In a recent post, I took an initial look at free agency and offered a cautionary: don't get too caught up in all the big-ticket free agents. This perspective was largely founded upon the fact that, in the Cowboys--unlike the pre-Shanahan Redskins--have not been big players in free agency's initial high-dollar feeding frenzy. Instead, they seem to prefer waiting for the market to cool down, so they can get better value for their dollars. The exceptions, guys like La'Roi Glover or Terrell Owens, come later in the free agent calendar, when prices are no longer being driven up by 32 teams waving wads of cash at shell-shocked players and agents.
There's another side to the frugality coin--also heads. Avoiding high prices allows a team to get more players for the same money. Instead of say, Cullen Jenkins, the thinking goes, the team can sign two guys--Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, for example. Getting more guys for the same free agent cash is a critical aspect of a sound, long-range talent acquisition plan. Allow me to elaborate: in the first years of the new millennium, once teams began to figure out the salary cap, a new strategy began to emerge: instead of using free agency to sign big-name players, they began to use it to fill roster holes so that they wouldn't have any gaping absences by the time the draft rolled around.
That way, teams avoid being hamstrung during the draft, which is important in a couple of different scenarios, one bad and one good. The bad: the guy team A targets to fill the roster hole is snatched up a few spots before the team picks (recall the Chiefs taking Tony Gonzalez, forcing Dallas, with a desperate need at tight end, to select David LaFleur). The good: a guy team B never thought would fall to them does--but he plays a position of strength. If all team B's roster holes are filled with serviceable guys, they can follow a purer "best player available" drafting strategy.
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And, since very few truly quality free agents any longer hit the market, the surest way to build a playoff-caliber talent base is through the draft--a task made much easier by following the BPA strategy (want evidence? look no further than the Giants, who continued to draft defensive linemen with multiple Pro Bowlers already on the roster or the Packers, who drafted Aaron Rodgers with a healthy Brett Favre still on the roster). So here's the cool thing: waiting for free agency's initial frenzy to pass doesn't sacrifice talent; rather, it improves the roster, especially over the long haul. And all the top organizations think and over the long haul--and act accordingly.
We know this kind of long-range thinking is exactly what Jerry Jones struggles with. But what does Jason Garrett think? He seems to have a clearly-articulated plan for everything (okay, feel free to insert "except late game clock management" jokes here). Does he have an offseason talent acquisition plan? Due to the lockout, its impossible to tell from last offseason...but some clues are beginning to emerge this year. This weekend, the Cowboys' mothership ran a piece in which, in a recent interview with announcer extraordinaire Brad Sham, Garrett maintains that the optimal free agency-draft plan is one which allows all the team's "must haves" covered so that the front office isn't forced to draft a player at a specific position. Garrett comments:
In a perfect world, what you want to do is to go into the draft without needs. I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position."...In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible. Couldn't do that last year.
This sound bite suggests that Garrett is a strong proponent of the above-delineated strategy. What does that mean for the offseason's first stage? To have a clearer sense of this, we'll have to figure out what the Cowboys brass considers to be "needs." At Valley Ranch, they are sure to be asking and answering important roster questions. If I were in the room, these are the questions I would want answered as I developed my list of "must haves."
- Can they get by with the guards who are currently on the roster?
- Can they get by with the centers currently on the roster?
- How important is the second tight end to the offense, and what skill set should he possess? Does John Phillips have that skill set?
- Can a young receiver, someone like Raymond Radway, fill the #3 receiver slot?
- Is their backup quarterback on the roster at present? Their #3?
- Can the defense succeed with the defensive ends currently on the roster?
- If they move Jay Ratiff out to end, are Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore sufficient at nose tackle?
- Does free agency provide an upgrade to Anthony Spencer? At what cost?
- Have they seen enough from Bruce Carter to promote him to a starting role?
- How many cornerbacks must they add to the roster? Three? Four?
- Is Barry Church ready to get more defensive snaps?
- Does free agency provide an upgrade to Abram Elam? At what cost?
Depending on your answers, the Cowboys have anywhere between nine and nineteen needs, at positions ranging from starting ROLB to fifth corner. If they were to break the bank to secure the services of a Carl Nicks or a Cortland Finnegan, then they'd be filling a lot of those slots with UDFAs. That would return Dallas to an old roster problem they have been working to avoid of late, one they tried to address with the 2009 draft: good talent at the top but an appalling lack of depth. That's a recipe for disaster come December, when injuries mount.
Given that, barring trades, the 'Boys can only draft seven players (and of that number perhaps three will be ready to contribute right away) they'll have to spread their net wide in free agency to accomplish anywhere near what Garrett articulates to be the organization's offseason goal. A wide net is fine, but it won't bring in the big fish--the kinds of names that we have been frenziedly bandying about in recent weeks. This frenzy has been increased here at BTB by a slew of terrific FA posts, the best of the bunch being O.C.C.'s suberb "Free Agent Primer" series.
Don't forget free agency altogether. Do revisit Cool's fine work, and drool over the numbers--but work your way down the list a ways before you start imagining guys wearing the star. Then, wait until April for the top-level talent (dare I say the "best players available"?) to come into the fold.