The additions of Benson Mayowa and Alfred Morris to the Dallas Cowboys made Tuesday the most significant day of free agency so far for the team. They almost scored a hat trick, but Patrick Robinson and/or his agent decided to play games and decamp to Indianapolis where they decided to take what the Colts offered. Still, for the first time, the bulk of the major free agency moves are now done. So where do the Cowboys stand, and what does it all mean?
There have already been a lot of free agency grades handed out by various outlets looking to fill space and attract readers with nothing more than opinion. Most have given Dallas poor marks. And those were all awarded before the Cowboys got the two most recent deals done. This is not an attempt to give a letter grade, but to offer a detailed look at where things really stand.
First off, we have to consider the overall plan that Dallas seemed to have in place before we take a position-by-position look at what has been accomplished and how successful those moves have been to date.
The Dallas Cowboys free agency philosophy.
For the past several years, the approach has been to sit out the first and even second wave of free agent signings. This is attributable to the leadership of Stephen Jones, who has clearly stated his belief that those first few days are when good players get paid like great ones. He manages the cap and payroll for the Cowboys. If you haven't noticed, Dallas believes in putting as much of the cap on the field as possible. That is why they don't have the astronomical amount of cap space that some teams carry into free agency and then throw around like a drunken sailor in a strip joint. The Cowboys believe in building through the draft, and reserve long term deals for the players they acquire that way. They have not signed an outside free agent to a big deal with a large guarantee since the Brandon Carr acquisition, and the results of that seem to carry a lot of weight. Carr is solid, but has not been the presence on the field that the $50 million dollar deal should have purchased.
In this, Jones shows that he plays the odds. Although some big dollar free agents do pay off, the data shows that the majority of time, the return on investment just is not there in the NFL. And there is simply no reliable way to know in advance which are the rare successes (although signing a player that is a very bad fit for your scheme is a nearly-guaranteed way to waste your money *cough* Chip Kelly and DeMarco Murray *cough*). The Cowboys have apparently acquiesced to this, and focus on finding lower cost free agents with upside. The success rate there may not be any greater - but the cost of failure is a lot less, especially in the long run.
It has often been discussed that the Cowboys seek to use free agency to fill holes, or address the needs of the team, in order to focus on drafting the best players in the draft without being handcuffed by need. But what does that really mean?
These free agents are not the answer you seek. They are intended to provide a serviceable player as either a starter or depth, preferably the latter. They are almost by definition replaceable, because that is the plan in a year or two. Again, long term solutions are sought in the draft. Drafted players come with the advantage of the rookie pay scale, which keeps their cost down for the first three or four years. The team will then know if they are worth a second contract, and as the case of Dez Bryant proved last year, the Cowboys have no hesitation opening up the checkbook to keep them.
That means that you cannot afford to have a lot of cap space tied up in a failed free agent signing. This may seem to be a sometimes short-sighted view, but the Cowboys have committed to the idea. In 2014, it looked like it was paying off. Unfortunately, the Great Debacle of 2015 makes it hard to judge the sustainability of the approach. Last season was unquestionably derailed by injury. That is not to say the Cowboys would have cruised to playoff glory with Tony Romo, Orlando Scanrick, and Bryant healthy. It just means that there was no way they could succeed with three of their "money position" players all either out or severely limited for most or all of the season.
This year, Dallas has stuck firmly to their philosophy, so in that sense, the plan has remained intact. Now, what has that gotten them?
Breaking it down by position.
There were certain positions where the Cowboys had clear needs. Some have been addressed, while others are still very much a work in progress.
This turned out to be a bad year to need a QB2. The free agent class was underwhelming to say the least, and players like Robert Griffin III, who might be much better suited at this stage of his career to being a backup, have teams courting them as starters. The Cowboys made one known attempt to sign a decent QB2 in Matt Moore, but he returned to the Miami Dolphins after a visit that may have been nothing more than establishing leverage with his old team. Now with Kellen Moore and Jameill Showers the only depth they have, the Cowboys are in exactly the position they sought to avoid, having to draft a quarterback. That is how unwise reaches happen, but the alternative is to wait for someone to get cut or make a trade. After the Matt Cassel experiment, they are clearly averse to that idea. Given the free agent selection they faced this year, it may be the only way things were going to turn out.
The signing of Mayowa after the Raiders declined to match Dallas' offer has plugged a major hole, but there are many who are not happy that the Cowboys did not get a more known quantity for this. However, this was one position where things quickly escalated in free agency, especially in the ludicrous contract awarded Olivier Vernon by the New York Giants, where it looks like the GM is worried about following Tom Coughlin out the door if things don't turn around fast. His price was obviously too high, especially since he got his deal largely on the strength of a strong second half in the 2015 season. Mario Williams was also seen as a possible target, but there is reason to believe that his poor showing last year, along with reports that he was largely phoning it in, put him out of consideration in Dallas. In Mayowa, they got a young player that they think has a lot of upside. He is not likely to set the world on fire, but he may well perform as well as players costing far more. The team is still reportedly interested in bringing Jack Crawford back as well. If they can get that done, then they will have another player that can fill the position, and one that they know a lot about.
Although the pass rushers currently on the roster could certainly be improved on if cap considerations did not come into play, this is a year where trying to find a stud defensive end in the draft is not going to be easy. The class is not strong here, and it is good that the Cowboys should now not feel pressured to overdraft someone to fill the position.
While the 2016 draft class is perceived to be weak at defensive end, there is much more talent available for the interior of the line. However, the signing of Cedric Thornton is probably an attempt to upgrade from free agent Nick Hayden, whose days in Dallas are probably at an end. Hayden was a favorite of Rod Marinelli, and he was a competent run stuffer, but he offered very little in the way of pressuring the quarterback up the middle. Thornton should be much better in the stunt game, which is significant.
Worst 5 D's at generating pressure from stunts (% of stunt plays with pressure):— Ben Stockwell (@PFF_Ben) March 23, 2016
Better pressure up the middle may help compensate for less-than-superb rushers from the outside, and may be the plan for this year. And the draft offers a good chance to make it even better.
After DeMarco Murray
sold his soul chose to ensure his financial security last year by taking the huge offer from the Eagles, the Cowboys signed Darren McFadden, expecting him to be part of a tandem with Joseph Randle. But after Randle's epic self destruction, McFadden turned out to be the most valuable free agent addition for Dallas last year, providing much more return for his contract than the much-more publicized signing of Greg Hardy, now known to be a locker room malcontent and disruption in addition to his infamous off-field issues. But the search for a backup to McFadden led to failed acquisitions of Christine Michael and Robert Turbin.
The Cowboys came into this offseason with the aging and often injured McFadden, Lance Dunbar, coming back from serious season-ending injury, and unproven Ben Malena and Rod Smith. But the signing of Alfred Morris puts them on much firmer ground. Morris seems a much better fit for Dallas' preferred zone blocking scheme, although he is not as capable as McFadden at pass blocking or catching. However, he is also at the age where running backs decline. It is hoped that the potent offensive line of the Cowboys will revitalize his career, and having a healthy Romo and Bryant should also help loosen up the run defense.
Dallas should still be looking to draft a running back, and if they get one they like, Morris may well push McFadden off the roster. (McFadden only represents $100,000 in dead money if cut, although I believe his full salary becomes guaranteed at the start of training camp, so there may be some pressure to make this call early.)
The Patrick Robinson situation kept the Cowboys from taking care of the other real priority they had. The team could circle back to Leon Hall now that Robinson is gone to Indy.
However, the situation at cornerback may not be that bad. Carr may not have played up to the contract the Cowboys saw fit to bestow on him, but he has not missed a game, and if he was only being paid in the $5 to $6 million range, the ire of the fans would probably be muted. Scandrick is returning, but there is always some concern about coming back from injury. Morris Claiborne was re-signed to a one-year deal with the hope that last season was more indicative of his real talent. And the team has Terrance Mitchell, Deji Olatoye, and Josh Thomas for depth. Getting another corner may be partly the fact you can never have too much talent at the position, and partly as leverage to try and get Carr to agree to something like an extension that would reduce his yearly cap hit. It would also allow him to be cut outright, but that does not appear to be the plan, at least as best can be determined based on comments from the staff.
The deals for both the outside free agents and the re-signed Cowboys players certainly meet the financial goals of the team. And except for the backup quarterback, the team has filled the needs to the point that they should be able to focus on taking the best player possible at each draft pick without being forced in a particular direction. In that aspect, it has been a largely successful free agency.
However, all the financial discipline will mean little if the moves, plus the draft and additional free agents signings still to come, do not translate into wins and a return to the playoffs. Now we can only wish the new players great success. The real grade for this draft class will not be known until the season ends.