The goal of every NFL team is to take steps forward in making their roster better each offseason, but the Dallas Cowboys have instead taken several backward. Already owners of several positions of dire need, they not-so-arguably made things worse by willfully parting ways with four-time Pro Bowl wideout Amari Cooper via trade, starting right tackle La'el Collins via release, and losing starting defensive end Randy Gregory to a contractual disagreement following the verbal agreement.
They've also graded poorly in their approach to 2022 NFL free agency on the whole -- losing standout receiver Cedrick Wilson as well but acquiring only three players since the gates opened in mid-March. And with respect to each acquisition, namely kicker Chris Naggar, wideout James Washington and linebacker Dante Fowler, the Cowboys are severely lacking in their 2022 haul of outside free agents; and particularly given the fact they had a tangible shot at players like perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner, as one example of several.
The team doesn't believe the race is over in that capacity yet, however, and will likely pick back up in free agency once they get a look at what their draft haul looks like in 2022. That is, at least, the tone being gleaned from Stephen Jones, the Cowboys EVP and Director of Player Personnel, who also explained the decision to part ways with headline talent.
"It's a challenge. It's work," Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday. "It's a lot that went into it mainly because of the unique situation of the last two years with the pandemic and how it affected it the salary cap in terms of not having its natural, if you will, increase each year. You weren't able to project that and you knew that the cap was not going to be naturally going up as you normally build into your contracts. So, consequently, we really had to step back and be conservative if you will in terms of signing extensions to players."
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Jones also pointed at head coach Mike McCarthy as a reason they've been even more deliberate than usual this time around (they're never major players in free agency, but this offseason has seen them slide the scale wildly to unbridled conservatism and frugality).
"The other thing that played into that for us obviously was a new coaching staff with coach McCarthy coming in [in 2020]," said Jones. "You want to make sure that the players that you have on the roster, how they're playing, how they fit the scheme, both offensively, defensively, and special teams, how they're going to fit in under the new staff. Obviously, unfortunately, we had to make a quick change on defense [at coordinator]. So, we had two different coordinators there in two years.
"So, there was some challenges that normally weren't there that kept us from signing extensions to players we might normally would have as well as having the challenge of having to make some tough decisions because didn't necessarily project as high as we would have thought pre-pandemic. Therein lies the challenges that we had to work through."
All told, the Cowboys' list of in-house free agents was one of the (if not the) most robust in the league this offseason.
"It did create one of our biggest, I think, probably our biggest free agent class, especially players that we feel like were really good football players," Jones added. "That was our challenge out there. We feel like we did do a good job in terms of signing for the most part players that we wanted and felt like we could keep under the current salary cap environment, and I do think that we were able to fill, for the most part — we're not done yet in free agency.
"We'll see what opportunities come up out there. But we feel like we can go into the draft pure again and pick the best players on our board."
There's plenty of ironing out left for the Cowboys, but they also have until training camp to truly hammer out what the roster will look like. It's not unfair, however, to scratch your head at the moves they have either made or not made leading into the draft, but Jones believes it will all work out in the end -- a strong stance when considering that, from the standpoint of winning a Super Bowl, it hasn't all worked out since the 1995 season.
"I like the situation that we're in," he said. "I think we made some really good decisions, and I like where we're headed."
Not many, if any, fans and/or analysts would agree — at least not yet.