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Cowboys Free Agent Primer: Did Dallas Obey FA Commandments?

In his Thursday presser, Jason Garrett was asked for his impression of the Cowboys' work in free agency. His response was that you can't evaluate free agency in isolation, but must look at the entire offseason talent acquisition process--the draft, free agency, UDFA's, trades--as a whole. With that in mind, I want to take a look at what the most successful teams do in the draft and free agency and then see how Dallas' offseason moves stack up.

Back in late April, just before the draft, I wrote a series of posts (part II here, if you're interested) on the ways in which the most consistently successful drafting teams conduct themselves during the draft. The catch phrase was "adopting the long view." My larger point was that the best drafters don't fall prey to addressing the most immediate perceived needs. Rather, they operate with a global perspective in mind, making selections based on the best player available rather than attempting to fill a roster hole. Also, they work to accrue value over the long term, either by trading down or trading this year's picks for higher picks in subsequent years.

All of these strategies require not only long-view thinking but a great deal of mental discipline, That's why I was so pleased to hear Garrett say that:

I thought we had really good discipline in the draft, to consistently try to take what we thought was the best player for our football team--understanding that, instead of forcing a position...drafting a guy higher than we think he should be drafted because we had a perceived need there.

Much more below...

In those April posts, I proposed that we would be able to see the degree of Garrett's influence in the Cowboys' warroom by looking at what kind of players they chose, and at what positions. After the draft, I suggested that the selection of Bruce Carter, a prodigious talent who isn't likely to contribute much in 2011, provides compelling evidence of the long-view thinking that has been in short supply at Valley Ranch in recent years.

Okay, enough traversing familiar ground. How about free agency? What do the best teams tend to do? I've come up with a few basic commandments that I think the best teams follow religiously, so to speak. They are:

1. Thou Shalt Forsake the Aged

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. This is particularly true of running backs. A notorious example is Ahman Green. Less than three weeks after he turned 30, the Texans signed Green to a four-year, $23 million contract that included $8 million the first season. Green rushed for 554 yards and five touchdowns in two injury-riddled seasons.The Packers were smart to let him go.

As far as this commandment goes, this offseason provided an opportunity to clean house and repent from the sins of the past. Dallas released a couple of offensive linemen, Leonard Davis, Marc Columbo, who had been the recipients of these "bad" contracts and signed another, Kyle Kosier to just such a contract. Ideally, they would have had replacements for all three on the roster, but didn't, so they re-upped the one whose skills are the least diminished, the still-mobile Kosier.

Grade: I'd call their work in this category a wash.

2. Thou Shalt Wait Until the Storm Passeth

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, many of which have been made by the Redskins. Teams eager to improve their rosters convince themselves that they simply must get certain 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.

However, after that first week or so, the market settles down and the smarter teams jump in, offering very solid players low-money or short-term contracts--deals that the players are much more likely to play up to. Think about it: when was the last time the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, or Packers jumped into the first-week overpaying frenzy? They haven't, because they are patient organizations that adopt long-view thinking.

This is where the Cowboys seem to have improved in recent years, after being burned by first-week signings in 2005 (Marco Rivera, Anthony Henry) and 2008 (Leonard Davis). This season, they were extremely patient and financially prudent, waiting until the safety and defensive line markets settled down to secure fair and/ or short-term deals for the guys they brought aboard. How many of this offseason's contracts are likely to haunt Dallas in 2013 and beyond? The only one I can see is Kyle Kosier, whose body might not hold up for three more years. The others? Dallas is very likely to get it's money's worth.

This category: steps in the right direction.

3. Thou Shalt Avert Thy Gaze From the Heavens

Along the lines of the above commandment: the players that tend to go in the first week are those that are deemed "stars." Ever since Reggie White helped to transform the Packers, teams have been looking for saviours in free agency, guys who can enact a similar transformation. But this is not longer possible. Since teams learned how to manage the free agency, salary cap controlled NFL landscape, almost nobody fails to keep the players that they want to retain. Thus, the guys who are on the market are there because their old teams, who know them best, didn't want them. If a guy was a star in the clubhouse and on the field, you can rest assured that he wouldn't be available. But every year, at free agent time, teams forget this--and overpay for the promise of a salvation that never comes.

Jerry Jones is very susceptible to this particular siren song. That's why I'm so relieved that they lost the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes: for the cost of the rest of their salary cap, the Cowboys would have brought in a shiny, media-hyped player who, while almost certainly better than their incumbent corners, is only marginally so. COuld he have been the player to guide them to the promised land? Almost certainly not.

The message here: crisis averted, but only for now. The same susceptibility remains.

4. Thou Shalt Take Care of Thine Own Sons

Closely related to the above commandment is this: good teams draft well, coach up their players and offer certain core guys reasonable second contracts. In the past five years it is very clear that Dallas has sought to implement this strategy. Consider the emerging core players, mostly from the 2003 and 2005 drafts, who they re-signed before they ever had a chance to go on the market: Tony Romo, Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin, Demarcus Ware, Jason WItten. In the recent past, they have in fact gone overboard with this strategy, most notably by re-signing Marion Barber and Terrence Newman to new deals that neither was likely to fulfill.

Taking care of one's own is particularly important at the Five Positions of Great Import: QB, WR, LT, DE (pass rusher) and CB, as these are positions that can lend themselves to free agent market frenzy (RB used to be the sixth POGI but with this increasingly a passing league, it is no longer so). Note that two of these guys, Ratliff and WItten, don't play these positions. Not coincidentally--and conveniently, for the Cowboys' salary cap--they are the two most underpaid players on the team. At any rate, this is why re-signing Doug Free was clearly their number one offseason priority: he fit both Dallas' one clear recent management philosophy and he plays one of the FPOGI.

The fact that they got him when he could have been lost to a team willing to deal out sick, frenzied money? Big win. Failing to re-sign Stephen Bowen? Definite loss. Overall: Mitigated win.

5. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Most Excellent Neighbor's Mediocrities

This is also know as the "Larry Brown rule." Brown, as you'll recall, happened to have a miraculous day in his final game as a Cowboy, gathering in two errant--and I mean errant--passes to secure Super Bowl XXX MVP honors. The result? A huge payday from the Raiders that he never came close to playing up to. The vast majority of available free agents every season are Larry Browns: serviceable vets, many of whom were solid cogs in a well-oiled machine. But the fact that some of them play for elite teams raises their value far beyond their ability. Think of all the players from the Cowboys or Patriots dynasties, the Jimmy Joneses and Ellis Hobbses, who got paid, in essence, for being well coached by their former teams.

This is another trap that Dallas managed to avoid this season when they didn't pursue former Packer defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, whose glow is largely a reflection from the shiny Lombardi the Pack captured in February. Jenkins has been a playmaker as part of a very deep defensive line rotation in Green Bay--but so was Jones in Dallas, and he never did anything once he was assigned a starter's role with his next team, the Rams. It remains to be seen how Jenkins will fare in 2011 and beyond. By not pursuing him, however, the Cowboys avoided the Larry Brown trap.

Assessment: nice mental discipline by Dallas.

6. Thou Shalt Not Atone For Past Sins With Further Sinning

This is the free agent vortex in which the Cowboys have been trapped in recent years: making up for draft failings by filling holes via big-ticket free agency signings. This is most evident along the offensive line, where the Cowboys failure to draft or develop decent offensive linemen resulted in dipping deep into the salary cap pool to secure the likes of Rivera and Davis. The larger point here is that every team makes mistakes in the draft or fails to draft equally well at all positions and therefore has to fill roster holes via free agency. But the smart teams do so by acquiring mid-level veterans who they can easily afford to cast aside when they do find a good young player at the position.

It may be because they were strapped by the cap, but the Cowboys did an excellent job in this arena. One noticeable hole in the roster, defensive end, went unfilled in the draft. But they didn't panic and throw money at the problem (i.e., Bowen or Jenkins). Rather, they waited patiently and secured solid guys at reasonable prices that make them easy to jettison if, say, next year's number one proves to be a pass rushing 5-technique. No progress stopping contracts here.

Grade: three stars, one for each DE brought in.

In his presser, Garrett concluded by saying that, due to their cap situation, the Cowboys had to be very creative in free agency, which involved making some tough decisions. But, he added:

I thought we were very systematic in our approach all throughout the offseason...

I realize its just language, but if the Garrett Cowboys can continue to be "systematic" in everything they do--and it appears they will, because that's who Garrett is--they will leave a lot of the knee-jerk, respond-to-the-latest-input thinking of recent years in the past. As far as talrnt acquisition is concerned, they will make level-headed, long-view decisions that consistently eschew immediate gain in lieu of greater future value. Most of all, they will be patient and prepared and, by lettng the game come to them, will dictate terms.

For this long-time (and long-suffering) Cowboys fan, that is a refreshing and hope-inspiring development.

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