FRISCO, Texas – I’m writing this now so you won’t get angry later. Or, if you still prefer to get angry, you’ll at least have answers to your questions.
Free agency is upon us. It’s been building for a while now, with teams across the league moving money around and releasing players who don’t fit their plans. The Cowboys are no exception, as they freed up $17 million dollars in February to get under this year’s $167 million salary cap.
But the Cowboys are a little bit different in the sense that they expect free agency to be a bit anticlimactic. As has been the case for the past four years, they are going to let the market shake out, make some judicious signings and build the core of their roster through the draft.
If you’re reading this site, the above paragraph should sound pretty repetitive. That’s been the game plan for a while now, and the Cowboys have been pretty disciplined in sticking to it – with one or two exceptions.
But what exactly does that mean? It’s one thing to state things in general terms, but it means something else to outline it directly. So that’s what I’m going to do – I’m going to look at how the Cowboys built their roster to this point, and then take a guess at how they might address it in free agency.
The Current Cast
First things first, how did we get to this point. Who exactly was playing for the Cowboys when they went 13-3 and claimed the NFC East title last year?
The answer is a testament to the Cowboys’ recent dedication to building their team through the NFL draft – whether it’s with draft picks or undrafted free agents.
I’m going to break it down on both sides of the ball, just for the sake of visual learning.
Cowboys draft picks, offense: Dak Prescott (4th round, 2016), Ezekiel Elliott (1st round, 2016), Dez Bryant (1st round, 2010), Terrance Williams (3rd round, 2013), Jason Witten (3rd round, 2003), Gavin Escobar (2nd round, 2013), James Hanna (6th round, 2012), Geoff Swaim (7th round, 2015), Rico Gathers (6th round, 2016), Tyron Smith (1st round, 2011), Travis Frederick (1st round, 2013), Zack Martin (1st round, 2014), Doug Free (4th round, 2007), Chaz Green (3rd round, 2015).
Cowboys undrafted free agents, offense: Tony Romo (2003), Lance Dunbar (2012), Keith Smith (2014), Cole Beasley (2012), Lucky Whitehead (2015), Ron Leary (2012), La’el Collins (2015).
Cowboys draft picks, defense: DeMarcus Lawrence (2nd round, 2014), Maliek Collins (3rd round, 2016), Tyrone Crawford (3rd round, 2012), Charles Tapper (4th round, 2016), Sean Lee (2nd round, 2010), Jaylon Smith (2nd round, 2016), Anthony Hitchens (4th round, 2014), Damien Wilson (4th round, 2015), Mark Nzeocha (7th round, 2015), Kyle Wilber (4th round, 2012), Morris Claiborne (1st round, 2012), Orlando Scandrick (5th round, 2008), Anthony Brown (6th round, 2016), Byron Jones (1st round, 2015), J.J. Wilcox (3rd round, 2013), Kavon Frazier (6th round, 2016).
Cowboys undrafted free agents, defense: Barry Church (2010), Jeff Heath (2013).
That’s 39 guys who either played a role last year or are expected to have a role going forward – all of which were found and developed by this front office. Perhaps even more importantly, I count a whopping 17 guys on that list who have either been extended or re-signed by this team at one point or another.
When you wonder where the Cowboys’ cap space goes, that would be your answer. The Cowboys have been giving their money to homegrown talents like Romo, Bryant, Lee, Tyron Smith, Frederick, Crawford and Scandrick. Martin is almost certain to be the next among them, as the front office has identified an extension for the All-Pro guard as one of its top priorities.
So what about the rest of the roster? The Cowboys obviously don’t ignore free agency entirely. Their philosophy revolves around filling the holes in the roster with free agents, so they’re free to select the best players possible in the NFL draft.
Here’s a list of all the outside free agents who played a significant role for the Cowboys in 2016.
It’s only 12 players long. Average annual salary and the year they were signed in parentheses.
Mark Sanchez ($2 million, 2016)
Darren McFadden ($1.5 million, 2015)
Alfred Morris ($1.75 million, 2016)
Joe Looney ($800,000, 2016)
Terrell McClain ($1 million, 2014)
Cedric Thornton ($4 million, 2016)
Benson Mayowa ($2.7 million, 2016)
Jack Crawford ($1.1 million, 2016)
David Irving ($480,000, 2015)
Justin Durant ($900,000, 2016)
Andrew Gachkar ($1.75 million, 2015)
Brandon Carr ($10 million, 2012)
Ok, a couple of things stand out.
Firstly, the Cowboys are signing most of their outside free agent help on defense, which makes a lot of sense. This team has had some bad luck and made some bad decisions on the defensive side of the ball. As stocked as the Cowboys’ offense is, their defense is equally depleted. You can blame the salary cap, and you can also blame bad drafting. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, but the Cowboys have needed outside help on defense for about five years running.
Secondly, the Cowboys aren’t paying these guys squat. Seriously, look at that list again. How obvious is it that Brandon Carr is a relic of a bygone era? The Cowboys signed Carr to a five-year contract worth $50 million five years ago this month. Carr hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t come close to living up to that number.
In the years since, the Cowboys have shied away from that type of boldness on the open market. Compared to Carr’s payday, the four-year, $17 million deal for Cedric Thornton and the three-year, $8.2 million deal for Benson Mayowa seem microscopic.
And this has been a well-established trend, if you’ll remember. Jeremy Mincey, who led the team in sacks in 2014, signed to a two-year, $3 million contract. Brandon Weeden signed in 2015 for two years and $1.2 million.
Even the Cowboys’ handful of bold moves have come with some precautions. Henry Melton had a team option on his 2014 contract that could have escalated his deal to nearly $30 million – but he was cut after just one season, putting the club on the hook for just $5 million. And when the Cowboys decided to sign Greg Hardy, they loaded his one-year deal with per-game bonuses. After a four-game suspension, Hardy only collected about $9 million of a contract that was worth up to $13 million.
In the meantime, this front office hasn’t been afraid to make tough decisions in regard to outgoing talent. The Cowboys cut DeMarcus Ware in 2014, and they’ve opted to let several other big names walk in free agency. In this same time span, DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, Jermey Parnell, Durant and Melton all received better offers on the open market and went elsewhere.
None of this should read like breaking news, but it certainly paints a clear picture when you lay it all out in one place.
The Cowboys built a team that is capable of winning 13 games largely by drafting extremely well, and they have complemented those selections with a small number of cheap but useful free agents. They have demonstrated time and time again that they aren’t afraid to make tough decisions to keep their roster young and affordable.
So what does all of this mean? It’s impossible to predict to a certainty, but it’s a good bet that several of this year’s free agents go elsewhere. Guys like Ron Leary, Terrance Williams, Terrell McClain and Barry Church are going to get good offers, and the Cowboys won’t be able to afford to pay them.
They’ll move on, and the front office will make a small number of small, efficient signings to offset them. They’ll hope for the best that the unsung talent on the roster can also help to compensate. Then, they’ll turn to the draft with the expectation that they can restock their weak spots with young, cheap talent to develop into the next wave of starters and Pro Bowlers.
That might be frustrating to think about over the course of the next week – when large contracts and Pro Bowl players are flying all over the league at breakneck speed. But this is the blueprint the Cowboys are committed to, and it’s honestly hard to argue with the results so far.
Regardless of your opinion on that front, don’t say I didn’t warn you.