Less than a week before the start of the free agency, the Dallas Cowboys are seemingly at a crossroads in their attempt to run down the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Owner Jerry Jones readily acknowledges that the Eagles and their recent Super Bowl success are a legitimate measuring stick for his franchise. The Cowboys have only two playoff wins since 1997 and no championship game appearances since its last Super Bowl title in 1995.
And that was before Philadelphia shocked the NFL on Wednesday by trading a fifth-round pick and an undrafted free agent receiver to the Seattle Seahawks for Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett.
The Eagles used the draft, free agency and trades to build a Super Bowl team last season and are not resting on their laurels, trading for a veteran pass rusher to get better heading into 2018.
Every team in the NFC East has already made moves to get better since the end of the season. All, that is, save for the Cowboys.
The Washington Redskins started things with their trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith, giving them a leading man they can count on for years to come and ending the yearly uncertainty with Kirk Cousins.
The New York Giants joined the trade bandwagon on Wednesday by acquiring linebacker Alec Ogletree from the Los Angeles Rams.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys remain stuck in neutral with the possibility of going in reverse.
They released defensive end Benson Mayowa on Wednesday to create cap room and face a difficult decision with receiver Dez Bryant regarding a potential pay cut or release.
Regarding making moves to get better?
Is getting running back Ezekiel Elliott back for a 16 games, making the offense better around quarterback Dak Prescott and adding a bunch of rookie draft picks enough to close the gap on the repeat-seeking Eagles?
That seems folly at this point.
Panic is setting in among Cowboys fans, but vice president Stephen Jones is not worried.
“I don't really worry about what they think,” Jones said. “I worry about what we think and I worry about whether we're going to win games or not. We've got to do better than we did last year because we didn't make the tournament.”
So far the plan remains the same, especially with the Cowboys so tight against the salary cap.
The main priorities of the off-season have been to remake the coaching staff, make a decision on Bryant, secure defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and signing guard Zack Martin to a long-term deal. And they still hope to make a run at keeping linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
Free agency starts next week. Look for the Cowboys to punt as usual during the early part of the process when the difference-making players are available.
“It’s very difficult when you have D-Lawrence, you have Zack Martin,” Jones said. “Obviously, we’d like to have unlimited funds to improve our football team, but it’s very difficult when you want to sign guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens and other guys like Dak Prescott and Zeke — and those guys are coming. We certainly want to have those guys, as well, so it makes it very difficult.
“We’d like to hope and think that we’ve drafted well and we’re spending our money in the right places. I know there’s a school of thought out there, though, at the same time that you shouldn’t always build your team through the draft. But I do think we’re fortunate in the fact that we have drafted well. And certainly, when you draft well, you want to pay the guys that you drafted well and keep them with a star on their helmet.”
The ugly bottom line is the Cowboys have preferred to shop at the discount rack in free agency and this method has not proved fruitful.
The recently released Mayowa is a prime example. The Cowboys signed him as a restricted free agent from the Oakland Raiders two years ago. He had six sacks in 2016 even he was inactive a couple of games and just one in 2017 before the Cowboys gave up on him.
But at least he played, as did running back Alfred Morris, a 2016 free-agent signee who proved to be a solid replacement from Elliott during his six-game suspension in 2017.
Consider the bargain free-agent signees of 2017.
Defensive tackle Stephen Paea retired in the middle of the season, cornerback Nolan Carroll and defensive end Damontre Moore were released during the season and safety Robert Blanton didn’t even make it out of training camp.
Stephen Jones doesn’t plan on deterring from his focus of not spending big on free agents but he acknowledges the team needs to make better choices.
"You got to be careful like that,” Stephen Jones said. “Obviously when we don't do well, look at Blanton and a Carroll, guys like that, and say 'how do we do better than that?" Obviously, it didn't work out for us, and we missed. You certainly want to be better. That's one thing I admire about Will and our staff, is certainly since it didn't work - why not? And how are we going to fix it?
What they need not do is limit their options when it comes to improving the team. The draft is the foundation as it should be. With 10 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Cowboys have ammunition to add to the team.
But so do the Eagles, Redskins, and Giants.
It’s also been a while since the Cowboys traded for a major veteran upgrade, dating back to 2008 when they got receiver Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions for a first and third-round pick.
It proved to be a failure, but the intention was correct. The Cowboys thought it was the missing piece to a Super Bowl team.
“You know, I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a specific reason,” Stephen Jones said, when asked about the lack of major trades of late. “I don’t know whether it’s opportunity or we think too highly of our guys or not enough of someone else’s guys. We’re certainly open for business, and we certainly have discussed things before. But it’s difficult for me to just put a finger on it, ‘Hey, why haven’t we made a trade in a while?’ Obviously, we do it in and around the draft and those types of things, but it’s certainly not conscientious that we’re not making a trade.”
The time has come for the Cowboys to be more aggressive in building their roster via free agency or trade.