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Infusion of Pro Bowlers on D key to Cowboys' 2020 success

The Cowboys' philosophy toward veteran free agents has been consistent in recent years: Wait out the first wave of high-priced signings, then look to add role players -- most of them undecorated -- at areas of need.

This year was no different ... and yet, it was completely different. Dallas sat out the initial round of signings, then brought in seven players who've appeared in at least one Pro Bowl each and 18 overall.

That's a stark departure from the previous two offseasons, when wideout Randall Cobb was the only such acquisition, having appeared in the Pro Bowl following the 2014 season. (Cobb spent 2019 in Dallas, then signed a three-year, $27 million deal with Houston this offseason.)

"We really didn't put much stock in that," executive vice president Stephen Jones said of the postseason honors. "The biggest thing for us is, what the player put on tape last and how he's played in the last calendar year. That's what we leaned on most."

The Cowboys' free-agent haul this year would have had the makings of a Dream Defense at one point in time, with the addition of tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, ends Aldon Smith and Everson Griffen and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who have gone to 14 Pro Bowls en masse.

However, with all but Clinton-Dix (27) now age 30 or older, none is considered to be as dominant as he was in his prime. This is not to say they cannot still be effective, but it does explain why they were able to be had in the second and third rounds of free agency, via deals favorable to the club.

The risk of signing older players is two-fold: The needle can fall from full to empty in a hurry, or they might be more susceptible to injury. The latter issue came to fruition Monday, when McCoy ruptured a quadriceps tendon and was lost for the season.

Table inside Article
Pro Bowlers signed by DAL Age Pro Bowls Contract
Gerald McCoy, DT 32 6 3 years, $18M (since released)
Dontari Poe, DT 30 2 2 years, $9M*
Aldon Smith, DE 30 1 1 year, $4M
Everson Griffen, DE 32 4 1 year, $6M
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S 27 1 1 year, $4M
Andy Dalton, QB 32 3 1 year, $7M
Greg Zuerlein, K 32 1 3 years, $7.5M

"A gut punch," Jones said. "It was such a freak incident. They were just kind of going through a half-speed drill -- not even half-speed, really -- and one was under the cage and came out and stepped on his foot. McCoy jerked back and the tendon just ruptured. ... To some degree, we did know we had some medical risk with him. Our eyes were wide open coming in. That tendon had had some issues in his quad, so we were aware of it. The contract was structured accordingly."

The deal included an injury waiver that took the team off the hook for future monies beyond the $3 million signing bonus if McCoy sustained a quad injury and was cut. That scenario played out Tuesday, when the Cowboys released him.

While disappointed for the player and team, Jones remained optimistic and upbeat. In Poe and Antwaun Woods, the Cowboys have proven bodies to potentially soften the blow on the interior. Still, they need youngsters Trysten Hill (drafted in the second round in 2019) and Neville Gallimore (drafted in the third round in 2020) to step up. The ends are deep, with Griffen, Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford -- and, potentially, Randy Gregory, if he is reinstated by the league following an indefinite suspension.

"Probably since we got Griffen, we were really kind of loading up there," Jones said of the line. "We've got these two young guys we like in Hill and Gallimore, and then Crawford can play down in there, too, with Poe and Woods. So we've still got a pretty good group in there. It's strong. I think we're still in a good spot, but we're always looking."

The addition of so many decorated players could be a matter of circumstance and timing. The expectation is that the salary cap in 2021 will decrease because of lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, so teams held tighter to their wallets, ostensibly shutting the financial faucet on players. That might have led some to take what they could get while they could get it, which potentially played in Dallas' favor.

"When you let that first wave of free agency get through, some of these guys realize they may have missed the train on getting the big contracts," Jones said. "Then, some of them say, 'Well, where would I like to play?' We're fortunate that a lot of players like to play here, whether it's [because there is] no state income tax, whether it's the television appearances we have because of the popularity of the team; we tend to do well. And guys who come here on one-year deals, if they go out and play well for us, a lot of times, they're rewarded the next year with a big contract -- not unlike what Robert Quinn did this year with Chicago."

Quinn, an edge rusher who spent one season in Dallas after being traded there by the Dolphins last year, reached double digits in sacks (11.5) for the first time since 2014, then went on to sign a five-year deal with the Bears this March that includes $30 million in guarantees and could be worth up to $70 million. The Cowboys would've liked to have retained Quinn, but there is only so much money to go around.

Plus, they're committed to their formula of building through the draft and supplementing the roster with team-friendly free-agent deals, as they also did this year with quarterback Andy Dalton (signed for one year and $7 million, with $3 million guaranteed) and kicker Greg Zuerlein (three years, $7.5 million), both of whom also have Pro Bowls on their resumes. Notably, of the six players set to count for $10 million-plus against the cap this year, five are homegrown (QB Dak Prescott, Lawrence, RG Zack Martin, LT Tyron Smith and RB Ezekiel Elliott), per Over the Cap (the sixth is WR Amari Cooper).

If the Cowboys are to make a playoff push, the decorated newcomers will likely need to play a prominent role on defense. Last year, the unit struggled in key areas, ranking 19th in sacks and 21st in goal-to-go situations, tying for 25th in takeaways and finishing tied for last with only seven interceptions. Dallas lost its top corner, Byron Jones, in free agency and is lacking in proven playmakers in the secondary. Hence, there will be a premium on pressure up front provided by Lawrence and the newcomers. Who knows? If that happens, they might even add to their Pro Bowl totals.

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