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In their minds, the Cowboys may think they are set for the NFL draft

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By: Tom Ryle

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

A stingy approach to free agency has left the Cowboys with a lot of holes ahead of the NFL Draft.

For most of us, NFL free agency has been disappointing for the Dallas Cowboys. It really shouldn’t be. They have stuck to the same playbook as in previous years. They refuse to spend big, and this year they seem very focused on the cap implications of the coming extensions with quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, and pass rusher Micah Parsons. The only outside free agent they have added is linebacker Eric Kendricks to fill the hole left by the release of Leighton Vander Esch. Otherwise, there have only been a handful of re-signings such as Jourdan Lewis and Rico Dowdle.

This leaves them with some serious holes to fill in the NFL draft. It’s a bad year for that, with only seven picks, and a big gap between their third-round selection and their next one near the end of the fifth. Normally, we feel confident they will get good bang for the buck with what they have, but last year’s dismal performance by the draft class creates a bit of unease. We have to hope that was an aberration and not a signal they have run out of some luck. That could be a really bad thing, because the overall strategy for roster building is to rely on the draft for the best talent while using bargain-bin free agent shopping to plug holes with patches rather than real solutions.

There is still a bit over a month until the draft starts to add more players, but their cap space is tight. They seem to be holding out on their usual restructuring of contracts. The implication is that cap maven Stephen Jones is trying to get away from the annual pushing of cap hits to later years to help pay for those big contracts mentioned above. In a win now league, they just do not seem prepared to pay for doing so. This is the contract year for Mike McCarthy and the rest of the coaching staff. The ownership is doing them no favors with the roster.

We discussed this idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

They can still find some cap space to sign more free agents. Will they? In looking at the current roster, we laid out who would have to start if they had to field a team with the current players under contract. Dowdle is the only change there as he would be expected to get the nod over Malik Davis. It is not the best situation, but it would hardly prevent them from lining up and trying to win games. They just have created a very unfavorable way to do so.

One obvious trait of the team’s approach is that they like their own guys. There are still four of their own free agents available at the time this is being written, Stephon Gilmore, Jayron Kearse, Chuma Edoga, and Sean McKeon. According to Over the Cap, they only have $5.5 million in cap space to work with. That would still allow them to make some signings, especially if the market for some of those players is soft. Gilmore is the one that would likely help the most, and likely the most expensive. Kearse may not fit as well in Mike Zimmer’s defense as he did in Dan Quinn’s. The other two would be depth pieces and would not require much of the available space. Dowdle shows how they use this approach, although they may have missed another useful re-signing when Johnathan Hankins left to join the Seattle Seahawks. That puts more pressure on Mazi Smith to take a big step this year.

Realistically, only their first three draft picks can be expected to make significant contributions this year, and that is certainly not guaranteed. Even if those do hit, with possibly two needs on the offensive line, plus running back, linebacker, and wide receiver, that isn’t enough. If Gilmore doesn’t come back, you can add corner to the priority list, and defensive tackle may also be a place they want to invest more draft capital. Any other help would have to come late on day three or through UDFA signings.

Any of those needs could still be addressed to a degree if they do bite the bullet and find a way to sign outside talent before the draft. Roy White thinks that is still going to happen, but Tom Ryle is not so sure. They could still go into free agency after the draft, which they have done before. That fits well with their cheapness as the remaining free agents would be seeing their opportunities dry up and might be willing to take team-friendly deals.

After last season, there is still the chance they could trade future draft picks. That is how they got Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, both key parts of last year’s roster. It was a bit of a departure from business as usual for them. Given how well those two deals worked out, it could be on the table this year, and could be done before or after the draft.

In the minds of the team, those big looming extensions are a huge constraint. However, if they had gotten one or two of them done already, which they could at least have worked harder on, the structures of them would have created more space, especially in the case of Prescott. But the team is slow rolling things. There is a persistent belief that they can get a better deal by taking a hard stance. It never seems to work out, as the deadlines make deals part of things always seems to have the team blinking first and paying more than they might have had to with a more earnest approach in negotiations.

Even more disturbing is a thought of Roy’s. What if they decide to let Prescott play out his final year and keep the option of letting him leave, or just wait until next year to try and work out an extension? This is not a roster that looks built to win now, and if the team struggles, that could be an argument to not pay him like an elite quarterback. It is an almost devious thought, which actually makes it plausible. It is just the kind of manipulative thing that seems to be a part of Jones’ thinking. It is illogical since it says they don’t have complete faith in their quarterback and need a “show us” season to re-sign him. But if there is real doubt about how far Prescott can take this team, Jones and his father may be open to letting Prescott go in free agency and act all proud of the resulting comp pick.

That may sound cynical. Well, it is. It is born of years of watching the stubbornness of the team in the approach that has led to so much playoff disappointment. There is absolutely no evidence that is going to change. It would take a much more significant free agent move or a bit of a daring trade to change our minds. Neither of us think that is going to happen.

While most fan bases in the league are looking at their team’s free agent acquisitions and dreaming big, we have to deal with having our expectations lowered by the way the team conducts business. It is hard to see this team having another twelve-win season in an increasingly competitive NFC East.

Originally posted on Blogging The Boys