Cowboys Organizational Report Card, Part III: Free Agency

Brandon Carr, and his big free agent contract, have been the exception in recent years - Ronald Martinez

Following parts I and II of this series, we now dole out grades in different categories relating to the way NFL teams conduct themselves, this time as it pertains to free agency. How do the Cowboys fare? Read on, faithful BTBers!

This time last year, the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference the conference was underway, featuring, among other things, a discussion on the use of analytics in football, with several front office decision-makers: 49ers President Paraag Marathe; former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli; Kevin Demoff, the Rams' Executive Vice President of Football Operations & Chief Operating Officer. Joining them was Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz.

Over the course of an hour, the foursome, with assistance from moderator Andrea Kramer of ESPN, offered a multitude of useful ruminations upon the way organizations approach free agency, the draft, gamedays and the salary cap. Coincidentally, as I was listening to and transcribing their back-and-forth, I stumbled across an interview with Eagles GM Howie Roseman, in which he addresses many of the same issues. Seeing many points of resonance in these conversations, I decided to use their words to articulate or to support a set of organizational behaviors that suggest on-field success, and then offer the Cowboys a grade for each of these behaviors. In part one of the four-part series, I looked at overall organizational philosophy; in the second installment, I examined the way the team has managed the cap; here, we'll look at free agency; the final post will examine the team's behavior in the draft.

III. Free Agency:

Don't Pay Age: A cardinal rule--perhaps the cardinal rule--of managing the salary cap is to avoid giving multi-year contracts to players 30 years of age or older. The reasoning behind this is that players' skills historically diminish in their early 30s, so the team in question will have a lot money tied up in a declining player. As I noted earlier in the series, the key is to avoid offering third contracts, which tend to be signed by players who are in the 28-30-year-old range. 29 appears to be a magic age for NFL players; that's when the vast majority begin their decline. Sure there are exceptions, but for the most part, any player who signs a long-term, big-money third contract with a sizable signing bonus simply will not be playing up to the level of that contract in the final couple of years. That's why the smartest teams offer only one-year "prove it" type deals to players who have completed their second contracts.

Cowboys Grade: B

In the past half-decade, the team has tended to shy away from giving deals to older players from other teams (they do tend to re-up their own greybeards, as I wrote about in part II) who are long in the tooth for their particular position group (I'd argue that a 27-year-old running back's body is much older than a 33-year-old quarterback's is). Lets take a look at the respective ages of the free agents the Cowboys have brought in from other teams in the past five seasons:

2009: Igor Olshansky (27); Gerald Sensabaugh (26)
2011: Kenyon Coleman (32), Abram Elam (30)
2012: Mackenzie Bernadeau (26); Brandon Carr (26); Lawrence Vickers (29); Brodney Pool (28); Dan Connor (27); Kyle Orton (30); Nate Livings (30)
2013: Justin Durant (28); Will Allen (31)

The team has largely brought in "prime of career" players: players at speed and/ or quickness positions in the 26-28 range and (assuming that quarterbacks and offensive linemen can play well into their mid thirties) 30-year-old QBs and O-linemen. The outliers in this regard are Lawrence Vickers, Kenyon Coleman, Will Allen and Abram Elam - and, not surprisingly, all were released within a year of signing a contract (more on that below in our discussion of "bridge players").

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Avoid Jumping In During The First Week: Every year, the first week of free agency brings a feeding (and paying) frenzy, in which the "top names" are hurriedly signed to top-dollar deals. Think about the first-week, big-money free agent signings of the past few offseasons, in which teams eager to improve their rosters convince themselves that they simply must get a certain player or players and, as a result, get caught up in a bidding war for their services. This is the epitome of short-view thinking and, almost invariably, they overpay because of it.

One of the main reasons that this happens is because teams act independently of the market, in effect setting the market, and sometimes even bidding against themselves to do so. As Demoff notes:

I don't think there's ever been a deal done in the first two days of free agency that you ever really like. You're going to do it poorly, because...you're guessing as to what a player's value is going to be to someone else....If you gave everybody a month in a vacuum to make a trade or to sign a player in free agency, you'd probably come up with a different value than the one they do on the phone within 30 minutes of whatever decision you're making.

That's why, after that first week or so, the market settles down and the more patient front offices jump in, offering solid players low-money, short-term contracts - deals that have actually been set by the market rather than by desperate teams trying to please an impatient fanbase. As you might imagine, players are much more likely to live up to these contracts. And, if they don't they can be released with little to no financial penalty.

Cowboys Grade: B-

My grade is intended to reflect the fact that the team is getting better in this area. After getting singed by first-week signings in 2005 (Marco Rivera, Anthony Henry) and 2008 (Leonard Davis) that never provided a fully satisfying return on investment, they have exercised considerably more patience during the initial frenzy. This began in 2009, when they waited until free agency's fifth day to sign Igor Olshansky and then waited four more days to ink Gerald Sensabaugh. In 2011, Dallas waited until the safety and defensive line markets settled down to secure fair and/ or short-term deals for the guys they brought aboard; in 2012, with the exception of Brandon Carr's big deal, they waited until the first week passed and then secured a passel of solid veterans. Last year, they again bided their time before bringing in veterans at linebacker and safety.

Certainly some wags will assert that the Cowboys salary cap woes have dictated this improvement, because they simply cannot spend the big money that is exchanged in the first week. That may be the case, although I don't think so. Whatever the reason, since 2009 the Cowboys have, as O.C.C. recently illustrated, offered a goodly amount of mid-level deals to solid veteran players rather than ponying up big money for players other teams no longer wanted. Which brings me to...

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Avoid Other Teams' Castoffs: In the Sloan panel discussion, Demoff opined on what he called the "asymmetry" of free agency: teams, he cautioned, "should always be [wary] if you think a player is worth [on the open market] two times what their current team thinks they're worth. What do you know that they don't know? Conversely, what do they know that you don't know?" And this is the rub: the teams that guys who get to free agency used to play for know much, much more about them than the teams that acquires their services...and have decided to let them go. The result, then, is that the guys who are on the market are there for a reason: work ethic questions, undisclosed injury issues, declining skills, etc.

Consider the Cowboys recent free agent acquisitions. How many of them played well? Not many. Do you think their former team was surprised by their playmaking inabilities? As Seinfeld might say, not bloody likely...

Moreover, bringing in one of these guys can upset the delicate balance in the locker room; in a sport with a terribly short career length, player must be focused on making as much money as possible before their bodies break down. When that money goes to a stranger, it can have a negative impact. As Roseman notes:

...when you bring in guys that maybe are good players but not great and pay them great player money, what does that say to the rest of your team? What does that say to the guys that you drafted and brought in here...what kind of message does that send?

The short answer: not a very good one. Rather than gambling on players your rivals decided they didn't want after scouting, drafting and paying them, and in spending thousands of hours in developing and honing their skill sets, its always best to keep the guys you have brought into your program and developed.

Cowboys Grade: B/ A-

Why the split grade? Because two issues are at play here: First, how often do the Cowboys turn to other team's castoffs? Second, how often do they pay them the kind of big money that can upset the team's "homegrown" talent? In response to the first issue: with the exception of 2012's monster haul, the team has been quite selective, bringing in two new free agent vets per annum. By extension, they have only doled out one contract - to Brandon Carr - capable of upsetting the clubhouse. Frankly, with Jerry Jones' willingness to pay his productive players, this shouldn't ever become an issue.

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Acquire "Bridge" Players: The more savvy organizations use free agency to lease rather than buy. They see free agents as "bridge players," guys capable of filling roster holes until the team can fill the hole with a younger, cheaper and better player via the draft. As Roseman remarked during his recent radio interview:

Ideally, you don't want to go into the draft with a huge hole, because that puts you more susceptible to forcing things or kind of pushing guys up...you look at the depth chart and you go, "I don't have someone at that position. Who's in the draft?"

The great thing about free agency is that it helps teams avoid this sticky wicket. Roseman adds:

What we'll do in that sort of situation is we'll try to find a solid player...to get us through the moment and hope that we get an opportunity in the draft to get those guys that are going to be our long term players...our core guys and then have some hold-the-fort guys.

The lesson here is: use free agency to find "hold-the-fort guys" capable of serving as a "bridge" to the kind of player in whom you want to invest four to eight years. The beauty of this modus operandi is that, when a team does find that long-term player, the veteran place holder's contract allows them to sever ties without any negative financial impact. Indeed, Roseman notes that such signings allow teams to be players in subsequent free agent markets:

when you go into that mid-range [FA] market, and you sign solid players, if a couple don't work out, you can kind of use that money again next year. So, you're not tied in because of the guarantee and so you still have that financial flexibility to go back into the market next year when you see a better fit possibly for your football team.

Cowboys Grade: A-

For several offseasons now, Jason Garrett has gone on record saying that the team wants to use free agency in much the same way as I have articulated above: to fill roster holes to alleviate reaching in the draft, thus making the draft more "pure." According to Garrett:

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.

Their actions the last couple of offseasons reflect this desired intent. A vast majority of the guys they have brought aboard have in fact been bridge players, who "held the fort" until a younger, cheaper man stepped up. Take a look at the free agents they acquired in 2012 and '13 and then replaced with a younger player:

2012:
Brodney Pool: Barry Church
Dan Connor: Bruce Carter
Nate Livings: Ron Leary

2013:
Justin Durant: Kyle Wilber or DeVonte Holloman
Will Allen: J.J. Wilcox

That said, the 'Boys can't get a straight "A" in this category. Too many of these vets ended up costing more to cut than can possibly be considered ideal. Although cutting Pool cost nothing, last year's cap carried substantial dead monies from Connor (1,350,0000); Livings (2,400,000); Will Allen (620,000). Livings will further burden the 2014 cap, to the tune of 2,100,000, and when he is inevitably cut, Justin Durant will add $200,000 worth of dead money to the rolls.

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Overall Grade: B/ B+

While their execution leaves a little bit to be desired, the Cowboys have approached the last couple of free agency periods with a clear, intelligent plan, one that tends to obey the tenets laid out above: they usually exercise patience and prudence, not jumping in on the first day, and (with the exception of Brandon Carr's deal), avoiding the kind of big money contracts that grab headlines that first week. Although they have spent much too freely on aging "homegrown" players, they have eschewed giving out third contracts to other team's older, declining players.

And, finally, they have begun to develop some kind of cohesive, synergistic talent acquisition plan that considers fre agency and the draft as one entity. That said, there is no question which served the other. As Marathe sagely notes, free agents, and veterans in general, "are retail...and the draft is where its wholesale. That's why the more players you can have on wholesale who are good players...the better off you're going to be." In the last two seasons in particular, the Cowboys have begun to implement this strategy. That, loyal readers, is a step in the right winning direction.

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