Are Dallas Cowboys improved after franchise-high eight free agents signed?

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys in 2021 have added their most expansive free-agent class in franchise history.

That's expansive. Not expensive.

The Cowboys have signed eight unrestricted free agents. The team's previous high since free agency became a thing in 1993, was seven in 2012 when they brought in guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, guard Nate Livings, cornerback Brandon Carr, linebacker Dan Connor, quarterback Kyle Orton, safety Brodney Pool and fullback Lawrence Vickers.

This year the Cowboys have added long-snapper Jake McQuaide, tackle Ty Nsekhe, safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, linebacker Tarell Basham and defensive linemen Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban.

Collectively, that group will count $12.712 million against the salary cap. Neal has the largest signing bonus at $3 million. Basham has the highest cap figure at $2.5 million. Kearse, Kazee and McQuaide are on minimum-salary benefit contracts.

Perhaps there will be more additions as the offseason moves along, but the question now is: Have the Cowboys gotten better with their additions?

The answer: Possibly, but there are a lot of ifs.

If Neal, 25, is healthy, then the Cowboys have gotten better at safety, linebacker or wherever he plays. Every time the 2016 first-round pick played a full season (or close to a full season) for the Atlanta Falcons, he had 100 tackles. But he missed most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons with knee and Achilles injuries. The Cowboys were able to sign him in part because of his injury history. Without it, more teams would have made bigger financial commitments to him.

If Kazee, 27, can return to form, the Cowboys have a playmaker at safety. He had seven interceptions in 2018. The Cowboys have not had a defender with more than six interceptions in a season since Everson Walls had nine in 1985. But Kazee played four games last season for Atlanta because of a torn Achilles.

Kearse, 27, can also play a hybrid role, like Neal, and he can be a contributor on special teams.

While coach Mike McCarthy has not closed the door on the return of defensive end Aldon Smith, it appears the Cowboys have traded Smith for Basham, who had a career high in sacks last season for the New York Jets. Basham had 3.5, or a half-sack more than what Smith had against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 last season. It's fair to wonder whether the Cowboys regret not trading Smith to the Seahawks when they had the chance at the trade deadline?

Watkins, 27, is the Cowboys' latest dip into the Houston Texans' defensive line. In the past few years, Dallas has added Terrell McClain, Christian Covington and traded for Eli Ankou last season. If Watkins can be as good as McClain, then the Cowboys have found a hit. If he plays more like Ankou, then he might not make the final roster.

Urban, 29, seems like a replacement for defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, who recently retired after nine years with the Cowboys. Crawford's versatility was a plus, and it just so happens Urban can play multiple spots along the front as well. Urban had a career high in sacks (2.5) last season with the Chicago Bears; Crawford had two sacks in 2020.

Because of the injuries offensive linemen Tyron Smith and La'el Collins had last season, the Cowboys wanted to have a veteran protection at offensive tackle. Nsekhe turns 36 in October, so there's experience there and the Cowboys believe he has a lot of tread left. Nsekhe needs to be better than Brandon Knight and Terence Steele, who each started most of the games last season for Smith and Collins.

McQuaide, 33, might have the biggest shoes to fill at long-snapper, and all he has to do is be perfect to equal what his predecessor, L.P. Ladouceur, did for 16 years. If he has one wayward snap, then folks will wonder if the Cowboys should have brought Ladouceur back for a 17th season.