<
>

Cowboys suffer losses to open free agency, but hope isn't lost yet

FRISCO, Texas -- The sun came up this morning.

A day after the Dallas Cowboys lost Barry Church, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford on defense, and Ronald Leary on offense to free agency, that's about the best news for Cowboys fans.

But none of it should be surprising.

Every year Stephen Jones says the same thing. The Cowboys will not be big players in free agency. They would like to re-sign their own free agents, but they will stick to their prices and evaluations.

And every year the reactions to the Cowboys' lack of action in free agency reach apoplectic proportions.

As the New York Giants added wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a receiver group that already includes Odell Beckham Jr., the Cowboys sat back. As the Philadelphia Eagles added wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery, the Cowboys sat back. As the Washington Redskins signed McClain, D.J. Swearinger and Stacy McGee -- and lost Chris Baker, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, by the way -- the Cowboys sat back.

The Cowboys have roughly $8.5 million in salary-cap space to add players. It's not a lot of money, but they can add some talent at their prices. And they will add some. They just might not be the names you truly recognize or want.

Saying goodbye to Church, McClain, Crawford and Leary is not easy.

Church was second on the defense in tackles and led the team with two interceptions on the season in 707 snaps. (He missed four games because of a broken forearm.). McClain led the defensive line with 41 tackles, according to the coaches' count, and had 2.5 sacks in 469 snaps. Crawford had 27 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 530 snaps.

Leary started 12 games after taking over for an injured La'el Collins and helped open holes for the league's leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.

But the Cowboys believe they have replacements on the roster already.

While J.J. Wilcox remains a possibility to return, the Cowboys believe Jeff Heath can be a starter. I can see the eye-rolls now, but go back to how effective he was in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. Plus, the draft is supposed to be strong for safeties.

Last year's biggest free-agent pickup was Cedric Thornton at four years, $17 million but he could not beat out McClain for a starting role. He can move into the nose tackle position if necessary in 2017. Crawford was a useful part of the defensive line rotation because he could play just about any spot.

David Irving showed promise by the end of 2016 and should see a bigger role in 2017. He can play all along the line, like Crawford. Charles Tapper didn't play a snap as a rookie because of a back injury, but the Cowboys believe he can be a contributor in 2017.

Collins, who was close to full strength by the time the playoffs began after toe surgery, will return to his left guard spot.

We'll find out if the Cowboys were right. We'll also find out if the new teams will be pleased with their signings. Nothing is guaranteed.

The Cowboys were not going to be involved in the big first wave of signings. That has not been their style since signing Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012.

But there is good news, besides the sun coming up. Free agency doesn't last one day. It lasts months and months and months.

There is time to add pieces to a team that has won the NFC East in two of the past three years.