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Dallas Cowboys' NFL free-agent signings 2021: With Dak Prescott signed, pass rush and secondary get a boost

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Why Keanu Neal is an upgrade for the Cowboys (1:02)

Todd Archer details how the Cowboys may use new signing Keanu Neal. (1:02)

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.

The biggest move the Dallas Cowboys made so far is keeping Dak Prescott on a four-year, $160 million deal. Most of the moves they have made in free agency so far has been designed to plug holes in a defense that had far too many leaks in 2020. The Cowboys were and are not going to play in the high end of the market, but they have been able to find help in the secondary and defensive line with keeping slot corner Jourdan Lewis and adding safety Keanu Neal, defensive ends Brent Urban and Tarell Basham and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins. They managed to add a swing tackle in Ty Nsekhe, which is a big spot considering Tyron Smith’s health.

None of the moves made so far take the Cowboys out of using a draft selection to add an immediate starter, future starter or depth player next month.

Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Cowboys, and how each will impact the upcoming season:


Keanu Neal, S

Safety Keanu Neal and the Dallas Cowboys have reached agreement on a one-year, $5 million deal, a source confirmed to ESPN on Saturday. Neal, 25, has spent all five of his seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, where he played for new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn after being selected 17th overall in the 2016 draft.

What it means: The safety market is starting to sort itself out, and Neal’s deal that maxes out at $5 million falls in line with what other veterans have received. But will he play safety or could he move to linebacker? Nothing is set in stone but that is an option. Neal played for new coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta and had three 100-tackle seasons, while making the Pro Bowl in 2017. He has just two career interceptions, but he has been a solid performer. His arrival could spell the end of Xavier Woods' time in Dallas. Woods started the last three seasons and is also a free agent.

What's the risk: Talent-wise, he is an upgrade to the defense. He had 100 tackles last season after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. He is more of a box player, hence the possibility of playing linebacker, but the Cowboys think Donovan Wilson has some flexibility. They could also look to select a safety early in the draft. If Neal plays linebacker, what does it mean for Leighton Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith? Smith’s $7.2 million base salary is about to become fully guaranteed for the season. If he moved to the strong-side linebacker spot, that’s an awful lot of money for 20-30 snaps per game. Vander Esch’s best season was his rookie year as the weak-side linebacker, but injuries have cut short his last two campaigns.


Dak Prescott, QB

The quarterback signed a six-year deal (a contract that voids to four years) for $160 million.

What it means: The Cowboys know Prescott will be their quarterback for at least the next four years. It took longer than expected to come to the agreement, but both sides got what they wanted. Prescott has the highest signing bonus in NFL history ($66 million) and $126 million guaranteed over the next three years. The Cowboys paid a premium but they have salary-cap flexibility in the first two years. With Prescott, the Cowboys believe they can contend -- and more than just in the NFC East.

What's the risk: All indications are Prescott is ahead of schedule in his rehab from the dislocated and compound fracture of his right ankle he suffered last October. He is expected to be a full go for the offseason program, but the Cowboys will be smart with his work before training camp. The risk is if Prescott will be the same player after having such an injury. Also, the $40 million annual salary makes him the second highest paid QB in the NFL. And while the Cowboys say they will be able to field a team around Prescott, the contract will make things tight against the cap in the third and fourth years of the deal.


Tarell Basham, DE

The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with the former New York Jets defensive lineman.

What it means: Basham comes to the Cowboys as a designated pass-rusher. Even though he has 7.5 sacks in 58 games, he had a career-high 3.5 sacks last season along with 13 hurries. The Cowboys had him among their top-30 draft visitors in 2017 and have kept their eye on him in his time with the Indianapolis Colts and Jets. At 6-foot-4, 269 pounds, he has decent size to hold up at the point of attack. This does not end the possibility of Aldon Smith returning, but Basham can pair with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory as their pass-rushers as they hope for more from Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae.

What's the risk: The Cowboys have had some success with low-cost pass-rushers, like Jeremy Mincey and George Selvie. This has a feel of the Benson Mayowa signing from a few years ago as a restricted free agent. He had six sacks in his first season in 2016. Of their additions so far, Basham might be the biggest, but they feel they have plugged holes on their front while not taking them out of possibly adding more players through the draft.

Carlos Watkins, DT

The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with the former Houston Texans defensive lineman.

What it means: Watkins provides depth to a defensive front that needs depth. While he was a defensive end in the Texans' 3-4 scheme, he is more suited to play tackle in coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme. The Cowboys have Trysten Hill, who is coming back from a torn ACL, and Neville Gallimore as three-technique options. Watkins had 27 tackles and two sacks in a career-high 11 starts in 2020. This might be a sign the Cowboys will not be signing Gerald McCoy. He signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys last year, but suffered a quadriceps injury in the first padded practice of training camp and missed the 2020 season.

What's the risk: Very little, and this is part of a theme of the Cowboys' free-agent additions. Adding Watkins does not take them out of selecting a defensive tackle in the draft, just as re-signing Jourdan Lewis or adding Ty Nsekhe doesn't taking them out of adding a cornerback or tackle. Like Rod Marinelli before him, Quinn wants to have a rotation of linemen to keep his guys fresh. It is what worked well for him in Seattle. (Well, that and the Legion of Boom.)

Jourdan Lewis, CB

The cornerback returns to Dallas on a three-year deal worth a max of $16.5 million, including $8 million guaranteed, per his agent.

What it means: A slot corner, he started 13 of 15 games in 2020 and had 60 tackles with two sacks, five tackles for loss, two pass deflections and a fumble recovery. The Cowboys like his instincts in playing the slot, but he had a team-high eight penalties last season. The re-signing of Lewis does not preclude the Cowboys from selecting a cornerback early in next month's draft. They have been linked to Alabama's Patrick Surtain II and Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley with the No. 10 overall pick in many mock drafts. The Cowboys also have last year's second-round pick Trevon Diggs, who led the Cowboys with three interceptions in 2020, Lewis and Anthony Brown as their top corners at the moment.

What's the risk: Since it will not take them out of the corner market in the draft, the risk is minimal. The $8 million guaranteed falls in line with what slot corners have made and the base value of the contract is $4.5 million a year. The Cowboys paid more to Brown last year as a free agent on an annual average value. Lewis has some fight to him, which the defense needs more of. He will be working with his fourth different defensive backs coach in his five seasons.


Ty Nsekhe, OT

The former Buffalo Bills offensive tackle has agreed to a one-year deal with the Cowboys.

What it means: Having lost last year's swing tackle, Cameron Erving, to the Carolina Panthers on a two-year, $10 million deal, the Cowboys replaced him with another veteran in Nsekhe, who is entering his eighth season following a two-year run with Buffalo. With Tyron Smith (neck) and La'el Collins (hip) coming off surgery, the Cowboys continue to look at a veteran swing tackle. Nsekhe has never started more than five games in a season, but he can play multiple roles.

What's the risk: The biggest has to be his age. He turns 36 during the season. The Cowboys had 2020 undrafted rookie Terence Steele start 14 games at right tackle and 2019 undrafted rookie Brandon Knight start nine at left tackle. The Cowboys have committed themselves financially to Smith, Collins and Zack Martin. At some point, Dallas has to be comfortable with young players as backups, but Nsekhe's price tag must be favorable.


C.J. Goodwin, CB

The Cowboys have agreed to terms with the cornerback on a two-year, $3.5 million deal that includes $2 million guaranteed.

What it means: The Cowboys have retained their best special teams' player. He is a staple on every unit, but particularly excels as a gunner on the punt team. His speed makes him difficult to match on the outside, but he does not get reckless to where he over-pursues a returner. Goodwin can play cornerback in a pinch if necessary and played a spy role last season as an extra defensive back against Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

What's the risk: There really is no risk. In fact, this price might be a little less than what some other top-end special-teamers have received so far this offseason. Goodwin is a dependable special-teamer and his return will help the coverage units in 2021.

Jake McQuaide, LS

The former Los Angeles Rams long-snapper has agreed to a one-year deal with the Cowboys.

What it means: The Cowboys said goodbye to their long-snapper for the past 16 seasons, L.P. Ladouceur, and are adding McQuaide. Ladouceur was three games away from setting the franchise mark for most games played and showed no signs of slowing down in 2020. The Cowboys got seven years younger with the addition of McQuaide, who is 33. He has not missed a game in his career and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017. He will be reunited with coordinator John Fassel and place-kicker Greg Zuerlein from their days with the Rams.

What's the risk: If McQuaide has a slip up at any point on a snap, Ladouceur's perfection will be mentioned. There really is no cost difference between the two players from a salary-cap perspective, and Ladouceur has been healthy as well. Sometimes a coach just wants his guy and Fassel's long relationship with McQuaide could have played a part in this move. For 16 years, the Cowboys never had to worry about Ladouceur, but they don't feel like there will be any worry with McQuaide, either.


Brent Urban, DT

The former Chicago Bears defensive lineman has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Cowboys.

What it means: Urban (6-foot-7, 295 pounds) had 36 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 16 games (eight starts) for the Bears last season. Like Carlos Watkins, who agreed to a deal earlier in the day, Urban is viewed as a rotational piece at defensive tackle. He has played for three teams since entering the league in 2014 (Baltimore, Tennessee, Chicago) and can play some end if necessary. This likely means the Cowboys will pass on Gerald McCoy while the thought has been that Tyrone Crawford is leaning toward retirement.

What's the risk: Financially, there is now downside, like all of the Cowboys' additions so far. He turns 30 in May, but the Cowboys will not ask him to play 60 snaps a game. The addition will not preclude the Cowboys from going after a defensive tackle in the draft, either. At some point, the Cowboys will have to add some bulk to the interior of their line to help the run defense, but part of Quinn's scheme is for the linemen to get up the field off the snap to disrupt the offense.


Damontae Kazee, S

The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with the former Atlanta Falcons safety.

What it means: Kazee suffered a torn Achilles last October and part of his visit to The Star this week was to check in on his rehab. The Cowboys felt comfortable enough with it to make the commitment to him over Malik Hooker, who is also recovering from a torn Achilles but has dealt with numerous injuries in his career. Kazee started 34 of 52 games for coach Dan Quinn, who is now the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, and led the NFL in interceptions in 2018 with seven.

What's the risk: Coming off an Achilles tear is a difficult chore for a defensive back, but the Cowboys have had success in the past. Barry Church suffered the injury in 2012 but returned and started every game he played for the Cowboys from 2013-16. Kazee is a free safety, which likely means the team is looking to move on from Xavier Woods, but the terms of the deal make it such that the Cowboys could still look at a safety early in next month's draft.


Jayron Kearse, S

The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with the former Detroit Lions safety.

What it means: The Cowboys had three safeties in for visits at The Star on March 24 and came away with Kearse, who had a career-high 55 tackles in 11 games (seven starts) for the Lions. He ended the season on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad. Kearse spent his first four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before joining Detroit. He has one interception. The Cowboys also had Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee in for visits, but both are coming off torn Achilles. Kearse offers the ability to play in the box and potentially play some linebacker in sub packages, like Keanu Neal, who agreed to a deal last week. He can also help on special teams.

What's the risk: Stop if you heard this before: but none. Kearse missed the first three games of last season because of a suspension, but the financial commitment is not big and it won't take the Cowboys out of the market for drafting a safety. He is the seventh free agent the Cowboys have added, but none have been signed to big deals that chew up a lot of salary-cap space.