Cowboys looking for lots of improvement from within

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys approached free agency the way they said they would. They wouldn’t be big spenders. They would be pragmatic and look for good deals on good players.

They have added defensive tackle Cedric Thornton, defensive end Benson Mayowa, running back Alfred Morris and backup offensive lineman Joe Looney. They re-signed Rolando McClain, Morris Claiborne, James Hanna, Kyle Wilber, Lance Dunbar, Jack Crawford, Charles Brown and Josh Thomas.

All of the deals can be termed team-friendly.

To some, the gains might appear modest for a team that finished 4-12 last season.

With the fourth overall pick, the Cowboys could make a major gain in the draft. They also have the 34th overall with a chance to add another premium player.

“The foundation of your team should come through the draft,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You should try to address some needs that you have using the entire landscape of player acquisition and free agency is a big piece of that. But again you want to disciplined, you want to be targeted. My experience has been when you draft well sometimes you don’t need to be quite as active in free agency. If you have big holes in your draft where you’ve missed guys, hey we’ve got to shore up this position and the best way to do this is go get this guy in free agency.”

As evidenced by their free-agent approach in re-signing their own and making targeted signings, the Cowboys are banking on their biggest improvement coming from within.

But let’s go beyond the return to health of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant even as important as that will be to success in 2016.

The Cowboys are banking on their youth in making bigger gains.

In 2013, the Cowboys had Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams play significant roles as draft picks. Safety J.J. Wilcox, a third-round pick in 2013, started every game in his second season and was credited with 89 tackles and three interceptions.

In 2014, it was Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence did not have a regular-season sack as a rookie in 2014 but came up with a team-high eight sacks in 2015.

From last year’s draft class, Byron Jones was the biggest contributor, but the Cowboys did not receive much else. Second-rounder Randy Gregory missed four games with an ankle injury, did not record a sack and will miss the first four games of his second season because of a suspension.

Tackle Chaz Green, their third-round pick, spent his rookie season on the physically unable to perform list because of hip surgery and practiced only for three weeks. The Cowboys would like him to be their backup swing tackle in 2016.

Fourth-round pick Damienl Wilson saw defensive snaps in just one game and played mostly a special teams’ role. He and seventh-rounder Mark Nzeocha will be in similar situations in their second year but the Cowboys need them to be core special teamers at the least.

Defensive end Ryan Russell (fifth round) played in one game last year before an abdomen injury ended his season. When the team’s pass rushers are mentioned, he is mostly forgotten. The Cowboys can’t have that happen again. Tight end Geoff Swaim saw limited action as a rookie but with Gavin Escobar returning from a torn Achilles he will be the third tight end behind Jason Witten and Hanna.

La'el Collins was an undrafted free agent in name only last year, but he started 11 games at left guard as a rookie. Lucky Whitehead was a true undrafted free agent and contributed on special teams mostly. David Irving was picked up from the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad and developed into a role player along the defensive line. Terrance Mitchell was signed late in the season and played well in a nickel role. He could play some safety in 2016.

“There are a number of guy who we feel like are young developmental players who have a chance to be good,” Garrett said. “If you look at the offensive line, LC Collins was a good add for us, started a lot of games for us, feel like he can really grow as a player. A number of guys in the defensive line, David Irving did a really nice job for us last year. We have a couple young corners who we like. We have couple young linebackers who we like. Some of the guys who have been with us in a certain role, you always feel like those guys can get better and better and better. Kyle Wilber can get better. James Hanna can get better. Gavin Escobar coming off the injury can get better. There are a number of guys that you like to give more of an opportunity to, to see them grow. And the big challenge to them is to keep preparing, keep developing themselves so when they get that chance take full advantage of it.”