The Dallas Cowboys have been on a youth movement for several years. Although they have a few players who are getting positively ancient in NFL years, most notably Tony Romo and Jason Witten, those are players that have come up with the team. Lately they have shown a decided aversion to acquiring older free agents. The preference is for developing players they draft, and when they do sign outside players, they usually get ones that are a few years short of age 30. The team is being consistent in this approach. However, consistency is not always a guaranteed way to get things right. Are the Cowboys being too faithful to their process?
This has come up again with the team still facing unanswered questions about their pass rush. One notable free agent, Dwight Freeney, remains available. He is 36, the same age as Romo, and last season produced eight sacks in a situational role with the Arizona Cardinals. That is more than any of the current defensive linemen on the Cowboys produced last year - and more than any but Tyrone Crawford have had in the pros for their career. Despite this, Stephen Jones says that the team has no interest in signing Freeney (or any other veterans) at this time, even though the team also considers talent acquisition a year-round concern.
"All those things are things we keep our eyes on, but I don’t think right now we’re ready to make a move on any type of veteran, at this point, that’s available," Jones said Thursday at AT&T Stadium.
While the talk about Freeney is at least partly a result of the phenomenon of every free agent who is well-known getting linked to Dallas, he is a case of a payer who seems to still have some useful talent and who would likely be a usable resource for the Cowboys. Given his age, he would not be able to expect a big or long-term deal, but should be available on a very reasonable one-year contract. With the obvious need for more pass rush, is Dallas being short-sighted in not looking into him?
The thinking of the staff seems to be that they want to see what they have on hand before they consider going back into the free agent market. While the quality of their defensive linemen is very much unproven, they do have quantity to work with. There are currently 16 defensive linemen signed to the 90-man roster. Even with the suspensions coming for DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, that is still more than enough players to go into camp, and the team seems to feel that they are more than likely to find the players they need to go into the season in this group. None of the current defensive linemen are over the age of 27, either. Picking up a player like Freeney would mean they would expect him to take a roster spot from one of the younger players, someone who they would expect to have for more than a year or two. The team keeps the long view in mind in dealing with their roster, and it appears the tradeoff of losing someone who may be around for several years is not worth it to bring in Freeney.
What may be more important is that they need to see how the various options work out in camp and the preseason games before they decide to part ways with any of them. And there is no assurance that Freeney would have the same level of production this season that he had with the Cardinals. Keeping an eye to the future does not mean that they are really sacrificing anything in the short term.
But just because the team is not looking to sign Freeney or another veteran pass rusher now does not mean that will be true in late August or September. If things do not pan out as well as they need to as the start of the regular season draws nearer, they could still bring in a wily veteran. This is a pattern they have followed recently as well. The youth movement has paid off on the offensive line, but in 2013, they were not satisfied with what they had to go into the season, and wound up signing Brian Waters after the end of camp to shore things up (as was mentioned in the article linked above). Given that Freeney was not picked up by the Cardinals until October of last year, he may well still be available as something of a fallback option this September. The current lack of interest from the Dallas staff is based at least partly on an anticipation that the team can find a workable solution to filling out the defensive line with what they currently have. If that proves wrong, the staff has shown it can be flexible enough to make a last-minute move.
That still leaves the question of whether the team's approach is the right one. Clearly, there are different approaches to take. There is some evidence that building your roster primarily with young players taken in the draft is more successful than extensive use of free agency, but there are always exceptions. Dallas has a good argument to continue with its current path in what it did with the offensive line, but that took several years to get to the current state. We really won't have any idea if the Cowboys got this right until the season plays out, and that will only be for the short term. For now, we as fans will just have to watch and see how the current batch of rushmen develops.