In the comments sections following a slew of terrific "prospective free agents" posts by O.C.C., Tom et. al., our loyal readership has offered numerous approaches to the offseason. Many of these have included targeting top-flight free agents at the Cowboys' positions of need: Carl Nicks to shore up OG; Mario Williams to provide some much-needed pass rush; Cortland Finnegan to give us a lift at corner, in terms of feistiness as well as coverage skills.
As we creep within a month of free agency, I think we need to tap the brakes on this kind of talk.
A brief history: at the dawning of NFL free agency, teams were quick to sign big-ticket free agents who would upgrade their rosters. Reggie White was, and remains, the poster child for such free agent dreams: he was instrumental in resuscitating the Packers organization. Moreover, because clubs hadn't yet figured out how to manage the cap, more of these types of guys were available. Early in the new millennium, however, teams began to get on top of the cap, and were therefore capable of keeping their top players. For some time now, the only free agents that leave their original teams are those that the team no longer wants, not those they can't afford. In short, the people that know a player best have a compelling reason for no longer wanting his services.
Further Rabblesian ruminations after the jump...
Over the past decade, we have thus seen a new trend emerge. Rather than paying out big money for other teams' (admittedly talented) rejects, NFL front offices have begun to use free agency to fill roster holes by signing mid-level veterans. They spend the big money to keep their home-grown talent - guys that are in the building every day, who they know they can rely on. The only organizations that continue to sign the big-ticket players are either 1) out of control (see: pre-Shanahan Redskins) or 2) feel that they are one player away.
Consider the Cowboys in recent years. Every February, we engage in the same exercise, drooling over the list of potential FAs, fantasizing about their feats of skill when wearing the star, only to be let down. Darnit, Jerry," the disappointed fans lament, "why won't you spend the money to make this team better. Don't you want to win?" Indeed, Jerry does want to win, and IS spending the money. Its just that he's spending it on his own guys, doling out big money to keep them away from free agency. This is, in fact, precisely what the better organizations do--and Jerry, to his credit, has adopted this as an organizational model.
Now, we can certainly criticize him for re-upping certain players: "Ken Hamlin, really?" But this doesn't mean the overall strategy isn't sound. Think about Dallas' recent forays into the free agency maelstrom: Anthony Henry, Marco Rivera, Kyle Kosier, Akin Ayodele, Igor Olshansky, Gerald Sensabaugh, Abram Elam. How many of these guys were at the top of anybody's free agent wish-list? If you said anything other than "none," you're either a bit daft or an NFL scout.
Sure there have been exceptions: certainly Terrell Owens, perhaps Leonard Davis. Pacman Jones comes to mind. But these guys were added to the roster at a time when Jerry Jones thought the team was a player or two away, or couldn't compete unless he had a dynamic guy at a given position. Most years - and every one since that ill-fated 2008 offseason - the Cowboys prefer to sit out the early feeding frenzy, allow the dust to clear, and pick up a couple of serviceable guys who can hold down the fort until a more talented draft choice takes their place (the team's ills can be traced to their inability to find these replacements, but that's fodder for another post)
So I ask: why would things change this year? When Jerry proclaims publicly that, thanks to son Stephen, the 'Boys have room to maneuver under the cap and so they can do what they need to accomplish, I really don't think he means going out and signing Carl Nicks and Mario Williams. Rather, he'll be looking to fill the most glaring roster holes with veterans whose contracts can be replaced or dumped should a promising youngster capture his starting role. And, now that the level-headed, more globally thinking Jason Garrett is aboard, I'd expect talent acquisition, like everything else at Valley Ranch, to be more than ever about "process."
When you pore over O.C.C.'s superb position-by-position lists of free agents looking for future Cowboys, skip over the names at the top of the list, the dudes with a Pro Bowl or two to their credit, and look for the more durable, dependable (and expendable) economy models.
And pray for better, more consistent drafting; that's where the big-game players are likely to come.