Stag­nant Cow­boys take a hit

Club never in­tended to leap into free agency, but still ... what a day

The Dallas Morning News - - Sports Day - DAVID MOORE dmoore@dal­las­

Leg­end states that Nero “fid­dled while Rome burned.’’

While it’s tempt­ing to ap­ply this ex­pres­sion to the Cow­boys on the eve of free agency, there’s one prob­lem: Based on what took place Tues­day, the Cow­boys didn’t even pick up the fid­dle.

Free agency of­fi­cially kicks off at 3 o’clock Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. But a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of NFL teams took ad­van­tage of a spe­cial 48-hour win­dow de­signed to reach agree­ments be­fore the new league year be­gins.

Dal­las wasn’t among them. Not only did the Cow­boys fail to add tal­ent, they lost a starter they had hoped to re­tain, watched the cost of sign­ing a Pro Bowl fix­ture in­crease and were priced out of the mar­ket for po­ten­tial op­tions to Dez Bryant.

It should be pointed out this isn’t as grim as some will por­tray. The Cow­boys hi­er­ar­chy had no in­ten­tion of mak­ing a splash to open free agency. The club’s ap­proach is

the same it has been the last five sea­sons. Let other teams spend big early while they take care of their own and pick their spots in the sec­ond and third wave of free agency.

That doesn’t mean Tues­day went as planned.

The Cow­boys wanted to

keep line­backer An­thony Hitchens as they did safety Barry Church one year ago. But Hitchens com­manded a salary be­yond what the club was in po­si­tion to of­fer — re­ports are the deal with Kansas City av­er­ages $9 mil­lion — just as Church did from Jack­sonville.

He didn’t even last to the start of free agency.

Zack Martin isn’t go­ing any­where. The Cow­boys are en­gaged in dis­cus­sions for an ex­ten­sion that will make him the sport’s high­est-paid guard. The floor was el­e­vated Tues­day when the Jaguars agreed to a five-year deal for a re­ported $66.5 mil­lion with An­drew Nor­well. The con­tract ap­pears to carry a $30 mil­lion guar­an­tee for the former pil­lar of Carolina’s of­fen­sive line.

Nor­well’s sign­ing should ac­tu­ally help ac­cel­er­ate the com­ple­tion of Martin’s deal. The pa­ram­e­ters are in place. The quicker the Cow­boys move, the quicker they can re­duce Martin’s cap hit of $9.34 mil­lion for this sea­son, cre­ate space for free agency and let their fans know they are do­ing some­thing. Bryant’s sta­tus isn’t as clear. Receivers Sammy Watkins, Allen Robin­son and Paul Richardson all agreed to lu­cra­tive deals Tues­day. A grow­ing con­sen­sus ar­gues this em­pow­ers Bryant to stand firm and refuse the club’s at­tempts to get him to take a pay cut to stay.

This ar­gu­ment ne­glects a key point: The Cow­boys can hold onto Bryant un­til the big money for receivers is gone. If No. 88 is dumped on the mar­ket in June, he’s not go­ing to get what those play­ers did.

What took place Tues­day didn’t in­crease Bryant’s lever­age as much as it al­tered the dy­nam­ics. The Cow­boys may not be able to re­duce Bryant’s con­tract as much as they ini­tially wanted, but they can still as­sert their con­trol and take some off the top. Tues­day’s de­vel­op­ments also push the club to ad­dress the wide re­ceiver po­si­tion in the first two days of the draft.

Quick aside: Word is the Cow­boys had an in­ter­est in Watkins be­fore the three­year, $48 mil­lion con­tract the Chiefs threw his way be­came too rich for their blood. The fact that the Cow­boys kicked the tires on this pos­si­bil­ity con­firms the rhetoric sur­round­ing Bryant is more than mere saber rat­tling.

Now, what lies ahead for the Cow­boys once free agency of­fi­cially be­gins Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon? A look at the last five years gives you a tem­plate.

The club has signed 17 play­ers dur­ing this pe­riod since 2013. How many re­main?

Zero. Those free agents av­er­aged 5.1 starts in their Cow­boys ca­reer. Only one of the 17 play­ers recorded more than 12 starts while in a Dal­las uni­form.

That was de­fen­sive end Jeremy Mincey. He had 22 starts in his two sea­sons.

This free-agent class will be more of the same. The Cow­boys will seek in­sur­ance at cer­tain po­si­tions or bridge play­ers to use for a year or two un­til draft picks de­velop. Look for a line­backer, a re­ceiver, a safety and an of­fen­sive line­man to be on the list.

As for Nero, his­tory shows the Ro­man em­peror didn’t ac­tu­ally fid­dle while his repub­lic burned.

His­tory will also show the Cow­boys’ sea­son didn’t ac­tu­ally go up in flames Tues­day.

It just seemed like it.

Smi­ley N. Pool/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Will Dez Bryant hang on with the Cow­boys, who are ex­pected to seek a pay cut from the vet­eran re­ceiver? Tues­day’s flurry of free-agent de­vel­op­ments didn’t pro­vide an an­swer.

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