Dallas Cowboys' NFL free-agent signings 2022: Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr. boost pass rush

NFL free agency is well underway, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2022 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The first round of the 2022 NFL draft begins April 28 on ESPN.

The Dallas Cowboys enter free agency with plenty of needs (offensive line, defensive line, linebacker), but will do what has become an annual rite: Do their best to keep their own free agents while shopping on the sale rack.

They have not made a major splash in free agency since Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million) in 2012, but they have shown the ability to make quality signings on one-year deals. Last year, the Cowboys added safety Jayron Kearse (their leading tackler), safety Damontae Kazee, defensive end Carlos Watkins, linebacker Keanu Neal and punter Bryan Anger on one-year contracts.

The Cowboys are a draft-and-develop team these days and use free agency to fill holes to give them a purer draft board come April.

Here's a breakdown of every 2022 NFL free-agent signing by the Cowboys, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Michael Gallup, WR

Gallup agreed to terms on a five-year deal, $62.5 million deal to remain in Dallas. The deal includes a $10 million signing bonus.

What it means: It came down to Amari Cooper or Gallup. The Cowboys agreed to trade Cooper and his $20 million base salary that would have become gully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year to the Cleveland Browns and were able to keep Gallup before the market opened. Gallup has been a big-play receiver for the Cowboys since they drafted him in the third round in 2018. He has one 1,000-yard season to his credit but he can make the contested catches and quarterback Dak Prescott isn't afraid to go his way. Gallup just turned 26 and the Cowboys believe his best football is ahead of him. The signing won't stop the Cowboys from looking for another receiver in free agency or early in the upcoming draft.

What's the risk: He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in January and did not have surgery until February. When will he be 100%? The Cowboys are confident he will be ready for game action in September. That is a quick turnaround, but Gallup has complete faith in director of rehabilitation Britt Brown to get him right. The Cowboys are also taking a big-picture view here with a five-year deal. Once he is on the field, can Gallup become a consistent 1,000-yard receiver? Without Cooper, pressure ratchets up on Gallup and CeeDee Lamb as they move up in the pecking order offensively. The Cowboys believe both can do it.

Jake McQuaide, long-snapper

McQuaide agreed to a one-year, minimum-salary benefit deal.

What it means: The Cowboys might not know who their kicker will be after cutting Greg Zuerlein, and they might not know who their punter will be with Bryan Anger expected to get a bigger deal, but they know they have McQuaide back. In his first year replacing L.P. Ladouceur and his 11th year in the league, he did not have a poor snap. The Cowboys may bring Zuerlein back at a lower price and maybe Anger won’t get top-end punter money, but at least they know they have a solid snapper in McQuaide.

What's the risk? None. McQuade turns 35 in July but he is healthy and dependable, two things you want in a deep snapper. The contract will not make much of a dent in the cap.

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE

Lawrence agreed to a new three-year deal with $30 million in guarantees, but more importantly the re-worked contract opens up much needed cap room this year.

What it means: : The Cowboys have their defensive leader and if you want to say Micah Parsons is their best defender now, fine, then they have their second-best defender back in the fold. The Cowboys would not have been a better defense without Lawrence. While he has 14.5 sacks over the last three seasons, he ranks among the best pass-rushers in terms of pass rush win rate. He is a stout run defender and can affect the passing game as well. His presence makes Parsons better.

What's the risk: It’s purely medical. He missed 10 games last year because of a broken foot that required surgery. He has had three back surgeries. But prior to last season he had gone four straight years without missing a game. He turns 30 in April, but the Cowboys believe he has plenty left in the tank. The Cowboys did not want to lose Lawrence and they were able to figure out a way to keep him financially and make their defense better.

Malik Hooker, S

Hooker agreed to a two-year deal worth a maximum of $8 million, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: Probably more than people think for a guy who played just 446 snaps last season. He projects into a starting role in 2022 with the Cowboys not expected to retain Damontae Kazee. Hooker played in 15 games last year after not joining the team until early in training camp and was credited with 44 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception and two pass deflections. He has shown to be a natural playmaker when healthy with seven interceptions in his first three years in Indianapolis. Now, a second year off a torn Achilles, he should be better, which is what the Cowboys are banking on with this deal.

What's the risk? Financially it’s not very much over a two-year deal. Mostly the risk is medical. Hooker played in just two games in 2020 with the Colts because of the Achilles and dealt with knee and hip injuries that cost him as well. Because of the measured approach the Cowboys use in free agency, there are sometimes issues with the players they sign, like injuries, but they don’t put themselves in a financial bind most of the time with the contract.

Jeremy Sprinkle, TE

Sprinkle agreed to terms on a one-year, minimum salary deal.

What it means: With Dalton Schultz on the franchise tag and Blake Jarwin released last week because of a hip injury, the Cowboys are able to retain Sprinkle on a minimum-salary benefit contract for the second straight year. He played in all 17 games with four starts last year, catching three passes for 31 yards. He is more of a blocker than pass-catcher, but the Cowboys averaged a league-high 6.1 yards per play in two-TE sets. The Cowboys also have Sean McKeon and Ian Bunting under contract for 2022 at the position.

What's the risk: Stop if this sounds familiar: none, really. There’s not a financial risk, nor a physical risk. Sprinkle is a solid contributor and can help on special teams. And this signing does not prevent the Cowboys from adding a tight end at any point in the upcoming draft. What this does is give them cover so as they don’t have to draft a tight end.

Dorance Armstrong, DE

Armstrong agreed to terms on a two-year deal, worth a maximum of $13 million with $6 million guaranteed, according to source.

What it means: The Cowboys keep a strong piece to their defensive line rotation. He had five sacks last season, one fewer than DE Randy Gregory. He's stout against the run and is improving as a pass-rusher. He can help on special teams. He turns only 25 in June. It doesn’t mean the Cowboys should be done looking for pass-rush help in free agency or the draft. With the way coordinator Dan Quinn wants to use his defensive line, Armstrong is a key figure since he can play both sides. He can also play some as a standup linebacker.

What's the risk? It’s a two-year deal for a player they believe is ascending. It’s only a risk if they don’t add more pass-rushers to Armstrong, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DE Chauncey Golston and whomever else. LB Micah Parsons will be in the mix as a pass-rusher as well, but the team’s preference is to continue to use him at linebacker and as a pass-rusher, as they did when he was a rookie.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB

Vander Esch agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth a max of $3 million, according to sources.

What it means: The Cowboys were able to retain a solid piece to their defense. In the last month-plus of 2021, Vander Esch’s play improved quite a bit. The more he played, the more he produced after they cut back splitting time with Keanu Neal. It was the best he played since his rookie year. He has a strong relationship with Micah Parsons and helps keeping the excitable player grounded. If the Cowboys want to use Parsons as a pass-rusher more in 2022, they know Vander Esch can do the job and he proved last year he can stay healthy. This likely signals the end of any pursuit of Bobby Wagner, although that did not seem like the highest of priorities.

What's the risk? Very little, especially financially. The signing does not take the Cowboys out of the draft market at all and they still need linebackers. Remember Jabril Cox is recovering from a torn ACL. Vander Esch has a chance to prove his durability again and hit the market again in 2023. The Cowboys have a motivated player wanting to prove he is a difference-maker.

James Washington, WR

Washington agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Cowboys had a need for a No. 3 wide receiver with Cedrick Wilson joining the Miami Dolphins. Washington can fill this role, although the Cowboys will still be able to add a receiver early in the draft if need be. They re-signed Michael Gallup to a five-year deal, but there are no assurances that he will be ready for the season opener, although the club's hope is he could be back in September. Washington had 114 receptions for 1,629 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with the Steelers after being selected in the second round in 2018. He had just 24 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games last season, but the Cowboys believe he can step into their receiver group and produce.

What's the risk? If he doesn't show he can help the club, the Cowboys are not heavily tied to him with a one-year deal. At this point in free agency, there is minimal risk. While he did not pan out the way the Steelers would have wanted a second-round pick to, the Cowboys are willing to give him another chance. He has some speed and versatility that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will like.

Dante Fowler Jr., DE

Fowler agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Cowboys needed to add pass-rush help with the loss of Randy Gregory. After keeping Dorance Armstrong, they were able to agree to a deal with Fowler, the 2016 No. 3 overall pick in the draft with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They might not be done either, although it is more likely they will find additional help in the draft at defensive end. Fowler has 35 career sacks, including a career-high 11.5 in 2019 with the Los Angeles Rams. Dan Quinn was Atlanta’s head coach when Fowler signed there in 2020, while it ultimately did not work out for either (Quinn was fired, Fowler had just 7.5 sacks in two seasons), the reunion could be the best news for the Cowboys.

What's the risk? Stop me if you’ve heard me before, but not much. It’s a one-year deal so the Cowboys have not made a long-term commitment at a major cost of salary-cap room. There has to be some concern that he is now on his fourth team, but Quinn showed last year he has a way of getting the best out of players.

Jayron Kearse, S

Kearse agreed to a two-year deal worth $10 million but can max out at $11 million.

What it means: The Cowboys hold on to their leader in tackles last season, which is a good thing. Kearse gets a second year of working with coordinator Dan Quinn, which is another good thing. In his first season with the Cowboys, Kearse emerged as a leader not just on the defense but the entire roster. He also made plays when given his most extensive responsibilities yet of his career. He finished with 92 tackles, one sack, seven tackles for loss, 10 quarterback pressures, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and 10 pass deflections. That far exceeded expectations after he signed a one-year, minimum-salary benefit deal a year ago. This new deal comes with greater expectations.

What's the risk? He’s healthy and just turned 28, but can he produce at the same level again? The Cowboys believe so by bringing him back, but he has to prove it. Quinn found the best way to use Kearse, which was mostly near the line of scrimmage working in the run game and covering tight ends.

Bryan Anger, P

Anger returns to the Cowboys on a three-year deal worth $9 million, according to sources.

What it means: He’s a Pro Bowler and it’s always good to bring back a Pro Bowler. He set a team- and personal-best with a league-high 44.6-yard net average, which was tied for fourth in NFL history. His 48.4-yard gross average was also the best in team history. He was able to flip field position with his leg strength and directional kicking. With Jake McQuaide in the fold, the Cowboys have two of their three specialists back in 2022 although kicker Greg Zuerlein's return seems less likely. Given the money tied up in Anger, the Cowboys will likely go ultra-cheap at kicker with a rookie or less-than-seasoned veteran.

What's the risk? Can he do it again? He doesn’t need to be as good, but he can’t fall off the map, like he did in 2017 after re-signing with Tampa Bay. His net average went from 42.7 yards to 39.5 yards. A year later, he had a 38.9-yard net average. He turns 34 in October, but he’s been durable. He’s also a good holder, which will come in handy for a new kicker.

Carlos Watkins, DT

Watkins agreed to return to the Cowboys on a one-year deal.

What it means: They keep another player in place on defense, like they have done with Dorance Armstrong, Leighton Vander Esch, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse. That should help them in Dan Quinn’s second year in running the defense. Watkins was something of a surprise to the public last year if not the scouting department or coaching staff. He started 14 of the 15 games he played and returned an interception for a touchdown to go along with 32 tackles, a sack, two pressures, four tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection.

What's the risk? None. His signing does not prevent the Cowboys from looking for a big defensive tackle in the draft. It gives them some more cover if DT Quinton Bohanna does not make a big second-year jump. The price is right. He is the type of player every defense needs: He can play both interior spots, will do a lot of the dirty work and won't cause a fuss.