Those holding their breath for the Dallas Cowboys to be major players in the first wave or two of NFL free agency die a perennial death, and 2021 has been no different. The organization again refused to jump in and award outside talent inflated contracts, instead focusing first on awarding and then securing other key in-house talent -- e.g., signing cornerback -- before beginning other grabs.
They're now gaining traction on the latter front, and signing three defensive linemen in one day hints strongly at their overarching plan this offseason. After agreeing to terms with Brent Urban and Tarell Basham, the latter two raising the right set of eyebrows regarding their potential to immediately help bolster the defensive front., the Cowboys went on to do the same with
This is no knock to Watkins, but the reality is he still has more to prove, whereas Urban is a known run-stopper who was beloved by his former fanbase in Chicago, where he spent the last two seasons with the Bears. The 29-year-old Canadian delivered 2.5 sacks, four QB hits and 36 combined tackles in 2020, logging eight starts but being active for the entire 16-game campaign. Like Watkins, Urban is a massive human being, standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 305 pounds, and his size isn't his only attribute.
Durability being another, Urban also knows how to move bodies in the NFL, leading to a PFF run defense grade in 2020 of 83.7 -- third-best in the entire league. Now added to one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, he's expected to be instantly valuable to the club, but the one-year deal does show want to see what he can do first before committing beyond the coming season, much like Watkins, financially.
Both one-year deals land at $1.75 million (per), with Urban landing a bit more in guaranteed money ($500,000) than Watkins ($400,000), along with a higher base salary ($1.25 million versus $1.1 million, respectively).
And then there's Basham, who bested both in the financial category, on a two-year deal worth up to $6.5 million. That presumably keeps him in a Cowboys uniform through 2022, and is a nod to what they think he can do to help their pass rush. They're still expected to unleash Randy Gregory as starter opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence, sources continually affirm to CBS Sports, but the jury is out on if they'll strike a deal with Aldon Smith, during the season but have since fired his longtime mentor and friend, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, as they immediately moved on from the Mike Nolan era to begin that of Dan Quinn.
The performances of Smith and Basham weren't wildly different last season, with the former cooling after beginning the season on a tear -- finishing with five sacks, two fumble recoveries, a defensive touchdown and 48 combined tackles. This was achieved in 16 starts, so while Basham was granted only nine starts in 2020 by the New York Jets, he was still able to give them 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits (only one fewer than Smith provided in his seven additional starts).
Does this mean the signing of Basham precludes retaining Smith? The answer is no, but it does hint at a possible parting of ways soon to come.
The bottom line being one of the key reasons the Cowboys fired Tomsula was his unwillingness to play Gregory more, sources told CBS Sports at the time of the firing, which inherently meant Smith would've been relegated to a lesser, rotational role.
Having now re-established himself as a capable starter in the league after being reinstated from his indefinite suspension, it's unclear (and doubtful) Smith would want to return to the Cowboys for a reduced role likely tied to reduced money after also watching his mentor be cast aside. It's not impossible, no, but would require some silver-tongued conversation by the Joneses, and especially with Smith now seeing Basham onboard -- also knowing the club is looking forward to seeing what former 2020 fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae can do behind Gregory.
Tough sell and, at least on paper, they're no longer pressed to keep Smith. If he's still walking the straight and narrow and the other stars in this negotiation align, the window will remain cracked.
To that end, there was interest in reuniting with Gerald McCoy as well, but as noted in January, the decision would ultimately be placed in the lap of Quinn. In adding Watkins, Urban and now Basham, it appears Quinn is moving away from McCoy after the 33-year-old suffered a season-ending ruptured quad in training camp, subsequently being released due to a pre-negotiated injury clause in his contract.
If Quinn doesn't believe McCoy can remain healthy and/or that there are better options, there may not be room for a mulligan in 2020. The six-time Pro Bowler has stated he'd also welcome a reunion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with the added presence of Neville Gaillimore, the return of former second-round pick Trysten Hill and starting nose tackle Antwaun Woods having been tendered -- the team banking on the latter remaining in Dallas -- it's becoming difficult to figure out where Quinn would see McCoy fitting in. And, inversely, McCoy would have to accept not only less money (now) to return, but also (similar to Smith) a greatly reduced role, potentially.
As with any round of free agent signings, it's unknown who'll make a name for themselves and who'll never see the field for the Cowboys in the regular season, Smith and McCoy being on the two extreme opposites of that spectrum, but the list of recent signings not only point at the club's goal of resolving the D-line issues before the 2021 NFL Draft -- allowing them to focus on other needs -- but also to a new defensive coaching regime reformulating things how they see fit; and not how the previous one did, having seen them fired after only one year in Dallas.
The expectation is the Cowboys aren't done on their D-line, and one or two more additions might land before the draft, but they're also beginning to shift focus to the secondary, and they have several on their wish list, including both Keanu Neal and Damonte Kazee, two players would garner interest from the Cowboys as possible rollovers from Quinn's time with the Atlanta Falcons.
There are others in play as well, and with things coming together on the defensive line (at least in the Cowboys eyes), they'll take a swing or two at repairing their secondary outside of Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis and Donovan Wilson. The good news for the Cowboys is Quinn, unlike his predecessors, has already shown an understanding of the importance of stopping the run and then getting after the opposing quarterback, as the latest round of signings indicate.
His third mission will be to establish a no-fly zone behind the trenches, and this is where the cap space they saved by extending Prescott will have to come into play -- also understanding they own the No. 10 pick in the draft as insurance (or for a double dip).
Now in the third and tertiary wave of free agency, this is when the Cowboys get to work.