It’s hard to argue that the Dallas Cowboys haven’t taken a step back in free agency from where they were at the end of the 2016 season.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones even conceded that point to the Star-Telegram on Sunday in the lobby of the posh Biltmore Hotel, site of the NFL owners meetings, which begin Monday and run through Wednesday.
But he also sees hope on the horizon in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Jones said the Cowboys have a great opportunity in the draft to not only replace the players they lost but also upgrade the talent to take the much needed step forward toward a Super Bowl berth for the first time since 1995.
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“I would agree with that,” Jones said about the step back in free agency. “What we hope to do is increase our talent on defense through the draft.”
People say our biggest issue and the thing that keeps us from winning a championship is the lack of (defense). We didn’t have the players to be a great defense.
Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones
The Cowboys watched a boatload of starters and contributors walk out the door, including cornerbacks Brandon Carr (Baltimore Ravens) and Morris Claiborne (New York Jets), safeties Barry Church (Jacksonville Jaguars) and J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), defensive end Jack Crawford (Atlanta Falcons), defensive tackle Terrell McClain (Washington Redskins) and guard Ron Leary (Denver Broncos).
The Cowboys have covered themselves with some modest free agent signings, including guard Jonathan Cooper, tackle Byron Bell, cornerback Nolan Carroll and guard Stephen Paea. Carroll is the only presumed starter of the newcomers.
There is no question that the current group of Cowboys is not as talented as the group that ended a 13-3 season in 2016 with a divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The drop-off is most notable on defense.
To that point, Jones says “we usually keep the guys we want to keep.”
We are not going to get any better on defense if we just keep paying the guys we got. ... Obviously we haven’t been doing that with the guys we got. So how do you get better if you keep paying the guys you got who aren’t making plays on the ball a lot of money?
Again, Jones said the defensive heavy draft will offer opportunities to upgrade. It was all part of the team’s consideration as it approached free agency.
“People say our biggest issue and the thing that keeps us from winning a championship is the lack of (defense),” Jones said. “We didn’t have the players to be a great defense.
“Hopefully we can address that (in the draft). Now I am not going to say we are going to sit here and pick for need. But I will say before we started free agency we took a snapshot of the draft and knew that it was deep in the defensive line, deep in the secondary. We knew that was the ability to really improve ourselves there.”
Jones acknowledges the Cowboys would have kept a couple players who left at the right price, as they did when they re-signed receiver Terrance Williams.
He said the Cowboys put price points on all of their free agents. If they surpassed that, then so be it.
Jones also says that change might be good for the maligned Cowboys’ defense because the players they lost weren’t difference-makers, and thus weren’t worthy of overpaying.
“We are not going to get any better on defense if we just keep paying the guys we got,” Jones said. “What we have to do better on defense is we have to get pressure on the passer. And we have to make plays on the ball. We have to do that better.
“Obviously we haven’t been doing that with the guys we got. So how do you get better if you keep paying the guys you got who aren’t making plays on the ball a lot of money?”