Clarence Hill: Aggressive and smart Dallas Cowboys have gotten better in March
For years the Dallas Cowboys have sat out the first week of free agency.
They have sat idle while watching other teams exhaust all avenues to improve their rosters, while they have focused only on managing the cap and bargain basement shopping once the big tickets were gone.
The Cowboys are moving differently in 2023.
So much so that I can say for the first time in a long time that the Cowboys are a better team after the first week of free agency than they were at the end of the season.
Simply put, the Cowboys won March in player acquisition and not just in salary cap management as in the past.
And they did it with smart and aggressive moves, capped by Sunday’s trade with the Houston Texans for receiver Brandon Cooks for fifth-round pick in 2023 and a sixth-round pick in 2024.
The moves began with the decision to place the $10.1 million franchise tag on running back Tony Pollard. They then re-signed safety Donovan Wilson, acquired cornerback Stephen Gilmore in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts for a 2023 fifth-round pick, re-signed linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, quarterback Cooper Rush and special teams ace C.J. Goodwin, released running back Ezekiel Elliott and got tackle Tyron Smith to take a pay cut.
The Cowboys have yet to add an outside free agent.
But the acquisitions of Cooks and Gilmore via trade akin to doing the same thing.
Cooks immediately upgrades the pass catchers for Dak Prescott and helps make up for the decision to part ways with Amari Cooper in part to save money one year earlier.
They identified Cooks as the perfect fit to play opposite No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb. He still has the speed to take the top off the defense and give some juice to the offense that the Cowboys coveted.
Cooks has six 1,000-yard seasons on his resume and had as many catches catches for 30 yards or more (four) as the Cowboys did as a team last year.
And it takes them out the market for Odell Beckham that only only Jerry Jones craved.
Gilmore, a former 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, combines with Trevon Diggs to the give the Cowboys one of the league’s top cornerback duos.
And when you add in the return of Wilson to the team’s three-headed safety scheme with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, the Cowboys have a secondary group that is arguably the best in the NFL.
More importantly, it speaks to a win-now mindset within the Cowboys organization after going 12-5 in each of the last years only to suffer playoff losses to the San Francisco 49ers in the wildcard and divisional round, respectively.
The Cowboys believe they are close and they will remain a contender as long as they have Prescott as quarterback.
The Cowboys are now one of the top three teams in the NFC along with the Philadelphia Eagles and 49ers.
Everything they have done since the end of the season has been about winning now and getting over the hump in 2023 with hopes of trying to end the 27-year gap since their last Super Bowl title in 1995.
That includes coach Mike McCarthy taking over the play-calling duties and parting ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
The normally frugal Cowboys are paying Gilmore $9.9 million in the final year of his contract at age 33.
And the team restructured Cooks’ contract after the trade was completed, giving a 2-year deal for $20 million with $12 million guaranteed.
He is still making the $18 million he was guaranteed in 2023 with Houston paying him $6 million.
But the Cowboys gave him an $8 million signing bonus with a $4 million base salary for 2023. His salary is $8 million in 2024.
But he saves the $6 million off the salary cap so they add more fuel to the fire.
It’s about winning now.
And the Cowboys aren’t done making moves to improve the team with for 2023.
They hosted running back Ronald Jones, linebacker Travin Howard, and offensive lineman Chuma Edoga on free agent visits on Monday.
Jones is an option to replace Elliott and bolster the running back position behind Pollard. Howard, a TCU product, could help supplant a special teams unit that lost Luke Gifford to the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
Edoga, a former 2019 third-round pick of the New York Jets, would give the Cowboys an option at left guard following the departure of Connor McGovern to the Buffalo Bills in free agency.
The Cowboys still have picks in all seven rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, including 26 overall, to continue to improve the roster.
But as far as March goes, the Cowboys are better much better.
This is a step in right direction, progress.