Dallas Cowboys Moving Away From Free Agency

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There was big free agent news in Dallas. It had nothing to do with the Cowboys, as the Mavericks missed out on signing a sought-after player. And watching the updates brought a sense of quiet relief to this Cowboys fan.

Although I really try to limit my flow of sports information to, in order of importance, the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, Texas A&M football, NCAA football in general, and an occasional Texas Rangers score, other stuff does sometimes sneak in there. Since many of the writers I follow on Twitter also cover the other Dallas sports teams, I find myself aware of things going on with the other major pro sports.

(By the way, did you ever notice how the Cowboys set the overall theme for all pro sports team names in Dallas. They were first, followed in order by the Rangers, the Mavericks, and the Stars. Kinda fits together, doesn't it? But I digress.)

The Mavericks just got shut out in trying to sign Dwight Howard, or "D-Ho", as he was referred to in one Tweet I saw. For those of you who haven't noticed or just don't care, the Mavericks have slid severely since winning it all in 2011, and didn't make the playoffs this year. They have, as far as I can decipher, decided to tear down the team that won the championship, get some cap space (which, in the NBA, is even more arcane and hard to figure out than in the NFL), and get some big name free agents to help their one superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, make another run. Now, D-Ho has decided to go to Houston, (apparently), leaving the Mavs to scramble and try to find some talent left in the NBA free agent pool, which got a little fished out while D-Ho was making his decision.

I immediately had a flashback to 2011 and Jerry Jones' courtship of Nnamdi Asomugha. How the Cowboys thought they had him all locked up to rejoin his old coach Rob Ryan and fix the growing problems at cornerback. How he dissed the 'Boys and went to be with the Philadelphia Eagles and their now famous dream team, with all of its stunning accomplishments and trophies. Er, well, that was the plan, anyway. And how, as it turned out, the Cowboys apparently were better off losing out on that little deal, since about all that Scrabble has brought to the table lately is a rather hot new wife. After pretty much completely washing out with the Eagles, he is hoping to resurrect his career with the 49ers. Shame he didn't cash in on the Eagles deal, only getting $25 million in guaranteed . . . oh. Guess he may not have to rely on Kerry Washington's acting career for a year or two, anyway.

I digress again. The point here is that free agents are many, many times not the smart way to go. As a matter of fact, Asomugha turned out to be a bit of a lose-lose proposition. Dallas pursued him and then was left trying to figure out what to do about the secondary when it fell through (and they didn't exactly come up with a great solution until the next season when they signed Brandon Carr and drafted Morris Claiborne). Philly won the pursuit, and got a lot of dead money as the only tangible result.

Free agents seldom pay off as well as the new team hopes. And they often are far too expensive. This year saw something of a depressed market for free agents, as teams begin to realize the financial benefits of going with young draftees on the economical rookie contracts instead of aging players looking to get paid.

Of course, if you are going to build your team primarily through the draft, you have to be able to get players that can play in the NFL. The whole idea falls rapidly apart if you only see two or three of your draft picks still with the team three years later. However, if the team can start hitting on four or five solid players (including UDFAs, who can be just as important when the team hits on one), with many becoming starters over time, then it can get into a self sustaining cycle, where it will only need to make spot acquisitions on the free agent market to fill needs. Even then it should be able to stick to more economical players rather than high-end talents that are likely to get their price bid up.

Although it will likely be not be until after the 2013 season that we can make a fairly definitive judgement of how the Cowboys are doing with this, it is starting to look like the team has a good Process in place. A preliminary call will be possible when the final 53 man roster is finalized. If the roster winds up like I think it will, then it will be a clear indication that Dallas is starting to do a good job of growing its own, using the draft and the ability the Dallas organization seems to have to find good UDFAs to bring on board.

In a FanPost that touched on this idea, DawnMacelli looked at both the short and long term roles that players have. In particular, she addressed how Gavin Escobar may be the player groomed to take Jason Witten's roster slot without causing the team to suffer much loss of production. (You may notice I did not say take his place, because I think it will be a long, long time before Dallas sees another tight end of the Senator's ability and character.) I am interested in seeing how she evaluates the various roles of the rest of the draftees, because I think the team did a very good job finding players who can come in as backups early (except Travis Frederick, who the team plainly thinks is a day one starter) and then grow into starting players in a few seasons.

I think the team is in pretty good shape up and down the roster - with the notable exception of quarterback. While I firmly believe (and fervently hope) that the NFL is about to find out just how good Tony Romo can be with the right support from the rest of the team, I also strongly hope that the Cowboys at least look for a project quarterback in 2014. I realize that last year was not a good one for signal callers, but the team needs to start trying. They have not really had someone to develop since the failure of the Stephen McGee project. And I don't have much hope in the team finding another UDFA treasure like Romo, so it is time to figure out just where in the draft to spend a pick on a possible replacement. And it may take a couple of years to find someone you really feel good about giving the reins.

But most of the team is looking good now, with young players who at least appear to be ready to move up when needed filling most of the probable backup slots, rather than a motley assortment of cast-offs and retreads. And with the philosophy of churning the bottom of the roster, the team should continue to get stronger in the lower half to ensure that, like with the example of Witten and Escobar, the team will not see too large a drop-off in capability. Ideally, in the long run, things will balance out a bit and the Cowboys will be able to achieve and maintain a fairly consistent level of production. Add in the occasional draftee who becomes an immediate or first year starter, and the talent is now regenerating itself from within.

This will hopefully almost obviate the need for Dallas to get into the free agent market on a regular basis. That in turn should let the team get the cap issues smoothed out, so it can focus first and foremost on keeping the players it wants. Those should primarily be those going into their second contract, like Sean Lee is now, and the team should pick and choose the best. Those very expensive third contracts should only be given to the real superstars, and others must be allowed to go get those big dollars from someone else. That is possible when you have capable replacements flowing up through the system - so you see how this all ties together.

We did not see any pursuit of top free agents this year, and that was a good thing, at least in my estimation. I would much rather see the team integrating players it has brought up in the culture of the team than trying to plug in too many new faces from elsewhere. Of course, that implies a consistent culture in Dallas. And you can probably guess how I feel about that.

Keep growing your own, Cowboys.

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