Every year during free agency, there's almost no big-name free agent that isn't linked to the Cowboys at some point. This year, there was almost no free agent running back or pass rusher the Cowboys weren't linked to, the more expensive the better.
And while we collectively like to point the fingers at Big Media and poo poo them for writing stories linking premier free agents to the Cowboys, the some of the worst offenders are Cowboys fans themselves who flood comment boards, blogs and social media with ideas about which players the Cowboys should acquire - only to then be disappointed when the Cowboys don't sign them.
So while the calls for Lamar Miller, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and many others went unheeded, the Cowboys quietly went about their business and spent over $50 million on free agents in March. That's right, $50 million.
Here's an overview of the 13 free agents the Cowboys have signed in March 2016, along with the contract terms that have become available so far.
|Player||POS||AGE||Years||Total Contract Value||Guaranteed Money||1st year Cap Hit
|Total||50.0 million||20.8 million||14.8 million|
The Cowboys have spent a cool $50 million in free agency so far this year, and that's excluding the contracts for their last three signings, Joe Looney, Matt Wile, and Brandon Hartson, though the latter two are likely going to be at the league minimum and almost certainly won't make the roster. But the contract value is just one part of the equation in free agency.
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 matters in any NFL contract are the guarantees. Teams owe their newly signed free agents only the guaranteed portion of their contracts, and nothing more. And when that guaranteed portion is used up, it often signals the end of that player's tenure with his new team.
Take newly signed Cowboys defensive tackle Cedric Thornton. His four-year, $17 million contract is essentially a two-year contract worth $9 million. Those $9 million are guaranteed and will be paid out in the form of a $5 million signing bonus, a year one salary of $1 million, and a year two salary of $3 million. The Cowboys owe Thornton nothing beyond that, and could release him after two years if they wish.
So how does the Cowboys free agency spending compare to other teams across the league? Here's an overview (per Spotrac.com) of where the Cowboys rank relative to their NFL peers.
|Rank||Total Value||Guaranteed||Cap Hit 2016|
|Team||FA Spend||Team||FA Spend||Team||FA Spend|
The big and expensive names are all gone, so while this snapshot of free agency spending will change as teams sign more free agents, it is unlikely to change dramatically, and as such gives us a good feel for where the Cowboys rank relative to their peers, and that's smack in the middle.
The Cowboys didn't go overboard like some of the teams at the top of the table, but neither did they sit still and do nothing. The $50 million may come as a surprise given the relative paucity of headline-grabbing signings, but that is par for the course for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys have been trying to follow a specific business model for a while now, and that model is less about spending your money on someone else's free agents, and more about spending it on your own instead.
Free agency is as much about managing risk as anything. Ideally you invest your money where you know the risks are minimal, and that's for the players you know the best - your own players. What you want to avoid in free agency is tying up too much of your money, especially your guaranteed money, in risks that you can't control. 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, contracts the uptown-flu, or otherwise doesn't work out for some reason.
Next year, pending free agents like DT Kawann Short, Tyrann Mathieu, and Fletcher Cox will top the free agency wishlist of many Cowboys fans, but the Cowboys will instead spend their money on re-signing players like Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, or Demarcus Lawrence, and fill roster holes with mid-tier free agents.
But for that business model to work, you've got to draft successfully.
Over the last eight drafts, the Giants drafted only two Pro Bowlers with 58 picks; the Jaguars drafted just one Pro Bowler with 56 picks over the same period. No surprise they have to break the bank in free agency to compensate. The Cowboys drafted eight future Pro Bowlers over that period, and can now focus on retaining their top guys. But if they want to avoid spending big in free agency, and instead spending big on their own players, they'll have to continue drafting well, starting with the next draft in a little less than four weeks.