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Dallas Cowboys' offseason story: From panic to hope

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Why the Cowboys don't fear starting the season with Andy Dalton (1:25)

Dan Orlovsky asserts that the signing of Andy Dalton gives the Cowboys an edge in contract talks with Dak Prescott. (1:25)

The distress in March seems cute now.

Not even two months later, the Dallas Cowboys have had an offseason that deserves fairly high marks, even if quarterback Dak Prescott has yet to sign that lucrative contract.

It serves as a reminder to give the offseason time to breathe before hot-taking an organization into oblivion.

Do you remember what it was like before free agency began? Two months seems like a lifetime ago.

The fretting started early because Dallas didn't get a long-term deal done with Prescott, and the potential loss of receiver Amari Cooper loomed because the Cowboys could not use the franchise and transition tags thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement.

When free agency began, the Cowboys lost a number of key players. Byron Jones left for the Miami Dolphins as the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. Robert Quinn, who led the Cowboys in sacks in 2019 with 11.5, left for the Chicago Bears and a deal worth $14 million a season. Receiver Randall Cobb, who many assumed would be back to play for his former coach, Mike McCarthy, left for the Houston Texans and a deal worth $9 million a season.

Add in the departures of tight end Jason Witten, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Jeff Heath to the Las Vegas Raiders. Not long after, Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick retired, surprising many, though not everybody in the organization.

If the offseason is a roller-coaster ride, the Cowboys went through a number of twists, inversions and stomach-churning almost all at once. But the exhilaration of the ride is matched by the calm on the easy straightaways, even if they last only for a matter of seconds. Taking a big-picture view of the offseason, the Cowboys seem to be in a position to contend in McCarthy's first season as coach.

They placed the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott at a cost of $31.4 million that precluded him from negotiating with other teams. At the least, the Cowboys have their quarterback for 2020 while they try to work out a long-term deal. If the tag is the beginning of a potential divorce, so be it, but not having Prescott for 2020 would have been devastating.

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CeeDee Lamb could benefit the Cowboys in more ways than you think

Dan Orlovsky shows how CeeDee Lamb could improve the Cowboys' running game next season.

Without a contract, Prescott might choose to sit, but he played last season for $2 million -- why wouldn't he play this season for $31.4 million? Plus, he needs to put together another quality season to secure the long-term deal he wants from the Cowboys or, possibly, another team.

Even though he hit the open market, Cooper returned for a five-year deal worth $100 million that included $40 million fully guaranteed at the time of signing. As prodigious as that $20 million-a-year tag sounds, the Cowboys can get out of the deal after the 2021 season with minimal salary-cap impact.

They signed veteran defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. They kept linebacker Sean Lee and cornerback Anthony Brown. They added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety. They made depth moves at cornerback with Daryl Worley and Maurice Canady. Though they lost Witten at tight end, they signed Blake Jarwin to a $22 million extension and added Blake Bell in free agency.

The Cowboys also signed defensive end Aldon Smith. He has not played in a game since 2015 because of multiple suspensions and off-field issues, but he had a 19.5-sack season with new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. The Cowboys are awaiting his reinstatement -- along with pass-rusher Randy Gregory -- and hope Smith can at least fill some of what Quinn did last season.

They even made an investment at kicker, reuniting Greg Zuerlein with John Fassel, his coach with the Los Angeles Rams. And that came after they re-signed Kai Forbath, who closed last season by making all 10 of his kicks.

If free agency was about filling holes, the draft was about finding talent. Grabbing receiver CeeDee Lamb in the first round seemed so preposterous to the Cowboys, they did not have the Oklahoma receiver available when they picked in any of their pre-draft mock drafts.

And yet the Cowboys got the sixth-rated player on their draft board at No. 17 overall.

That was followed by Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs in the second round and Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore in the third -- two players they had rated near the top of the second round. Rounds 4-7 can be a shot in the dark, but the Cowboys believe they found value and ability in cornerback Reggie Robinson, center Tyler Biadasz, defensive end Bradlee Anae and quarterback Ben DiNucci.

Since the draft, the Cowboys signed Andy Dalton to be Prescott's backup. Is there a better backup quarterback in the NFL? Dalton, 32, has 204 touchdown passes and 31,954 passing yards. He took the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs five times. True, he does not have a playoff win, but do you feel better about having him instead of Cooper Rush? You should. Oh, and he counts just $900,000 more against the cap than Rush would have counted.

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Cowboys sign Zuerlein to shore up kicking game

Greg Zuerlein signs with the Dallas Cowboys, reuniting with special teams coach John Fassel.

The Cowboys' most recent move was adding veteran backup offensive tackle Cam Erving. Not a sexy move by any stretch, but Erving's experience gives him an edge over the Cowboys' other hopeful backups to starters Tyron Smith and La'el Collins.

The Cowboys might not be done adding players, but the bulk of the work is over.

Now they wait for the chance to get the players on the field together for at least part of an offseason program or training camp as the click, click, click of the roller coaster slowly moves up the incline before the games start.

There is a normal apprehension that sets in every year of not knowing if the moves made -- and not made -- were the correct ones.

The Cowboys will find out if they are right come September or whenever the season starts, but they have put themselves in a good position.