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Learning From Chip Kelly And Other Genius GMs: Free Agency Mistakes The Cowboys Should Avoid

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Every year, free agency kicks off a desperate scramble between teams for the best free agents on the market. And in the NFL, desparation almost inevitably leads to dumb decisions.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency officially kicks off in exactly 30 days. At 4:00 pm EST on March 9 (notwithstanding the three-day official tampering period prior to that), hundreds of free agents will be eager to sign new contracts, 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.

Unless of course you have a genius running your team intent on proving that Madden Franchise works in real life. Last week, ESPN's Mike Sando went back and reviewed his offseason grades for all 32 NFL teams. His conclusion: Chip Kelly's Eagles had the worst offseason of any NFL team.

The moves Chip Kelly made in his lone season with full control over personnel are threatening to set the organization back for some time, especially because he's no longer around to advocate for the players he added last offseason. DeMarco Murray, Sam Bradford and Byron Maxwell fell short of collective expectations to a degree that seemed almost unimaginable.

Today we'll look at six common free agency mistakes the Cowboys should be particularly wary of in 2016. The first three come courtesy of Chip Kelly's Dream Team as an example of what not to do, the other three are collected from other genius GMs around the league.

1. The veteran running back

The Cowboys will probably draft a running back somewhere in this year's draft, and they could also bring in a veteran running back as extra insurance. But spending big money on a veteran free agent running back is not exactly the sign of a forward-thinking organization. This is a lesson the Cowboys had to learn the hard way when they made Marion Barber one of the highest paid running backs in the league in 2008, only to release him two years later and take a huge cap hit in the process.

But that mistake is not unique to the Cowboys. In fact, it happens every year in the NFL. The table below features the top nine free agent running backs that changed teams in 2015, and how their production changed from 2014 to 2015.

Player Team Contract Yards 2014 Yards 2015
DeMarco Murray
DAL/PHI 5 years, $40 million 1,845 702
LeSean McCoy PHI/BUF 5 years, $40 million 1,319 895
C.J.Spiller BUF/NO 4 years, $16 million 300 112
Shane Vereen
NE/NYG 3 years, $12.4 million 391 260
Frank Gore
SFO/IND 3 years, $12 million 1,106 967
Ryan Mathews
SD/PHI 3 years, $11 million 330
539
Roy Helu
WAS/OAK 2 years, $4.1 million 216 39
DeAngelo Williams
CAR/PIT 2 years, $4 million 219 907
Darren McFadden OAK/DAL 2 years, $3 million 534 1,089

Only two of the nine backs managed to improve on their 2014 performance after signing elsewhere. You may think this a fluke, but the results look similar for almost every year. There simply are not a lot of running backs in the league that get better with age, and those that do, or those that are able to maintain a high performance over a long time, hardly ever hit free agency.

If you were paying premium dollar for a 1,000+ yard rusher and only got a fraction of that in return the following year, would you feel you made a good investment?

You could look at free agent performance drops for any position and for almost any stat, and you'd probably end up with similar results (which is exactly what we'll do further down this post). 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).

Chip Kelly went and signed DeMarco Murray anyway.

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?

Chip Kelly, looking at the Eagles defense, may have asked himself those same questions about how Byron Maxwell of the Seahawks would fit into the Philly defense. If he did, he probably thought it wouldn't be an issue. Except it was.

The issue with a veteran defender from a top defense 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 alongside. If the Cowboys are looking for a veteran defender, their best bet would be to sign a good player playing on a bad defense.

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 an average player with a big-name pedigree.

3. 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 in the final point below. 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, or he may be a good slot receiver, or 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're guaranteed to have overpaid for the player.

Say you have a running back that led the league in rushing yards for your division rival while receiving the majority of his carries from an under-center quarterback. That running back was most effective when he was able to square his shoulders at the line of scrimmage and get a running start before the hand-off because he was lined up 5 to 7 yards directly behind the quarterback.

So now you sign that back away from your competitor to a monster contract and ask him to run most of his plays out of a shotgun, where the back is either immediately to the left or the right of the quarterback and won't get a running start. And because the ball is handed off while the back is cutting across the quarterback, he can't square his shoulders and instead has to work from an angle when he gets the football.

In Dallas, Murray had success as a north-south, power running back, who would plow straight through defenders on his way to the end zone. Kelly thought he would be able to remake Murray into a LeSean McCoy clone: shifty, able to avoid defenders in the backfield, and regularly making big plays on the outside. Well, not so much.

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.

4. 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 in 2015 is that teams will pay them in 2016 like it's still 2015. And that will almost inevitably not end well for the acquiring teams.

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 there's no guarantee they'll provide a good return on investment.

In the salary cap era spending your money wisely is one way to win. Forget about the Olivier Vernon's and Von Miller'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.

5. The dumb player

There were whispers out of Valley Ranch a while back that the Cowboys commissioned a study to find out why the Richard Sherman-type cornerbacks were so successful. To this day, the Cowboys like their CB archetype to be 6'0"+ with long arms, but the study found that CB success was not so much about height. Instead, it was about an aggressive style of play coupled with high FBI (football intelligence).

Yet in the NFL, teams still value freakish athleticism over almost anything else. Run a sub 4.4 forty at the Combine and your draft stock will improve considerably. 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 afford dumb players less than ever before. You can't win with dumb players in the NFL anymore.

6. You are going to overpay regardless

The very nature of free agency means that teams will end up overpaying for their free agents, at least for the top free agents in the market. And the reason for that is the auction premium. Because free agency is comparable to an auction, the highest bidder always wins the auction. And that bidder, by default, is the one who overvalues a free agent's value the most. Which is why free agent acquisitions end up as disappointments so often; you paid too much.

There are only very few exceptions to this point.

One of them is when a free agent may actually be more valuable to the new team than to the old team. 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 maybes, of course.

The other is when supply is higher than demand. The auction premium only applies when demand is higher than supply. This is usually the case on the first two days of free agency when teams get into bidding wars for the supposed top talent. But once that initial desperate scramble between teams for the best free agents on the market calms down, teams can find value at moderate prices.

NFL history is full of examples proving that being the lead dog in free agency isn’t the way to go, even if fans and media alike love to indulge in fantasies about their team signing the top tier free agents. Come on down to Dallas, Lamar Miller, Olivier Vernon, Josh Norman, and Muhammad Wilkerson.

Good teams will wait a bit and can get 90 percent of the player at 50 percent of the price, as Bill Barnwell explains:

"What those smart teams will do in this new economy is -- very simply -- be patient. The true stars will disappear off the market early, and the dumber teams will pay a premium for talent to lock them up in the first 24 to 48 hours, but the smart teams will wait. Even if it's just a week, antsy players will see the open slots beginning to fill up around them and settle for far less than they would have at the opening of free agency."

At the end of the day, you'll have to approach free agency with realistic expectations. It's a very costly process that kicks off with a desperate scramble between teams for the best free agents on the market. And in the NFL, desperation almost inevitably leads to dumb decisions.