When we’re doing our roster projections for upcoming seasons, we tend to assume that newly-signed free agents are going to make the team. But recent examples have proven, at least when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys, that being a fresh face in training camp doesn’t always mean you’re going to make it past final cuts.
Just last year, Dallas signed veteran Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and it was assumed that he would take over as a starting safety. After all, he had history with Mike McCarthy from Green Bay as was a former Pro Bowler.
But sure enough, Ha Ha didn’t even stick around as a backup. Dallas cut him after the preseason in favor of Darian Thompson and Xavier Woods, not even realizing what they had yet in Donovan Wilson.
We also saw this in 2015 with Jasper Brinkley, a veteran linebacker who was expected to at least be a primary backup if not a contender for a starting role. Despite having $2 million in guaranteed money on his contract, Brinkley didn’t even make the 53-man roster.
Ha Ha and Jasper’s very brief tenures in Dallas should be a warning to Ty Nsekhe, Tarell Basham, Jayron Kearse, and others who signed free agent deals with the Cowboys this offseason. Nothing is promised when it comes to making the 53-man roster.
Consider some of their situations. Nsekhe turns 36 in October and has Brandon Knight, Terence Steele, and now rookie Josh Ball as much younger options at offensive tackle. Unless Nsekhe is considerably better than any of them, why would Dallas go with a geriatric band-aid over a prospect with some upside and a cheaper contract?
Tarell Basham was signed to bring some experience at defensive end but doesn’t have any great track record of productivity; only 3.5 sacks as a season-high thus far. Who’s to say the 27-year-old will be any more deserving of a roster spot than Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, or rookie Chauncey Golston once the cut deadline comes?
Also 27, Jayron Kearse got a minimal deal to bring some depth at safety and help the special teams. But with Reggie Robinson and rookie Israel Mukuamu in the mix, Dallas could again decide to develop its younger players and not use a valuable roster spot on a journeyman like Kearse.
Money is a key issue for some of these players. Dallas can save around $1 million in cap space on each of Nsekhe and Kearse’s deals by releasing them. They have to outplay the competition to keep their jobs; there’s far less financial incentive with some of the younger talent’s contracts.
Basham is a bit more protected by finances; Dallas would get no cap relief from cutting him in 2021 and would eat $2.5 million in dead money. But as we saw with Jasper Brinkley, sometimes the team is willing to do that if they feel like they have better options and can afford the cap consequence.
These aren’t the only free agents we can talk about in this discussion. Frankly, any of Keanu Neal, Brent Urban, Carlos Watkins, Damontae Kazee, and others are all on this table. Nobody got the kind of guaranteed money or lucrative contract which says they’re completely safe.
All of these free agents could very well make the roster. After all, they’re the handpicked players of a relatively new coaching staff which is still reshaping the team.
But as we saw with Clinton-Dix last year, being new doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Even past accomplishments and relationships with coaches may not be enough.
For all of these 2021 free agents, the work of making the Dallas Cowboys’ roster is far from over.