There are three avenues through which NFL teams acquire talent. The best franchises take advantage of all three to capitalize on small windows of opportunity, signing the right free agents, drafting well, and pulling off trades. Being applauded for their overall youth as a team entering 2018, the Dallas Cowboys are built this way thanks to their commitment to the draft.
It's free agency that's held the Cowboys back from regularly contending in the NFC East though. Gone are the days of the Cowboys breaking the bank for the best available names each offseason, instead opting to fill out their roster depth with free agents.
Not even this approach has worked in recent memory for the Cowboys though. Positions targeted in free agency remain the same ones with legitimate concerns on the depth chart.
Last season, it was a FA haul of Byron Bell, Robert Blanton, Nolan Carroll, Ronnie Hillman, Datone Jones, Damontre Moore, and Stephen Paea that collectively lead to the Cowboys stumble out of the playoff picture at 9-7.
Defensive Tackle Datone Jones is the only player to make it through the season, still with the squad for 2018. Expectations have been raised for the sixth-year veteran now, with Maliek Collins out with a foot injury and David Irving suspended for the first four games of the season again.
This pressure put on players brought in only to provide depth is how the Cowboys have set themselves up for failure by botching free agency. With last year's class hopefully behind them, let's now take a look at what the Cowboys should actually be getting from their 2018 free agent signings.
The Cowboys emphasis on signing their own free agents sees Guard Joe Looney and Long Snapper L.P. Ladoucuer return this season. New to the Cowboys are wide receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, offensive linemen Cam Fleming and Marcus Martin, Defensive End Kony Ealy, and Linebacker Joe Thomas.
The effectiveness of this FA class, and how well the Cowboys manage to snap their streak of shallowness because of it, falls squarely on the shoulders of Allen Hurns for now.
The Cowboys should feel comfortable in their investments on Fleming and Martin, both experienced backups to the league's best OL. If called upon, Martin's game may not be on par with the starting four around him, but Fleming is a two-time Super Bowl champion tackle for the New England Patriots that joins the Cowboys as a swing option.
At least on the surface, the Cowboys have seemingly done enough at linebacker to not ask too much of Joe Thomas. Mostly a special teams contributor for the Green Bay Packers, Thomas has some upside at linebacker in coverage, but so too does 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch.
Paired with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and even sixth round pick Chris Covington, the Cowboys would have to lose significant depth at LB to be relying on Thomas.
Just how much the Cowboys will rely on Kony Ealy to aid their pass rush in 2018 is yet to be determined. Given the team's numbers at defensive end, Ealy can be anything from a training camp cut to starting right end at this time. On his third team since 2017, Ealy has yet to put together all of the traits that the Cowboys and other teams sought in the 2014 draft.
The second round pick will be competing with rookie Dorance Armstrong, Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton in Oxnard. It may very well be the reinstatement status of Randy Gregory that decides Ealy's faith though, with the Cowboys not in any hurry to move on from either Crawford or Charlton.
Which brings us back to not only Allen Hurns but Deonte Thompson. Rehashing the unproven nature of the Cowboys receivers is tiresome at best without any on-field activities to judge their progress. The Cowboys have put themselves in position where Hurns' past production will have to speak for itself however, easily the most proven WR on the roster with 2,699 career receiving yards and 21 touchdowns.
Coming off of consecutive seasons where Hurns failed to break 500 receiving yards, playing in just 21 games during this stretch, Hurns will have every opportunity to grab the WR1 job that the departed Dez Bryant “left behind”.
On one hand, the Cowboys have made moves outside of free agency to adapt to Dak Prescott's strengths and become a more open offense. With the other, their deal for Hurns will only be rewarded if he produces like the player he was in 2015 (his only 1,000 yard season), despite being a similar player to Bryant and less of a “spread” option.
Of course, a younger player outperforming an older one is never a bad thing in the NFL, but the Cowboys are already holding third-round rookie Michael Gallup to lofty expectations. This further adds to the pressure on Hurns, signed by the Cowboys through 2019 with a chance to resurrect his career and earn a long-term deal.
The same can be said about Deonte Thompson, who becomes the latest experiment as a deep threat in the Cowboys offense. Thompson is coming off a career season with the Buffalo Bills, hauling in 38 passes for 555 yards. His 14.6 yards per reception was a career best for any season Thompson played in at least three games.
Like Kony Ealy, Thompson's current roster status can range anywhere from a lock that pushes a rookie like Cedrick Wilson off the team to a player lost in the WR shuffle and looking for work outside of Dallas come week one.
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When ranking the players that will have the biggest impact on the Cowboys 2018 season, free agent WR Allen Hurns finds himself higher than the rest of their newly signed contributors. This is a refreshing change of pace from year's past, although there is plenty of time still for injuries to set in and previous players mentioned to be called upon.
Such is the importance of improving your roster from year to year in any way possible, something the Cowboys are pressing to do under Prescott's rookie contract.