One of the concepts I kept hearing and reading about during draft season was "building through the draft"; how important it is, how it's the key to success in the NFL, how dynasties are built off it and so on.
So I asked myself the question, is 'building through the draft' still a relevant concept today, or is it more or less a relic from pre-free-agency days? And what's the alternative to building through the draft, "building through free agency"?
On a whim, I decided to look at the 15 top cap hits on the 2016 Cowboys roster. And much to my surprise, I found that only two of the top 15 Cowboys players (as measured by their 2016 cap hit) joined the Cowboys as free agents after playing for another NFL team. Here's an overview:
Brandon Carr and Rolando McClain are the only two former free agents who show up in the top 15 for the Cowboys. Sure, the Cowboys have many more free agents (they just signed Alfred Morris, Brandon Mayowa, Joe Looney, and Cedric Thornton this year), but none of them appear on the top 15 cap list. And it's not like this list is made up exclusively of draft picks either, but the undrafted free agents on this list (Tony Romo, Barry Church, Cole Beasley, Dan Bailey) all joined the Cowboys as rookies and can rightfully be considered home-grown talent.
Still, for a team that's annually linked to almost every one of the highest-priced free agents, and still has a reputation as a free spender in free agency, having just two free agents in their top 15 feels like a pretty low number. So I did the same exercise for the three other NFC East teams to get a feel for how they compare to the Cowboys. Here's what I found:
|Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit|
|Eli Manning||QB||24.2||Sam Bradford||QB||12.5||Kirk Cousins||QB||20.0
|Olivier Vernon||DE||13.0||Jason Peters||LT||9.7||Trent Williams||LT||10.7|
|Jason Pierre-Paul||DE||9.4||Lane Johnson||RT||8.1||Pierre Garcon||WR||10.2|
|D.Rodgers-Cromartie||CB||8.0||Fletcher Cox||DT||7.8||DeSean Jackson||WR||9.3|
|Janoris Jenkins||CB||8.0||Connor Barwin||OLB||7.4||Ryan Kerrigan||OLB||8.5|
|Damon Harrison||DT||6.6||Malcolm Jenkins||S||5.7||Josh Norman||CB||8.0|
|Shane Vereen||RB||4.9||Jason Kelce||C||5.2||DeAngelo Hall||CB||5.1|
|Victor Cruz||WR||4.4||Brandon Graham||OLB||5.0||Perry Riley||LB||5.0|
|J.T. Thomas||LB||4.0||Chase Daniel||QB||5.0||Shawn Lauvao||G||5.0|
|Dwayne Harris||WR||3.8||Carson Wentz||QB||4.9||Brandon Scherff||G||4.8|
|Jonathan Casillas||LB||3.4||Mychal Kendricks||LB||4.6||Stephen Paea||DE||4.6|
|Ereck Flowers||LT||3.3||Darren Sproles||RB||4.5||Chris Baker||DE||4.3|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||2.8||Ryan Mathews||RB||4.0||Kory Lichtensteiger||C||3.9|
|Rashad Jennings||RB||2.8||Zach Ertz||TE||3.3||Jordan Reed||TE||3.4|
|Eli Apple||CB||2.8||Brandon Brooks||G||3.2||Ricky Jean Francois||DE||3.0|
The Giants (9 free agents), Redskins (9), and Eagles (8), whether by choice of by chance, have all built teams that rely heavily on free agents. This can be a viable option of course, as it doesn't say anywhere in the NFL rule book that you have to build through the draft. In fact, when we look at the last two Super Bowl participants, they both share a similar, free-agent heavy make up, with eight players each.
|Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit|
|Cam Newton||QB||19.5||Demaryius Thomas||WR||15.2|
|Ryan Kalil||C||10.3||Von Miller||OLB||14.1|
|Jonathan Stewart||RB||9.6||Aqib Talib||CB||10.0|
|Thomas Davis||OLB||7.5||Chris Harris||CB||9.0|
|Luke Kuechly||ILB||6.0||DeMarcus Ware||OLB||8.0|
|Greg Olsen||TE||5.1||Derek Wolfe||DE||6.8|
|Michael Oher||LT||4.5||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||6.6|
|Graham Gano||K||3.9||C.J. Anderson||RB||6.0|
|Star Lotulelei||DT||3.1||T.J. Ward||SS||5.8|
|Paul Soliai||DT||2.9||Russell Okung||OT||5.2|
|Ted Ginn Jr.||WR||2.8||Mark Sanchez||QB||4.5|
|Ed Dickson||TE||2.6||Donald Stephenson||OT||4.0|
|Charles Johnson||DE||2.6||Britton Colquitt||P||4.0|
|Mike Remmers||RT||2.6||Darian Stewart||FS||3.3|
|Kurt Coleman||FS||2.2||Virgil Green||TE||2.9|
As a Cowboys fan, I am of course naturally inclined to say that whatever the Cowboys are doing is the best, and certainly better than whatever it is the Giants, Eagles, or Redskins are doing. But that may be a little shortsighted in this case.
Given the constraints of the salary cap, it may be difficult building a team entirely out of free agents, but there's no reason to think adding free agents to your team is a bad thing, though there is one downside to this approach. Free agent acquisitions share one defining characteristic: their old team did not want to re-sign them, at least not for the price the player is demanding. Which is why free agents end up as busts more frequently than players who sign free agency contracts with the teams that drafted them or signed them to their first NFL deal.
Although the majority of NFL teams are free-agent heavy in their top 15 cap hits, there are some teams that look similar to the Cowboys in the make up of their top 15:
|Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit|
|Andy Dalton||QB||13.1||Aaron Rodgers||QB||19.3||Adrian Peterson||RB||12.0|
|A.J. Green||WR||13.0||Clay Matthews||ILB||13.8||Matt Kalil||LT||11.1|
|Geno Atkins||DT||9.6||Sam Shields||CB||12.0||Everson Griffen||DE||8.2|
|Kevin Zeitler||G||8.1||Julius Peppers||OLB||10.5||Kyle Rudolph||TE||7.3|
|Andrew Whitworth||LT||8.0||Randall Cobb||WR||9.2||Alex Boone||G||6.7|
|Adam Jones||CB||7.6||Jordy Nelson||WR||8.3||Linval Joseph||DT||6.4|
|Dre Kirkpatrick||CB||7.5||Mike Daniels||DE||7.4||John Sullivan||C||5.8|
|Carlos Dunlap||DE||7.3||Josh Sitton||G||6.9||Harrison Smith||FS||5.3|
|Michael Johnson||DE||6.1||T.J. Lang||G||6.2||Brian Robison||DE||5.3|
|George Iloka||SS||5.1||Morgan Burnett||SS||6.0||Captain Munnerlyn||CB||4.6|
|Clint Boling||G||4.8||Bryan Bulaga||RT||5.5||Brandon Fusco||G||4.1|
|Vincent Rey||ILB||4.5||Nick Perry||OLB||4.9||Andrew Sendejo||SS||4.0|
|Rey Maualuga||ILB||4.1||Letroy Guion||DE||3.5||Phillip Loadholt||RT||3.8
|Vontaze Burfict||OLB||2.9||Jared Cook||TE||2.8||Anthony Barr||OLB||3.5
|Domata Peko||DT||3.7||Datone Jones||DE||2.5||Andre Smith||RT||3.5
The Packers have built an entire franchise mythology around retaining their own players, and don't bring in outside help very often. Former Packers GM Ron Wolf explains:
"In the long run," Wolf said, "it's better to keep your own players. So I guess you could say that, in my opinion, it's better to build through the draft. When I was here [in Green Bay], I used trades and the waiver wire quite a bit. Once we kind of got it settled, we did everything in our power to keep our own."
The Bengals and Vikings are two other teams, along with the Cowboys, who seem to have embraced the idea of building through the draft, perhaps not as rigorously as the Packers, but they have drafted well enough to not have to go to the free agent market for help.
When you succeed in drafting talent, you can focus on re-signing your own talent and you can then use free agency to improve the depth across your roster. By sheer force of numbers, the draft remains the main source of new (and cheap!) player material. Get it right in the draft and you are golden. Get it wrong and you may struggle to compensate through other means.
Other teams I looked at and the number of free agent acquisitions among their top 15 cap hits:
New England: 5