For the better part of Jerry Jones' tenure as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, the Cowboys could be counted on to be major players in free agency. To this day, there's almost no big-name free agent that isn't linked to the Cowboys at some point. Ndamukong Suh was frequently linked to the Cowboys this offseason; Brian Orakpo said he "wouldn't mind playing for the Cowboys"; Antonio Cromartie even went so far as to say he was the Cowboys' missing piece.
Given the Cowboys' history in free agency, we shouldn't really be surprised by any of this. These stories will pop up every year, no matter that the Cowboys have been very conservative in free agency for a number of years now.
But wait! Didn't the Cowboys just sign Greg Hardy to contract worth $11.3 million?
Sure they did. But contract values like that are just something that players, agents and teams use to chum the headline waters. And they are successful every time:
[Player X] Signs [X] Year Deal Worth [X] Million Dollars
In free agency, headlines blasting out contract values are the norm, but the value of an NFL contract is not in the total contract dollars or in the length of the contract. What really matter in any NFL contract are the guarantees. Here's the venerable Washington Post almost blowing a gasket about NFL contact values:
This is all economic voodoo, all of it, every one of the NFL free agent contracts we have heard about in these breathless dispatches over the past week. According to reports, Suh is guaranteed $60 million of that $114 million – enough for generations of little Suhs, sure. But this business about it being worth $56 million on top of that: Hogwash. The Dolphins owe him the guaranteed portion, and nothing more.
So what do the Cowboys owe Greg Hardy in guaranteed money? Nothing. Zero. Nada.
The Cowboys won't be on the hook for a single cent should any of a number of things keep Hardy from playing. If he plays, and if he performs, the Cowboys will pay him commensurate with that performance. That's pretty thrifty. And it's a thriftiness that the Cowboys have applied to their remaining free agent acquisitions as well.
After the start of the official signing period in March, the Cowboys have signed six free agents for a combined $4,665,000 in guaranteed money as follows:
|Player||POS||AGE||Years||Total Contract Value||Annual Average||Guaranteed Money
|Greg Hardy||DE||26||1||$11,311,600||$11,311,600||- -|
That $4.7 million in guaranteed money is the fifth lowest total in the league, and chump change compared to the likes of the Eagles ($53.5 million in guaranteed money), Dolphins ($75.5 million), Jets ($75.5 million), and Jaguars ($78.8 million) who hemorrhaged guaranteed dollars this offseason.
Here's an overview (per Spotrac.com) of the guaranteed money the 32 NFL teams have spent so far this year.
|9||Baltimore||6||$6.9||20||San Francisco||5||$24.7||31||NY Jets||12||$75.5|
For your reading convenience, the 2014 playoff participants are shaded in grey. Notice a pattern?
I'm not suggesting that correlation equals causation here, and there's a good chance some of the high-spending teams (Buffalo, Miami?) could make the playoffs in 2015, just like some of the more thrifty teams (Detroit, Tampa?) could miss the playoffs. But there appears to be a business model favored by the more successful teams, and that model is less about spending your guaranteed money on somebody else's free agents, but spending it on your own instead.
Free agency is as much about managing risk as anything. There are good risks and bad risks. Ideally you invest your guaranteed money where you know the risks are minimal, and that's for the players you know the best - your own players. The Cowboys invested the bulk of their guaranteed money in their own players like Tony Romo ($55 million), Tyron Smith ($22 million), Sean Lee ($16 million), Jason Witten ($13.5 million), or Orlando Scandrick ($10 million).
They also gave Brandon Carr guarantees worth $25 million in 2012, which is exactly what you want to avoid in free agency. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing in veteran players to help your team, as long as you don't do it with contracts that are potential cap killers if the player doesn't live up to your expectations, doesn't fit your scheme, brings some baggage with him that you don't know of, can't get along with your coaches or otherwise doesn't work out for some reason.
The Cowboys gave Cole Beasley $7.4 million in guarantees this offseason, gave Doug Free $6 million, guaranteed Dez Bryant $12.8 million via the franchise tag this year, and details of Rolando McClain's contract are not yet clear. Those totals could become much more if they agree to a long-term contract extension this season, and there may be more guarantees in the works if the Cowboys extend Tyrone Crawford early.
Yet for all their laudable restraint in free agency so far, is there a point at which thrifty becomes stingy? Many Cowboys fans are anxiously awaiting word on Dez Bryant's new deal and are wondering what the hold up is with Anthony Spencer.
How do you feel about the Cowboys keeping the checkbook largely closed in free agency this year?