It is that time of year again. During the dead period (for everyone but that one team and that other team that are playing in some big game in Phoenix) of the NFL year, fans are eager to talk about what their team is going to do to improve itself. Outside of the draft and the already begun and seemingly infinite number of mocks and projections, the biggest topic of speculation is free agency. All teams have current or potential holes in their roster and positions they would like to upgrade. Dallas Cowboys fans look at the history of big names that have been signed and start to wonder who Jerry Jones might snag next. Adrian Peterson is discussed as a possible replacement for DeMarco Murray, who most expect will find a better offer elsewhere. With the low sack production from 2014, Jason Pierre-Paul is being touted as an upgrade at defensive end, while Ndamukong Suh is coveted to play inside. Jones has repeatedly stated that the team can find the cap space to make whatever move it needs to become better.
The problem is that the whole idea of bringing in an expensive, top-performing free agent to put the Cowboys over the top is a case of living in the past. Although this approach worked back in the early 1990s when Dallas was on its run of winning three Super Bowls in four years, the team has been repeatedly burned by this approach since then. Terrell Owens came in and made a big splash, but then became the locker room disruption he always turned into. Roy Williams (the receiver) was an absolute flop. The last big free agent signing was Brandon Carr, and the return so far on the $50 million dollars the team invested in him has been disappointing.
Head coach Jason Garrett has brought a new philosophy with his tenure, and Carr was the last gasp of the old way of doing things. Although the actual rationale behind shelling out the money to hire him is impossible to determine, it may have been the last major move influenced by Rob Ryan before he was fired as defensive coordinator. With his new five-year contract, Garrett has taken firm control of the team, and that extends to setting the tone for personnel acquisition. Drafting is the primary way to bring in top level talent under his Way of the Rooster, as our Dawn Macelli terms it. Free agency is used to fill needs, but it is now done only when the price is right. Look at the players who were brought in to bolster the defensive line in 2014. The biggest name was Henry Melton, and he was signed to a "show us" deal that paid him a total of about $2.46 million in first year salary and bonuses. He was effective early in the season, but finished the year on injured reserve, and the team is able to move on from him with a minimal dead money charge of $750,750. By far the best deal the team made was to sign Jeremy Mincey to a two-year, $3 million dollar contract that has yielded by far the best bang for the buck.
That is the model that should be looked at for what the Cowboys will do in free agency this year. They will be bargain shoppers, possibly staying out of the market until late when prices are falling. The contracts they do offer will be ones that the team can get out of without incurring large amounts of dead money. None of the big name players that so many are likely to throw around are going to be available for that kind of deal.
Jones will be spending some big money to sign one and possibly two big name stars, however. The players involved are his own free agents, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. Bryant will be wearing the Star in 2015, either with a franchise tag (which neither he nor the team prefers), or on a Cowboy-for-life deal. Murray is doubtful due to the very real concern that he may take a much bigger contract than Dallas is willing to give him from another team. He has recently made some comments that he is still hopeful to remain with the team, and the argument that he is a much better option than Peterson is compelling.
But outside of those two, the Cowboys will intelligently decline to throw money at a veteran, choosing to stick with the youth movement that was part of the plan leading to the jump into the playoffs in 2014. Jones has learned to listen to Garrett, Will McClay, and his son Stephen, who are now the driving forces behind personnel decisions. Additionally, the same logic behind retaining Bryant in Dallas can also be applied to the big names mentioned above, and it is possible that their respective teams will invest in their own known quantities. It may be fun to imagine a Cowboys roster with more star players added, but it is just a fantasy that is not going to happen in the salary cap reality of the NFL.