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Cowboys 2015 Free Agency Primer: The Six FA Commandments

On the cusp of free agency, its a good idea to remind ourselves how the most successful organizations approach the process. With these established precepts in mind, we can more accurately evaluate our Beloved 'boys behavior in the NFL's annual spendfest.

Wonder what kind of player the Cowboys will target in free agency? Study Terrell McClain's profile...
Wonder what kind of player the Cowboys will target in free agency? Study Terrell McClain's profile...
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In myriad pressers, Jason Garrett has pointed out that free agency can't be evaluated in isolation, but must be considered as one aspect of a complex offseason talent acquisition process. More specifically, he wants the team to use free agency to "set up the draft." This is important; the best drafting organizations don't expect to address their most immediate perceived needs in the draft. Rather, they make selections based on a flexible "best player available" approach rather than attempting to fill roster holes.

The savvier organizations use free agency to lease rather than buy; they see free agents as "bridge players," guys capable of filling roster holes until the team can fill the hole with a younger, cheaper and better player via the draft. As former Eagles GM Howie Roseman once remarked:

Ideally, you don't want to go into the draft with a huge hole, because that puts you more susceptible to forcing things or kind of pushing guys look at the depth chart and you go, "I don't have someone at that position. Who's in the draft?"

The great thing about free agency is that it helps teams avoid this sticky wicket. Roseman adds:

What we'll do in that sort of situation is we'll try to find a solid get us through the moment and hope that we get an opportunity in the draft to get those guys that are going to be our long term players...our core guys and then have some hold-the-fort guys.

The lesson here is: use free agency to find "hold-the-fort guys" capable of serving as a "bridge" to the kind of player in whom you want to invest four to eight years. The beauty of this modus operandi is that, when a team does find that long-term player, the veteran place holder's contract allows them to sever ties without any negative financial impact. Indeed, Roseman notes that such signings allow teams to be players in subsequent free agent markets:

when you go into that mid-range [FA] market, and you sign solid players, if a couple don't work out, you can kind of use that money again next year. So, you're not tied in because of the guarantee and so you still have that financial flexibility to go back into the market next year when you see a better fit possibly for your football team.

As Roseman suggests, wise front offices see free agency as a key component of a sober, long-view approach to talent acquisition, one that focuses primarily upon the draft.

With that in mind, we must ask: how, exactly, should we prefer the Cowboys behave in the next couple of weeks? Two weeks ago, O.C.C. articulated a worthy set of five free agency mistakes, focusing on the specific position types that a clearheaded organization should avoid (the third receiver in a prolific passing offense, for example). I'll refer to Cool's work herein, as I develop a broader set of operating tenets that characterize the most stable organizations' behavior during the free agency period. So, like a bearded, sandal-wearing prophet coming down from Mount Tagliabue, I give you free agency's Six Commandments:

1. 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, in which teams eager to improve their rosters convince themselves that they simply must get a certain player or 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. Will Aqib Talib ever perform to the level of the 6-year, $57 million contract (with 26 a cool 26 mil guaranteed) the Broncos gave him? Its doubtful, indeed.

However, after that first week or so, the market settles down and the smarter teams jump in, offering 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, stable, rational organizations.

As they tried to climb out of the Campo era's severe talent depletion, this is where the Cowboys got burned. First-week signings in 2005 (Marco Rivera, Anthony Henry) and 2008 (Leonard Davis) never provided a satisfying return on investment. Since 2009, when they waited until free agency's fifth day to sign Igor Olshansky and then waited four more days to ink Gerald Sensabaugh, the Cowboys have exercised considerably more patience during the initial frenzy.

In 2011, for example, Dallas waited until the safety and defensive line markets settled down to secure fair and/ or short-term deals for the guys they brought aboard; in 2012, with the exception of Brandon Carr's big deal, they waited until the first week passed and then secured a passel of solid veterans. 2013? They again bided their time before bringing in veterans at linebacker and safety. Last year, they broke form by jumping in early, but the two deals they signed - with Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain - were low-dollar, under-the-radar deals

Judging by recent behavior, the Cowboys will sit back and watch as teams pay ridiculous money while they dial the agents for solid veteran "bridges," offering team-friendly deals that they can get out of with minimal financial penalty.

2. Thou Shalt Avert Thy Gaze From the Heavens

Another ideological pitfall from which the Cowboys have suffered in the past is the dreaded "one player away" thinking. In a recent ESPN Insider piece, former Bills and Colts roster architect Bill Polian offered a list of free agency do's and don'ts. Number five on his list? "realize that you are never one player away from a championship." O.C.C. agrees; he writes, "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." With parity and the number of injuries every year, no team is ever a single player away.

Yet, every year, teams succumb to the siren song of the much ballyhooed free agent, the Pro-Bowler who can elevate a franchise. Ever since Reggie White helped to transform the Packers in FA's early days, teams have been looking for saviors in free agency, guys who can enact a similar transformation.Certainly, there are players who have enacted such magical conjuration; Drew Brees has done precisely that for a moribund Saints organization, but he is the exception, not the rule. This year, pundits are making Ndamukong Suh to be such a savior. Good luck with that, Miami...

The problem is that these magicians almost never become available. 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. Kevin Demoff, the Rams' Executive Vice President of Football Operations & Chief Operating Officer, cautions would-be spenders:

You "should always be [wary] if you think a player is worth [on the open market] two times what their current team thinks they're worth. What do you know that they don't know? Conversely, what do they know that you don't know?"

And this is the rub: free agents' former teams know much, much more about them than the teams that acquires their services...and have decided to let them go. 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.

Cowboys fans must be ever-vigilant in this regard; Jerry Jones has demonstrated that he is susceptible to this brand of thinking, and his thought process is likely to be catalyzed by his franchise quarterback's closing window.

3. Thou Shalt Forsake the Aged

A cardinal rule--perhaps the cardinal rule--of managing the salary cap is to avoid giving multi-year contracts with guaranteed money to players 30 years of age or older. The key is to avoid offering third contracts, which tend to be signed by players who are in the 28-30-year-old range. Indeed, in his insider piece, Polian says that teams mustn't "give a four-year or longer contract, even to an A [level] player, who is 28 years of age or older."

As this suggests, 29 appears to be a magic age for NFL players; that's when the vast majority begin their decline. Sure there are exceptions, but for the most part, any player who signs a long-term, big-money third contract with a sizable signing bonus simply will not be playing up to the level of that contract in the final couple of years. That's why teams increasingly offer only one-year "prove it" type deals to players who have completed their second contracts.

As Cool writes, "spending big money on a veteran free agent running back is not exactly the sign of a forward-thinking organization." He points out that the Cowboys had to learn this lesson the hard way in 2008, when they made Marion Barber, he of the punishing style, one of the highest paid running backs in the league. Two years later, he was done, and only his huge cap hit remained as a reminder of his time in Dallas. The good news? The organization's discipline has improved markedly in this regard; they are one of the NFL's youngest teams and their cap is in excellent shape. Let's hope it continues...

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 before they hit free agency. In the past five years it is very clear that Dallas has sought to implement this strategy. Consider the emerging core players who they re-signed before they ever had a chance to go on the market: Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee, Dan Bailey, and Tyron Smith; in the past few days, we've seen them re-up Cole Beasley and Doug Free. That's why I believe its a certainty that they will eventually reach a long-term contract with Dez Bryant.

This is good business. On many levels, it's smarter to reward the guys other players see working their tails off on the practice field and film room than to spend big bucks on "independent contractors," the equivalent of football mercenaries. As Roseman notes:

...when you bring in guys that maybe are good players but not great and pay them great player money, what does that say to the rest of your team? What does that say to the guys that you drafted and brought in here...what kind of message does that send?

The short answer: not a very good one. Rather than gambling on players your rivals decided they didn't want after scouting, drafting and paying them, and in spending thousands of hours in developing and honing their skill sets, its always best to keep the guys you have brought into your program and developed.

That's a sound talent maintenance strategy, but the Cowboys have gone overboard with it in the past. To wit:

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. As O.C.C. wrote in his cautionary FA post, "Team success can often obscure the view of individual performance." Indeed, Cool argues that the opposite strategy works best: bring in good players from bad teams:

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?

Historically, Dallas has done a good job negotiating this commandment. But one reason why they have done so is that, as I mentioned above, they choose to spend all their Semolians re-upping their own guys. In this, the front office appears to have followed the media's lead in overvaluing their own Larry Browns. The big paydays given to Ken Hamlin, Gerald Sensabaugh, Scandrick and Doug Free all serve as persuasive examples. For the Cowboys to maximize their talent-versus-expenditure ratio, they'll have to do a much better job doing the one thing that they continuously struggle with: objectively evaluating the guys on their own roster. Which has often led them to the problem our next commandment addresses:

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

This is the free agent vortex in which the Cowboys were trapped in the Parcells and Phillips years: making up for draft failings by filling holes via big-ticket free agency signings. This was 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 Marco Rivera, Leonard Davis, or Nate Livings. 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, as I tried to make clear at the top of the article, 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 (think Kyle Kosier or Mackenzy Bernadeau).

It remains to be seen how disciplined Dallas can be in this regard, but an upturn has been in evidence. Last offseason, they did a good job using free agency to fill roster holes along a decimated defensive line, and they did so without breaking the bank. This year, I'd expect more of the same, so if you're wondering who they'll bring aboard, look at the largest roster holes (not soft spots, but holes), and look for mid-to low-level players in 26-28 age range or slightly older veterans who cannot command the big money, and will thus be more amenable to a one- or two-year deal.


The key to this final tenet is, of course, that a team must draft well, so that they can replace veterans with youngsters who can actually play. In the five most recent drafts, Dallas has found Pro Bowl caliber players at wide receiver, inside linebacker, offensive tackle, running back, center and offensive guard. A successful free agency period and a similarly solid draft will significantly reduce the need for them to extend themselves to fill roster holes.

Until then, its absolutely crucial the Garrett Cowboys continue to be "systematic" in everything they do, emphasizing patience and preparation. If they can manage this, they will be able to make level-headed, long-view decisions that consistently forgo immediate gain in lieu of greater future value.  You know, like winning organizations do...

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