A breakdown of the first week of free agency for the Dallas Cowboys:
Most significant signing: The return of wide receiver Terrance Williams was surprising and it keeps all of Dak Prescott’s weapons intact for a second season, but Williams is the fourth target in the passing game behind Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten. He is a good piece to have, but the Cowboys had to have a cornerback, so that makes Nolan Carroll the most important signing so far. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are free agents and might not be back. Carroll had a solid season for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016 and he knows the division well. He might take some chances but he had 10 pass deflections last year, which was more than any Cowboys defender in 2016, and he can play man or zone effectively.
Most significant loss: Barry Church had more than 100 tackles in four straight seasons and was a defensive captain, but the Cowboys were not ready to pay him what the Jacksonville Jaguars gave him: four years with a max value of $26 million. Over the last few years, the Cowboys have not shown a willingness to go over budget for anyone, including a player who means as much to the defense on and off the field as Church. Their starting safeties as of now are Byron Jones and Jeff Heath, with Kavon Frazier in reserve. Heath has shown the ability to be around the ball, but the Cowboys likely will keep their eye out for help in the draft, where there should be players available in the early rounds ready to play immediately.
Player they should have signed: If Church was the most significant loss, then he should be the player they should have signed as well. Knowing the price it takes to sign a pass-rusher, I can’t quibble with the Cowboys not going after a high-end pass-rusher in free agency. They simply are not going to make that kind of free agent move anymore. But I’ll go back to free agency in 2016 when they had an interest in Andre Branch and saw him sign a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins at $2.75 million. They could have had him on a multiyear deal that would have been in the Benson Mayowa category. Branch had 5.5 sacks last year and is the kind of speed rusher the Cowboys could have used. He signed a three-year deal worth $24 million to stay with the Dolphins with $16.8 million guaranteed. The Cowboys weren’t going to do that kind of deal this year, but they could have had him for shorter money last year.
What’s next: The Cowboys will be choosy over what they do in free agency. If a good opportunity falls in their lap, they will take it. They can create salary cap room if necessary with restructures or cutting players to get a deal done, but that’s only in an emergency situation. They have to find offensive line help with Doug Free’s impending retirement, and they need to find a backup quarterback, with Josh McCown at the top of the wish list to serve as Prescott’s mentor. The longer the Tony Romo saga goes, however, the more risk they take in losing McCown to another team.
Overall grade: C. The Cowboys entered free agency knowing they were going to lose key players to deals they were unwilling to pay or simply could not pay. It’s more than just Church. They lost Terrell McClain (Washington), Jack Crawford (Atlanta) and Ronald Leary (Denver). They have pieces on the roster to replace them but their depth takes a hit and will require them to have another top-notch draft. They have filled holes and surprisingly kept Williams, but are they better today than they were at the end of the season? Not really. The good news is they don’t play a real game until September and they will have plenty more opportunities to add talent.