’t been the-big-fish-in-free agency team in a while,” Corry said. “That is not their M.O. If you take care of your own, it’s the right way to go about it.”

The major goal, however, is getting better and becoming contenders in 2021 after a disappointing 2020 season.

Like Tannenbaum and Brooks, Corry is not excited about the additions.

“I am not crazy about the defensive lineman signings,” Corry said. “They don’t do anything for me.”

He said they still need to look at pass rushers in the secondary free agent market and focus heavily on defense in the draft to make marked improvement.

The question is “if they can stop anybody, the draft should determine that more than anything else,” Corry said. “They need to think defensively.”

Tannenbaum said he is a huge Prescott fan. He gives them credit for getting him signed and believes they are better because of Quinn’s addition.

“I think they need another cornerback outside, desperately,” Tannenbaum said. “If they acquire a couple of meaningful pieces on defense in the draft I think they have a chance overall to be a better team.”

The Cowboys have the 10th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Tannenbaum already has Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II going to them in a mock draft.

Corry believes he is the player they should covet the most in the draft.

Brooks said they simply must come away with a difference-maker with the 10th overall pick.

No matter what, however, he said their fortunes will be determined by Prescott, who was on pace to shatter the NFL record for passing yards in a season in 2020 before fracturing his ankle in Week 5.

“They can be the best team because the quarterback is the best quarterback in the NFC East,” Brooks said. “It’s a lot on the quarterback. He can’t hide behind the game management thing. He has to do it. They have to run it through him and let him do what he was doing.”

That’s also why they paid Prescott and nickel and dimed the rest.