IRVING, Texas -- Last week at the NFL owners meetings, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was asked a simple question: Are the Dallas Cowboys better?
He answered quickly and with one word: yes.
The Cowboys have signed Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa and Alfred Morris from outside the building. They have retained Rolando McClain, Morris Claiborne, James Hanna, Lance Dunbar, Kyle Wilber, Josh Thomas and Charles Brown.
"We're addressing specific areas that we need -- I'm hesitant to use depth -- we just need contributions,” Jones said. "We're certainly going to play a lot of guys, and where we've brought some of these guys in -- whether it be at running back, whether it be defensive line -- we need some numbers. And we're getting them.”
But are the Cowboys really better?
The easy answer is yes, as Jones pointed out, because they will have a healthy Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick. They combined to play 13 games in 2015, which played a big part in their 4-12 finish.
But are the Cowboys really, really better?
Let's look at the signings:
Cedric Thornton for Nick Hayden
Jason Garrett would not commit to Thornton at nose tackle but that would appear to be the most likely position. The Cowboys just gave Tyrone Crawford an extension worth $9 million a year, so Thornton won't take his spot. He has four career sacks, so he won't be a defensive end, at least not full time. Hayden started every game the past three seasons. He was dependable and solid. The Cowboys believe Thornton will be dependable and solid and better.
Call it an upgrade.
Alfred Morris for Robert Turbin
Turbin had some solid moments as Darren McFadden's backup over the last six weeks of the season. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts in hopes for a larger role. As good as he was as a late-season pickup, Morris is simply better, even if his numbers have decreased every season. The Cowboys hope their line and their style of play will rejuvenate Morris the way it did McFadden last season.
Call it an upgrade.
Benson Mayowa for Greg Hardy
Since the Cowboys have not had any meaningful discussions with Hardy's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, the likelihood of Hardy's return is slimmer than slim. But to close a door is unwise considering Jones' ability to change his mind. The Cowboys signed Mayowa and his two career sacks to a three-year deal worth $8.25 million. They view him as a piece to the puzzle, not the biggest piece. The Cowboys are betting on Mayowa's development. Hardy was a handful to deal with last year, but he still had six sacks.
Call it a downgrade.
Rolando McClain for Rolando McClain
For the third straight year he will be working on a one-year contract, but for the first time he should be a full participant in the offseason program. In 2014, he didn't join the Cowboys until a July trade, after the final minicamp. He missed most of last offseason because of knee surgery and he chose to do his rehab in Alabama. He missed most of training camp as well. He has been productive without the benefits of on-field work the past two years. If he can get the on-field work this spring, then he should be better.
Call it an upgrade.
Keeping your own versus adding from outside
Re-signing free agents from a team that finished 4-12 might not seem like the wisest moves, but Claiborne, Hanna, Wilber and Dunbar had value to them. Claiborne could start or serve as the third corner. With Gavin Escobar coming back from a torn Achilles, Hanna was needed as the No. 2 tight end. Wilber can play multiple roles. If healthy, Dunbar brings options to the backfield in the passing game that they don't have in McFadden or Morris.
Call it a push.
The Cowboys won't be done looking at the free-agent market but the attention to the draft will almost be full-time in the next few days. They would like to keep another of their free agents in defensive end Jack Crawford. They'll look for defensive back help. They'll look at different ways to upgrade the backup quarterback spot.
Are the Cowboys better?
The moves they made have mostly been unheralded but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They'll have more moves and then add players through the draft.
Oh, and as Jones said, Romo, Bryant and Scandrick will be healthy in 2016.