Throughout their storied history, the Dallas Cowboys have largely relied on trades and quality draft picks to build championship teams. Since 1993 there have been seven years where the Cowboys have had no 1st round pick, the last one in 2009. Times have changed, and the fast track to building championship teams uses the free agent market. The prices for the best free agents are usually astronomically high, and the verdict is still out on whether spending money on high priced free agents that don’t pan out is any different than a 1st round pick that ends up being a bust. It probably costs the team much more money.
This list of the best free agent signings will basically fall into two groups. The first are players that were signed for huge amounts of money and/or draft picks whose play justified their pay. The second group are players who were taken off the market for a relatively small price yet outperformed their expectations. Officially, NFL free agency as we know it started in 1993, but there were different forms dating back to as early as 1946.
Here’s who we think were the best free agency signings the Dallas Cowboys ever made (this list is in no particular order).
1. Deion Sanders
We start the list with an obvious choice – “Neon” Deion Sanders. Often considered the biggest and most influential signing of the 1990’s, he was directly responsible for the Cowboys winning their 1995 Super Bowl. Perhaps more importantly, he changed the tone for drafting defensive players, allowing this group to get higher offers and a higher seeding in the overall free agent market. Drafted as a cornerback, he would find himself playing multiple positions for Dallas and maximizing his value to the team and organization. The price the Cowboys paid was a 7 year contract totaling $35 million and a $12.999 million signing bonus.
2. Randall Cobb
Moving over to the offensive side of the line, of recent vintage is Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. He was gotten for what ended up being a bargain price of a one year, $5 million deal. Acquiring Cobb muted much of the criticism the Cowboys have faced in recent years about spending considerable amounts of money for players whose contributions were questionable at best. The talk now is that Dallas is being more penny wise and less pound foolish. As a slot receiver he can prevent double teams on Amari Cooper and boosts the value of Dak Prescott.
3. Jay Novacek
After spending four rather uneventful years with the (now) Arizona Cardinals where he caught a paltry 8 touchdown passes in 5 years, he was scooped up by Dallas where he would proceed to make five consecutive Pro Bowl starts as a tight end. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman would use Novacek as a got-to security blanket, and increased the total number of TD catches from 8 in five years to 28 in six seasons with the Cowboys. TD catches aside, he was the recipient of no less than 40 catches in every season with the Cowboys. As one of the players left unprotected under the older Plan B free agency rules, Novacek almost ended up with the Green Bay Packers, with Dallas winning out by offering him a $1.8 million signing bonus combined with a three-year, $4.8 million contract.
4. Terrell Owens
Owens was one of the more colorful and controversial players for the Cowboys, but his play and impact at least equaled his antics. Having signed as a wide receiver with a 3 year, $25 million contract with an added $5 million signing bonus, he proved he was a play maker as he put up 1,000 yard seasons and made it to the Pro Bowl. On the negative side of the ledger, he received well-deserved criticism for his two playoff appearances, where he caught an abysmal 75 yards on 6 receptions – and a solitary touchdown.
5. La’Roi Glover
Signing a 5 year, $22 million deal in 2001, Glover would join the Cowboys after fans had endured back-to-back 5-11 season records. Though defensive tackles don’t often end up changing the direction of a team, Glover was one of the exceptions. He anchored the defensive line and would be a key to returning the Cowboys to the playoffs during his five year contract. He had durability, as he started all 64 games with the Cowboys, also making the Pro Bowl in four consecutive seasons. Not just another pretty football face, he would retire from the NFL and earn his MBA in 2012.
6. George Iloka
Another player of recent vintage, Iloka signed a one year, $930,000 deal to play safety for the Cowboys. Compared to just about every other player on this list, he is the best bargain, especially when you adjust for inflation. Like Glover, he has a high football IQ, giving him an edge across the field. He excels in coverage and is one of the rare defensive players in modern football who actually takes pride in not missing tackles. Keep in mind that Seattle standout Earl Williams was also on the free agent market at the same time, a signing that the Cowboys would have had to pay through the nose for.
7. Ray Donaldson
The Center position in football almost always falls into one of two groups: those who are standouts and those who simply are a part of a team’s offensive line. Donaldson signed for a relatively low $1.6 million over 2 years. One reason was that the Cowboys had won the Super Bowl two of the past three years, so joining a winner was a no-brainer. At age 37, this was a huge opportunity. While only playing two years, he started every game and was named to the Pro Bowl in each of those two years. And he ended up with a Super Bowl ring in 1995.
8. Leonard Davis
Another offensive line position, Davis signed for an amazing $49.6 million, with $18.75 of that guaranteed, and agreed to be with the Cowboys for the next 7 years. Another Cardinal underachiever, he had been the 2nd overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft and the Cowboys saw the potential. If there is an argument that being on a winning team improves your play, Davis can be used as a prime example. The Cowboys blocking schemes have been said to maximize Davis’ talents as the Cowboys would go 33-15 in three consecutive winning seasons with Davis on the line. His final year would result in being selected for the Pro Bowl.
9. Raghib Ismail
Better known to fans as “Rocket” Ismail, he sign with the Cowboys in 1999 and earned the name “Rocket” by being the speedy wide receiver every team looks for to challenge defenses. The Cowboys can be credited for the success of this pick as they planned ahead. Cowboy star Michael Irvin would suffer a career ending injury in just the fourth game of the 1999 season, and Ismail was the perfect fit to fill the void. He would rack up 1,097 yards receiving and cross the goal line 6 times that year, leading the team in total receiving yards.
10. James Washington
Another 1990 Plan B free agent, it is easy to overlook a relatively generic name like James Washington. But when the bright lights were on during the Cowboys two Super Bowl appearances in 1993 and 1994, he would come up big, forcing a total of 4 turnovers in those games. Playing the strong safety position, he was known as “Drive-by” for being one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. He would lose his starting position to Darren Woodson – nothing to be ashamed of there.