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Cowboys 2021 Free Agency: New Arrivals Aren’t Guaranteed Roster Spots

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.

Newly-signed Cowboys: OT Ty Nseke, DE Tarell Basham, & S Jayron Kearse

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.

What do you think?

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Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. The Dallas defense was historically bad. The better question is…why is any player from last year back? Everyone from a truly terrible defense has to be seen as needing to prove their worth.
    All these new players are possible upgrades .

    • Agreed; our biggest issue was the man running the defense. Hopefully Dan Quinn will allow more of these players’ talent to shine.

  2. “The better question is…why is any player from last year back?”

    Much cheaper and feasible to replace a coaching staff. I presume this was a rhetorical question …

  3. The defense was bad, but it was a new scheme and NO off-season. Can’t blame every player and there are a few players that aren’t there and couple that have to prove themselves. If anything getting rid of all the D would set you back more.

  4. Unless Josh Ball goes into training camp and impresses majorly, I don’t see Ty Nsekhe being cut!! Nsekhe is definitely better than knight and Steele, and he’s already considered the swing tackle over knight and Steele!! So I don’t see him being cut!! Same goes for Brent Urban, he’s way too good against the run to cut right out!! The only way it happens is if one of the rookies show they can stop the run good enough to let Urban go!! Now I can see Jayron Kearse getting cut cause he’s not better than Wilson and he don’t play free safety, so the only thing he’s good for is special teams!! And I can see Watkins being cut too…. He’s obviously not any good cause the defense he played on last year was actually worse than ours, and he’s probably the worse DT on the roster right now including the rookies!! I actually see Basham making the team, I think he’s coming in to take over for Aldon Smith!! And I think he’s gonna shock a lot of people too!! Nobody seems to realize that he’s been playing out of position since he’s been in the NFL, and now he’ll get to come play for us where he’ll get to go back to playing how he played in college…. With his hand in the dirt!! So I think the only free agents that won’t make the team will be Watkins and Kearse!! I think everybody else will make the team!!

  5. Good article and some very good comments as well. I am wondering where Kearse fits in. He played well as a Strong Safety last year in his 7 starts, making 59 tackles. However, he has been mostly a special teams player his entire career. The Cowboys won’t keep more than 10 defensive backs on the roster, and with Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Nahshon Wright, at the cornerback position, with C.J. Goodwin a core special teamer, that fills out the roster at cornerback. Donovan Wilson, Damontae Kazee, and newcomer Israel Mukuamu will fill three of the 4 safety slots. That leaves Kearse, Darian Thompson, and Reggie Robinson for the final safety slot. I don’t think Maurice Canady, Deante Burton, Rashard Robinson, Tyler Coyle or Steven Parker will make final cuts. Although one or two of them of them may get onto the Practice Squad. Also, there is the wild card Keanu Neal to factor in. Is he a safety or is he a linebacker? The Cowboys are loaded with linebackers right now. Micah Parsons Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Jabril Cox, Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara, Luke Gifford, Anthony Hines, and the aforementioned Keanu Neal make for a crowded linebacker room. The Cowboys will probably keep 5 or 6 linebackers on the roster, with one or two on the Practice Squad. So that is 15 or 16 roster spots to be filled from the group of 26 linebackers and defensive backs. Figure 2 to 4 on the practice squad and that leaves 5 or 6 guys to cut. As I said, Canady, Burton, and Rashard Robinson will be released. Does Darian Thompson make the roster? How about Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara, and Luke Gifford? UDFA Anthony Hines has promise and might make the practice squad. So after all that, there does seem to be a place for Kearse, but he has to beat out a lot of guys to make it. As for the defensive line, I would be surprised if Carlos Watkins makes the team. I think Urban will make it. My biggest question mark is Trysten Hill. What is he going to do in year three? Can he come back from the knee injury? Will he improve after missing most of the season last year? I wonder. The Cowboys will most likely keep 10 defensive linemen on the roster. 5 or 6 defensive ends and 4 or 5 defensive tackles. For my money, Demarcus Lawrence, Chauncey Golston, Randy Gregory and Tarell Basham are the first 4 ends. I have a feeling that this year Coach McCarthy will keep 5 defensive ends and 5 defensive tackles, rather than the 6-4 make-up of last year. So that leaves Bradlee Anae, Dorance Armstrong, and Ron’Dell Carter fighting it out for the final DE spot. Among the defensive tackles, a lot will depend on how the rookies do in training camp/pre-season. If they prove their worth then the interior of the defensive line could end up being very young. Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Quinton Bohanna are young players with plenty of potential upside. Brent Urban is a good veteran and will provide an anchor in run defense. Trysten Hill and Carlos Watkins will have to battle it out for a roster spot, if the Cowboys do indeed keep 5 DTs. Justin Hamilton and Austin Faoliu are practice Squad candidates. Training camp and pre-season will be VERY interesting! Lots of competition for roster spots this year!

  6. Development never happens overnight, vested veterans don’t always pan out. It’s a crap shoot either way you go. On the flip side, coaches and schemes don’t always fit what you have in personnel. We as fans ride or die always. Looking forward to a wonderful season, win lose or draw

  7. Just gonna say it. Why in the world would you write an article in which you mention the cost savings of cutting free agents??? I mean, WHY? you acquired said free agent with the full intent of adding them to your roster to upgrade talent. Therefore, cutting a Ha-Ha clinton dix to save $ towards the cap shows that your talent assessment process is inherently flawed in that you bring in a guy to upgrade your talent and they fail to even display that talent??? I mean — seriously.

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