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Cowboys Relying Much Less On Free Agents Than You Might Think

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After years of hearing about how bad the Cowboys draft and how they chase every free agent, you might be surprised to see that the Cowboys have built through the draft more efficently than most other teams.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Rank Player POS Cap Hit
1 Tony Romo QB 20.8
2 Dez Bryant WR 13.0
3 Brandon Carr CB 10.7
4 Jason Witten TE 8.6
5 Orlando Scandrick CB 7.8
6 Tyron Smith LT 6.8
7 Sean Lee LB 6.0
8 Doug Free RT 5.5
9 Barry Church S 4.8
10 Ezekiel Elliott RB 4.5
11 Tyrone Crawford DT 4.4
12 Rolando McClain LB 3.4
13 Cole Beasley WR 3.4
14 Dan Bailey K 3.3
15 Morris Claiborne CB 2.7
Total 105.5

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:

Giants Eagles Redskins
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

101.4
90.8
105.6

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.

Panthers Broncos
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

84.9
105.3

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:

Bengals
Packers
Vikings
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
105.2 118.4 91.3

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
Seattle: 6
Pittsburgh: 6
Baltimore: 7
Houston: 8
Atlanta: 8