Cowboys break free-agency ice but look to make splash in the draft

The Cowboys believe in signing their own, which is why they put the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

FRISCO, Texas -- When news broke Wednesday night that the Dallas Cowboys reached an agreement on a two-year deal with free-agent linebacker Joe Thomas, the reactions were mixed.

Rare was the reaction that the Cowboys made a good move by adding Thomas, who had eight career starts in 42 games with the Green Bay Packers over three seasons. The Packers opted to not extend a restricted free-agent tender to Thomas, allowing him to hit the market, which was what the Cowboys did with fullback Keith Smith, who left to sign with the Oakland Raiders.

Most of the reactions were sarcastic, as if the addition of Thomas would swing the balance of power in the NFC East. Some jokingly said they thought the Cowboys had signed Joe Thomas, the All-Pro left tackle of the Cleveland Browns who recently retired. Others were just glad the Cowboys did something after a slow start to free agency.

The Cowboys are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to winning public opinion with their free-agent signings.

The Cowboys don’t have much cap space. As of Wednesday, it was less than $100,000 although different sites have different figures. They will restructure the contract of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, which will net them nearly $7 million in space. They have other ways of creating space by either restructuring more contracts or by cutting players.

They have not been big players in the market since 2012. Last week, though, they made a bid to sign Sammy Watkins, but were not able to close the deal. Watkins opted to take the Kansas City Chiefs' three-year, $48 million offer.

The Cowboys have not gotten the money out of the deals they have signed even with the low-cost approach. They have not been willing to pay good players great player money even if that is part of doing business these days.

This week, the Cowboys have met with free-agent receivers Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Dontrelle Inman and Justin Hunter. They have met with free-agent offensive linemen Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle and Marcus Martin.

None of those players would changed the balance of power in the division if they signed with the Cowboys either, but the Cowboys don’t view free agency in that manner.

They view it as a complimentary piece to building a roster. They would much rather sign their own players, believing that mitigates the risk in spending even if it is not foolproof. They put the $17.143 million franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence. They put a second-round tender on David Irving, making it difficult for another team to sign the restricted free-agent defensive lineman. They kept long snapper L.P. Ladouceur on a one-year deal.

Thomas is viewed as a spot starter with special teams’ traits. In other words, he is a better version of Kyle Wilber, whom the Cowboys lost in free agency to the Raiders. With the Packers, Thomas played mostly in their sub packages, but in 2016 he started seven of 16 games and was credited with 77 tackles. With the loss of Anthony Hitchens and Jaylon Smith still something of an unknown, the Cowboys needed a coverage type linebacker who can play multiple spots and cover some kicks.

These moves won't sway public opinion, but the Cowboys hope it will at least provide them some cover on their roster as they get ready for the draft. It’s in the draft where the Cowboys hope to tilt the NFC East balance in their favor and win over fans and critics.

But will that be enough to get the Cowboys back to the playoffs?