Cowboys tried to make free-agent splash but can get better with ripples, too

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have been fairly quiet the first couple days of free agency. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

FRISCO, Texas -- That it happens every year shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it still does.

Free agency is two days old and the Dallas Cowboys have done nothing.

NOTHING!!! CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? JERRY JONES JUST DOESN’T CARE ANYMORE!!! ALL HE CARES ABOUT IS HIS MONEY!!! I’M NEVER GOING TO WATCH ANOTHER GAME!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE FIRED TOM LANDRY!!!!

Except it’s not really nothing. DeMarcus Lawrence was retained on the franchise tag at a cost of $17.143 million. David Irving was given the second-round tender as a restricted free agent. There is the tiniest of chances the Cowboys’ top two defensive linemen won’t be on the team in 2018.

But that doesn’t count to a lot of fans. The Cowboys already had Lawrence and Irving, and they were only so good that Dallas finished 9-7 in 2017. Well, would the Cowboys be better in 2018 without them?

Just about everybody wants splashes. The kind of splash a 350-pound offensive lineman would make from the high diving board.

The Cowboys tried to make that splash as the market opened. They were deep into the fray with wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who took a three-year, $48 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. Their offer wasn’t far off, but Watkins opted for Kansas City.

Had the Cowboys landed Watkins, the reaction would have been outrageous.

JERRY’S A GENIUS!! HE’S ALL-IN!! IT’S SUPER BOWL OR BUST!! NOW THIS IS DAK-FRIENDLY!! HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?

And maybe then everybody would have noticed Watkins has one 1,000-yard season in his career and he caught just 39 passes for the Los Angeles Rams last season.

As executive vice president Stephen Jones has reminded us over and over and over, good players get great-player money in free agency. The Cowboys were ready to overpay for Watkins, whose talent they hoped a reunion with receivers coach Sanjay Lal would unlock.

Trying to sign Watkins was a good move. Not paying him as a top-five receiver in the NFL might be an even better move.

This is the free-agency conundrum. If you want in on early free-agency signings, you have to overpay. Being reasonable in any field these days doesn’t matter.

The Cowboys’ free-agency strategy isn’t necessarily wrong, but they have done a poor job lately identifying free agents at the right price to help. Too often they have seemed to have wanted to “win the deal,” rather than improve the roster.

In 2016, the Cowboys signed defensive tackle Cedric Thornton away from the Philadelphia Eagles with a four-year, $17 million deal. He did not start a game and was cut before the 2017 season began. Last year, the Cowboys signed cornerback Nolan Carroll to a four-year, $10 million deal and he was cut by late October.

Of the five unrestricted free agents the Cowboys signed last year, only Byron Bell made it through the season on the roster.

The best free-agent signing the Cowboys have in the past five years is defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who came to town with a two-year, $3 million contract. He led the Cowboys in sacks in 2014 but did not have a sack in 2015. Greg Hardy's one-year deal in 2015 did not do the Cowboys any salary-cap harm, but it did not help them on the field or in the locker room.

Even at this early point in free agency, the splashes are over. The big money mostly has been spent.

Now comes the smart shopping. This is where the Cowboys have to do better than they have in recent years. They can find useful pieces to close the gap on the Philadelphia Eagles and anybody else ahead of them in the NFC.

They tried the splash with Watkins, but making some ripples can go a long way in helping the core of the roster get back to the playoffs in 2018.