Cowboys guarantee $20M to free agent pickups

In their first offseason moves aimed at aiding their transition to a 3-4 defense and patching a porous secondary, the Cowboys made two significant free agent strikes Wednesday, ESPN.com has learned.

The Cowboys reached contract agreements with a pair of top-shelf unrestricted veterans -- defensive tackle Jason Ferguson of the Jets and cornerback Anthony Henry of the Browns -- investing about $20 million in guarantees. Ferguson was the top defensive tackle available in the veteran pool and Henry was viewed by many as the best young cornerback in free agency.

With their additions, the Cowboys are confident that "Big D" can once again field a big defense.

The addition of eighth-year veteran Ferguson is a key for the Cowboys, since he likely will man the critical nose tackle position in the new defense. He can also play nose tackle in the standard 4-3 front, which Dallas figures to use on occasion as well.

Ferguson, 30, will sign a five-year, $21.5 million contract that includes a $9 million signing bonus. The deal will pay him a whopping $11.5 million in the first two seasons and $13.5 million in the first three years.

Henry will get a five-year, $25 million deal. The fourth-year veteran will bank a $10 million signing bonus, a $1 million roster bonus in 2005 and a $1 million roster bonus in 2006. He will be paid $18 million over the first three years of his contract.

Credit the salesmanship of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Bill Parcells, the man who drafted Ferguson while coaching the Jets, with convincing the defensive tackle to sign. Earlier in the evening, Ferguson informed agent Jimmy Sexton that he wanted to fly home to Memphis to discuss the offers from the Cowboys and the Jets with his wife. But Jones prevailed, hustling home from a league meeting in Atlanta earlier in the day, to help recruit Ferguson.

Ferguson clearly agonized over his decision, and the Jets felt confident they could get him back, but Dallas raised its offer and clearly made a strong sales pitch.

Although he has never played in the Pro Bowl and never registered more than 4½ sacks in a season, Ferguson was a highly coveted player in this year's free agent pool, and the competition for his services was heated. So determined were the Jets to keep him that, on Tuesday, the team dispatched assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum to Memphis, unannounced, to meet with Sexton.

Several other teams, beyond the Jets and Cowboys, were also in pursuit and most of them phoned Sexton shortly after the free agency period began.

A former University of Georgia standout, Ferguson, a seventh-round pick in 1997, is known primarily as a run-stuffer, but will, at times, push the pocket from the inside. He has three or more sacks in each of the last three seasons and, while those numbers are not huge, they are solid figures for a nose tackle.

Ferguson is coming off a very strong 2004 season in which he totaled 59 tackles and 3½ sacks. In 101 appearances, including 83 starts, Ferguson has 369 tackles, 20½ sacks and six forced fumbles.

Securing the highly-regarded Henry provides Dallas an emerging young cornerback to pair with second-year veteran Terence Newman. A first-round choice in the 2003 draft, Newman had a sometimes brilliant rookie season, then regressed in 2004, in part because the Cowboys did not adequately address the corner spot opposite him.

That the Cowboys had made Henry a free agency priority was reflected by the fact they moved quickly to fly him to Dallas early Wednesday morning, arranging the trip only a few minutes after the signing period officially began at 12:01 a.m.

Henry, 28, is blessed with excellent size (6 feet 1 and 205 pounds), a quality that Parcells prefers in his cornerbacks. He plays a physical style but still has enough speed to run upfield with wide receivers and to overcome the emphasis on illegal contact in the secondary.

A three-year starter, Henry played particularly well in 2004, notching 76 tackles, four interceptions and 12 passes defensed. Ironically, his best statistical season came in his rookie year, when Henry registered a league-high 10 interceptions in 2001, playing the "nickel" cornerback role.

The former South Florida star, a fourth-round pick in the '01 draft, has 239 tackles, 17 interceptions and 49 passes defensed in 61 games, including 39 starts.

Henry was one of three unrestricted free agents mentioned publicly by the Browns' new football regime as players they wanted to retain. Sources said, however, that Cleveland never came close to re-signing the four-year veteran.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.