Allow me to start with a brief history lesson. At the dawning of NFL free agency, teams were quick to sign big-ticket free agents who would upgrade their rosters. Reggie White was, and remains, the poster child for such free agent dreams: he was instrumental in resuscitating the Packers organization. Moreover, because clubs hadn't yet figured out how to manage the cap, more of these types of guys were available.
Early in the new millennium, however, teams began to get on top of the cap, and were therefore capable of keeping their top players. Over the past decade and change, we have seen a new trend emerge. Rather than paying out big money for other teams' (admittedly talented) rejects, NFL front offices have begun to use free agency to fill roster holes by signing mid-level veterans. They spend the big money to keep their home-grown talent - guys that are in the building every day, who they know they can rely on. The only organizations that continue to sign the big-ticket players are either 1) out of control or 2) feel that they are one player away.
As free agency approaches, we must keep this history in mind. Every February, we engage in the same exercise, drooling over the list of potential FAs, fantasizing about their feats of skill when wearing the star, only to be let down. "Darnit, Jerry," disappointed fans lament, "why won't you spend the money to make this team better? Don't you want to win?" Indeed, Jerry does want to win, and IS spending the money. It's just that he's spending it on his own guys, doling out big money to keep them away from free agency. This is, in fact, precisely what the better organizations do - and Jerry, to his credit, has adopted this as an organizational model.
In recent seasons, with the exception of the Brandon Carr signing in 2012, the Cowboys have not been big players in free agency's high-dollar feeding frenzy, particularly when it comes to signing other team's cast-offs. Instead, they have tended to offer a few select deals to mid-level veterans. In January 2014, the great O.C.C. demonstrated that this has been their modus operandi since 2009 - after getting burned by a 2008 offseason during which they spent heavily and got little in return. Since then, even with a record haul of seven free agents in 2012, the Cowboys have inked only 17 free agents, which translates to just under three per offseason.
Although this behavior often frustrates fans, it has innumerable benefits. The first of these is that it's sane practice. Since teams have become more savvy about the cap, the only free agents that leave their original teams are those that the team no longer wants, not those they can't afford. In short, the people that know a player best have a compelling reason for no longer wanting his services. They have seen how he practices, the way he interacts with teammates and coaches, how well he prepares during game weeks, or sometimes it is just age, and they have let him 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.
Since very few truly quality free agents any longer hit the market, therefore, the surest way to build a playoff-caliber talent base is through the draft. What is interesting is that free agency can actually facilitate this process. Three years ago, in a year-end special TV interview with the voice of the Cowboys, Brad Sham, Jason Garrett shared his vision about the Cowboys' optimal free agency-draft plan: use free agency to fill all the team's obvious holes - Garrett termed them "must haves" - so that the front office isn't handcuffed in the draft. The plan is to avoid being forced to draft a player at a specific position of need. 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.
Using the draft to fill holes causes a team to veer away from the board that they have spent millions of dollars and thousands of man hours carefully constructing. By following this policy, however, teams avoid being hamstrung during the draft, which is important in a couple of different scenarios. Let's say a guy the Cowboys target to fill a gaping roster hole is snatched up a few spots before the team picks. They are then forced to reach for the next best available player at the position, and get lesser value. On the other hand, if all their roster holes are filled with serviceable guys, they can follow a purer "best player available" drafting strategy, and select a guy they never never thought would fall to them.
Last offseason offers as a salient example of this policy in action.The Cowboys didn't "need" a guard in the draft. During the last six games of the 2013 season, the offensive line had played well, and the performances of Ron Leary and Mackenzie Bernadeau were key factors in that improvement. And we all know the story: Dallas targeted three defensive players at the sixteenth pick but, when all were snatched up in advance of the Cowboys being on the clock, they went ahead and drafted Zack Martin, a player at a position where they were already solid. Martin was, quite literally, the "best player available," and the Cowboys roster was vastly improved by choosing him.
Shrewd organizations use free agency to lease rather than buy. After releasing DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys immediately signed Jeremy Mincey to fill the roster hole left by the departing Ware. This was during free agency's initial days, when established stars at the position, players like Julius Peppers and Jared Allen, were still available. Neither was willing to take the kind of one-year or incentive-laden deal that Henry Melton agreed to a few days later so, instead of overpaying for declining production, the Cowboys stuck to Garrett's dictum and, in the draft, obtained (at admitted high cost) the talented quick-twitch edge rusher they wanted for the long haul: Boise State's DeMarcus Lawrence.
As we see in the Mincey-Lawrence example, the optimal situation is for teams to use free agency to fill soft spots in the roster with serviceable vets capable of serving as a "bridge" to the kind of player in whom they want to invest for four to eight years. The key is that these veterans have had the kind of career where they must accept the kind of contract that will allow the team to sever ties without any negative financial impact when the team does find that long-term player.
In recent years, we have seen this happen with Brodney Pool and Barry Church, Dan Connor and Bruce Carter, and with Will Allen and J.J. Wilcox. Once these youngsters emerged, the veterans were released, sometimes as early as the first week of training camp (Pool). And, when they were let go, the cost wasn't prohibitive: cutting Pool cost nothing; releasing Connor hurt to the tune of $1,350,0000; jettisoning Will Allen resulted in a $620,000 cap hit. While these hits certainly add up, we can look at them as premiums spent on "roster insurance." And they certainly hurt much less than, say, to would to release a big-money signee like Brandon Carr.
The Cowboys have 23 players whose contracts have expired. Barring trades, the 'Boys can only draft seven players in the upcoming draft (and, of that number, perhaps three will be ready to contribute right away). With that in mind - and being aware that resigning their own guys will generally be a higher-dollar proposition - it's clear that they'll have to spread their net wide in free agency to accomplish anywhere near what Garrett articulates to be the organization's offseason goal.
A wide net is fine, but it won't bring in the big fish. So, as myriad writers proffer long lists of available free agents at every position, don't linger at the top of each list; instead, work your way down the list a ways before you start imagining guys wearing the star. Then, wait until April for the top-level talent (dare I say the "best players available"?) to come into the fold.
Next: we look at all the many roster holes the team needs to fill