Stagnant Cowboys take a hit
Club never intended to leap into free agency, but still ... what a day
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.
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.