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Cowboys Free Agent Primer: How The Best Teams Manage Resources

Yesterday, O.C.C. informed us that the Cowboys have a heated interest in Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr; more specifically, Jerry Jones reportedly "covets" Carr. Because the article's source remains shrouded, I'm inclined to think that this "leak" is Carr's agent doing what all good agents do: attaching their client's name to the Cowboys in an effort to get the story on front pages everywhere and, by doing so, to increase hype and interest in the player. Frankly, it remains to be seen whether Dallas' interest is legitimate and whether they can even remotely afford him.

There are several reasons Carr is likely to command huge money: he boasts excellent size (6'0", 207), is durable (he's played over 1,000 snaps every season he's been in the league) and may well be the best corner available in free agency (reports out of Atlanta and Tennessee are that the Falcons and Titans are seriously considering franchising corners Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan). Most importantly of all is that Carr is the rarest of birds: a good player at a key position, hitting the open market in the prime of his career--unlike the late twenty-somethings Grimes and Finnegan. Such finely-plumed creatures promise to play well until the end of their big free agent deals.

Indeed, one of free agency's cardinal rules is to acquire players, such as Carr, to whom teams are less likely to pay top dollar for declining services. The Cowboys currently have just such a player in Terence Newman, who is receiving a top-of-the-market salary for precipitously declining production. As with the Newman contract, Dallas has broken this and other key tenets of successful free agency navigation in recent years. So, as we inch ever nearer to free agency 2012, I thought it might be prudent to revisit the "Free Agency Commandments," a set of strategies that the most successful teams have developed and deployed to maximize their resources amidst the annual spending spree.

The free agency commandments after the jump...

1. Avoid the initial feeding frenzy

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, much to our delight, have been made by the Redskins. Teams eager to improve their rosters convince themselves that they simply must get a certain player and, as a result, get caught up in a bidding war for his services. Almost invariably, they overpay because of it.

However, after that first week or ten days, 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). In 2010, they were 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. Other than the deal they signed with Kosier (a necessary evil given their woeful record drafting offensive linemen; see tenet number six), none of these deals, including the extensions proffered to Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Sensabaugh, are likely to haunt Dallas in 2013 and beyond.

Assuming Dallas has learned its lesson, they'll sit back and wait as teams pay ridiculous money for players in their late twenties and early thirties. Then, in the last week of March, they'll strike, snapping up good values....

2. Avoid "one player away" thinking long as "Trader Jerry" can be kept under wraps. Ever since the signing of Reggie White to a free agent contract helped to transform the Packers, teams have been looking for saviors in free agency, guys who can enact a similar transformation. Certainly, there are players in the league who are capable of enacting such magic (Drew Brees has done precisely that for a moribund Saints organization). The problem is that these magicians almost never become available. Since teams learned how to manage the free-agency-and-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, its almost a certainty 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.

Cowboys fans must be wary: as we saw with the pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugah in training camp last year, Jerry Jones is very susceptible to this brand of thinking. Thankfully, the two other members of the Cowboys leadership triumvirate, Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones, are level-headed, clear-thinking men. If they can talk Jerry down from the ledge, Dallas can make sound, financially prudent talent acquisition choices. Cowboys fans must not rest easy, as this is a mighty big "if."

3. Avoid signing older players

As I suggested before the break, 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. As it turned out, the Packers, who knew the player, were aware that his tank was empty. Consequently, they were smart to let him go.

As far as the Cowboys are concerned, the offseason provides an opportunity to clean house and get some more "bad" contracts off their books. The Cowboys braintrust is on record as saying they want to continue to get younger after jettisoning elder statesmen Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo and Andre Gurode last summer. If you want to know who will suffer a similar fate this spring, look for similar profiles: older players with large contracts and declining skills. I think we can all agree that Newman is a goner (although Jones hemmed and hawed over T-New's fate in a recent Combine interview). Other guys who fulfill these criteria are Kenyon Coleman and Kyle Kosier; it wouldn't surprise me to see either of them released.

4. Avoid middling players on great teams

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 passes en route to Super Bowl XXX MVP honors. The result? A gigantic payday from the Raiders that he never came close to fulfilling. 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. Undersized Green Bay center Scott Wells may prove to be just such a player; he grades out well, but how much of that is a byproduct of the superior talent surrounding him?

Dallas has actually done a good job avoiding guys in this category from other teams. But one reason why they have done so is that they seem to have followed the media's lead in overvaluing their own middling players. The big payday given to Ken Hamlin in 2008 stands as the most obvious example. For the Cowboys to maximize their talent-versus-expenditure ratio, they'll have to do a much better job evaluating the guys on their own roster.

5. Take care of your own guys

The other, better, side of the above coin is this: good teams draft well, coach up their guys and offer their core players reasonable second contracts before they hit free agency. Taking care of one's own is particularly important at QB, WR, LT, pass rusher and CB, as these are positions that most effect the passing game. With the NFL increasingly a passing league, good players at these positions create obscene bidding wars. It is therefore essential not only to draft well at these positions but to retain your top players by offering them reasonable market value.

In the past five years it is very clear that Dallas has sought to implement this strategy, and at these positions. Consider the players 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, Doug Free, Orlando Scandrick. All play the aforementioned positions (if we count Witten as a receiver and Ratliff as a pass rusher, a not unreasonable assessment). I wouldn't be surprised to see them continue to follow this strategy, re-upping Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith in coming offseasons.

6. Trying to get out of the quicksand quickly can get you into deeper quicksand

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 has been most evident along the offensive line, where the Cowboys' failure to draft or develop 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 on reasonable contracts that allow them to be cast aside when they do find a good young player at the position.

It remains to be seen how disciplined Dallas can be in this regard--but there is hope for an upturn. Last offseason, they did a good job filling post-draft roster holes without breaking the bank. This strategy could pay dividends this offseason; if, for example, they draft a Michael Brockers they can release Kenyon Coleman without suffering severe financial repercussions. If they opt for David DeCastro, Kyle Kosier's contract allows for an affordable summary dismissal.

The key to this tenet is, of course, that a team must draft well, so that they can replace veterans with youngsters who can actually play. In the two most recent drafts, Dallas has found good players at wide receiver, inside linebacker, offensive tackle and running back. Two more similarly solid drafts will significantly reduce the need for them to extend themselves to fill roster holes. If Garrett and the Joneses can manage such a string of success, our favorite team might just be poised to break tenet #2, signing that one big-ticket player that will actually vault them into the league's elite.

Until then, its absolutely crucial that they stay conservative and adhere to these as closely as possible.

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