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Learning From The Past: Free Agents The Dallas Cowboys Should Avoid

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When it comes to free agency, the Cowboys have had their share of missteps in the past. We look at some common free agency mistakes and identify a couple of things the Cowboys should avoid.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency begins in two weeks, and when the desperate scramble between teams for the best free agents begins, it's a good time keep in mind that desperation often leads to dumb decisions in the NFL.

At 4:00 PM ET on March 10, hundreds of free agents will become available, and all of them share one defining characteristic: their old team did not want to re-sign them, at least not for the price the player is demanding. That in itself should make every acquiring team wary of the free agents on offer. Here are a few common free agency mistakes the Cowboys should be particularly wary of in 2015:

1. The pass rusher coming off a big year

We know that historically pass rushers coming off a big year in terms of sacks tend to regress to the mean in the following year. The problem with free agent pass rushers who are coming off a big performance is that teams will pay them in 2015 like it's still 2014. And that will almost inevitably not end well for the acquiring teams.

Here's an overview of the 13 highest paid free agent pass rushers from 2014:

Player Contract Production
Name POS Years Value in $ million Annual value Sacks 2013 Sacks 2014
Greg Hardy (CAR/CAR) 4-3 DE 1 13.116 13.1 15 1
Brian Orakpo (WAS/WAS) 3-4 OLB 1 11.455 11.5 10 0.5
Julius Peppers (CHI/GB) 3-4 OLB 3 30 10.0 7 7
DeMarcus Ware (DAL/DEN) 3-4 OLB 3 30 10.0 6 10
Jason Worilds (PIT/PIT) 3-4 OLB 1 9.754 9.8 8 7.5
Michael Johnson (CIN/TB) 4-3 DE 5 43.75 8.8 3.5 4
Everson Griffen (MIN/MIN) 4-3 DE 5 42.5 8.5 5.5 12
Michael Bennett (SEA/SEA) 4-3 DE 4 32 8.0 8.5 7
Jared Allen (MIN/SEA) 4-3 DE 4 32 8.0 11.5 5.5
Lamarr Houston (OAK/CHI) 4-3 DE 5 35 7.0 6 1
LaMarr Woodley (PIT/OAK) 4-3 DE 2 12 6.0 5 0
Justin Tuck (NYG/OAK) 4-3 DE 2 11 5.5 11 5
Tyson Jackson (KC/ATL) 4-3 DE 5 25 5.0 4 0

Of the 13 players on the list above, only two were able to improve on their sack total from the previous year, three were able to maintain their level and eight saw a drop in their sack totals. Overall production from this group of premier pass rushers dropped from 101 sacks to 60.5, a drop of 40%. For the eight players who weren't able to at least maintain their sack total, production dropped from 71 to 20 sacks, a decline by a whopping 72%. If you were paying premium dollar for a 7-sack guy and only got two sacks in return, would you feel you made a good investment?

This of course in an exercise you can for almost any stat and end up with similar results. It's called regression to the mean and it occurs in almost all data sets that compare one period to another.

The key heading into free agency is to find players whom you can pay for potential instead of past performance (which they are unlikely to repeat).

Conventional wisdom says that if you are going to invest in a free agent edge rusher, you need to find a player young enough and with enough upside to provide three-plus years of future high-level performance. The problem is that guys like that are hideously expensive, and as we saw above, there's no guarantee they provide a good return on investment.

Last year, the Cowboys signed two edge rushers to moderate deals. Jeremy Mincey signed a two-year, $4.5M deal, Anthony Spencer signed a one-year contract worth $1.3 million. Mincey got six sacks, Spencer got 0.5. That's a combined 6.5 sacks for a combined annual contract value of $3.6 million.

My pocket calculator tells me that's the equivalent of $0.55 million per sack. Compare that dollar-per-sack ratio to any of the free agents above, and the Cowboys got a better deal than any team investing in a premier free agent. In the salary cap era spending your money wisely is one way to win.

Forget about the Brandon Graham's and Jason Pierre-Paul's of this world. If the Cowboys are going after a free agent edge rusher, chances are they'll look to get a guy who's not on any top ten free agent list.

2. The veteran defender from a top defense

There probably isn't a single Seahawks defensive starter that wouldn't be considered an immediate and significant upgrade for the Cowboys defense. But would a Seahawks defender really be as effective in Dallas - playing in the Cowboys defensive scheme, next to 10 other Cowboys defenders - as he was in Seattle? And the same is true with other players from teams with great defenses.

The issue is that you're never sure whether the player you're acquiring is good because of his talent, because of the scheme his team employed, or because of the teammates he played with.

If the Cowboys are looking for a veteran defender, their best bet would be to sign a good player playing in a bad defense. The Bears had the second-worst defense by points in the league last year. Might there be defender there for the Cowboys, especially given Rod Marinelli's familiarity with some of those players?

The Redskins were the third-worst defense, and have a couple of defensive linemen hitting free agency. Could that be an option?

Team success can often obscure the view of individual performance. And the same holds true for a veteran defender from a high-caliber defense: Make sure you're buying a top quality product, not a fancy name with questionable ingredients.

3. The dumb player

Football is an ultra-physical game, and as we just saw at the Combine, fans, the media, scouts, GMs, everybody, gets wrapped up in the physical aspect of the game. 40 times and 225-pound bench press reps were racing across my TV all weekend.

In the NFL, teams still value freakish athleticism over almost anything else and often believe that their coaching staff can coach up just about anybody. But if a player still bites on play-action after four years in the NFL, if one of your fastest defenders consistently runs in the wrong direction, and if another guy tackles like a monster but can't diagnose a play to save his life, then you've got a problem.

Bill Parcells, who seems to have a quote on everything, also has one on this topic.

"Dumb players do dumb things. Smart players seldom do dumb things."

In this day and age where players need to be smart both on the field and off the field, NFL teams can perhaps afford dumb players less than ever before. You can't win with dumb players in the NFL anymore

4. The player you'll ask to do something else

In free agency, you usually pay two types of premiums. One premium is the auction premium that we'll look at in point number five. The other premium is usually the price you pay for a very specific ability the free agent has and excels at. A wide receiver for example may be a good route runner, he may be a good slot receiver, he may be a great redzone target or something else (some receivers can do all of those things at an elite level, but they'll also cost elite, cap-crippling money). And when you acquire that free agent, you're paying a premium for that one specific skill he excels at. So you'd better make darn sure your scheme allows him to excel at that specific trait, because if you're going to ask the guy to do something else (that he's not quite as good at), you almost certainly have overpaid for the player

  • You’re a press corner? Well, tough luck. You’re playing zone in our scheme.
  • So you're exceptionally fast? Big Deal. Show me how fast you can block.
  • Shifty speedster with breakaway capability? Learn to pick up the blitz first, you puny human.

At the end of the day, football is a game of systems and schemes. You can win by getting the right personnel to maximize your system, or you can win by adjusting your scheme to maximize the talent. But you won't win if you play your talent in the wrong scheme.

5. You are going to overpay regardless

Even if you heed the four previous points, you'll end up overpaying for your free agents anyway. In fact, teams should consider themselves really lucky if they get a free agent that meets their expectations. Brian Burke from Advanced Football Analytics explains why:

The team that most grossly overestimates a free agent's value will very likely be the team that offers the most and wins the auction. The upshot is that free agents tend to be signed by the teams that erred the most in predicting their true worth. That's why free agent signings turn out so disappointing so often.

There are only very few exceptions to this point. One of them is that the free agent may actually be more valuable to the new team than to the old team. Martellus Bennett is a recent case in point here: Maybe the new scheme or system is a better fit for the player; maybe the player steps out of the shadow of an elite and/or high-cost player; maybe the coaching staff on the new team can help the player improve more (this of course is a common fantasy among all NFL coaching staffs). Lots of maybe's and a lot of wishful thinking going on here.

At the end of the day, you'll have to approach free agency with realistic expectations. It's a very costly process that's designed to plug holes in your roster. Don't ever think that you're just one or two players away, because no team ever is, especially not in this era of the NFL. And once you understand that, you'll also understand that the best way to assemble elite talent is through the draft, and not with your wallet.