Despite years of evidence to the contrary, the perception remains among the poorly informed that Jerry Jones makes all the meaningful decisions concerning the Dallas Cowboys roster. This includes having a puppet for a head coach. But those who have been paying attention realize that Jason Garrett is anything but that, and is the primary architect of the underlying philosophy followed by the team, including the approach used to acquire players. Jerry’s son Stephen Jones is the one to listen to about how the team is going to spend its money. While Jerry still is the spokesman for the team, he often is stating things that originate with Stephen, Garrett, and personnel man Will McClay. A big part of the current strategy for Dallas is to grow their own. They want to build primarily through the draft, using free agency only as a hole-filler and avoiding big name/big money deals.
This season is going to be an interesting test of that. It was looking like things were going well a couple of years ago, until things went totally off the rails in 2015. Success this fall could affirm the approach (and fortify the argument that last year’s debacle was primarily driven by key injuries to the most important players). A failed campaign, most likely determined by whether or not the Cowboys reach the playoffs, could lead to questions about whether it is time to make changes.
The entire roster is predominantly composed of homegrown talent, with just a few players like Brandon Carr, Darren McFadden, Cedric Thornton, and Alfred Morris that had established careers before they came to Dallas. Most of the free agents that are hoped to contribute this season were not well known for their previous years in the league. Benson Mayowa is the most obvious example.
And the defensive line, where Mayowa and Thornton set up shop, is the most obvious area where the Cowboys are putting their faith in developing talent rather than hiring it. This is a clear case where the team is accepting a good degree of risk, given the importance of the pass rush in finding success in the league. Joey Ickes laid out the arguments in an earlier post detailing where there are some signs that the team may be able to get some production out of a largely unknown group. Camp has been rough on the defensive line, with several players missing time, including Mayowa and Tyrone Crawford. The Cowboys signed some help for the depleted group, but still stuck to their basic philosophy. They picked up Shaneil Jenkins, a small-school pass rusher who was waived by the Denver Broncos. He was originally signed as a UDFA, and seems to be a case of finding someone who may have talent, but was on a team that is already pretty well stocked with talent in that role. (Go here for more on Jenkins.)
Dallas has even taken the "grow your own" approach in the one position they have not employed it in recent years, backup quarterback. With the injury to Kellen Moore, they decided, after an initial look at free agent Nick Foles, to stick with second-year player Jameill Showers and rookie Dak Prescott - at least for now. The team will have at least some time to see what they have already before they add another arm, and there is at least the chance that they may not need to bring another quarterback in. Showers and Prescott both look much better than recent attempts to find developmental quarterbacks, especially this early in camp, and the results of the Blue-White scrimmage provide more data.
Of course, the Cowboys have some areas of the roster where this approach has already been very successful. The obvious one is the offensive line, where they have built a unit widely regarded as the best in the league. However, it must be remembered that they have invested heavily in doing so, with three current first-round draft picks starting, and La’el Collins an additional first-round talent who was caught in a bizarre set of circumstances that made him available as a UDFA. They even have a "sixth starter" in Ron Leary, who was also undrafted, in his case due to concerns about a degenerative knee condition that has so far not impacted his ability at all. Other areas of success for their philosophy include the wide receiver corps, the kicking specialists, and of course the starting quarterback.
A couple of recent failures in free agency have also provided impetus for them to focus more on drafting and looking for UDFA and low-cost free agent finds. Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain both flamed out in rather striking fashion. Those are the kinds of mistakes that can make a front office very gun-shy.
But the question remains as to whether the Cowboys can win this way. If the team can avoid the devastating injuries of last year, the results on the field will give an immediate answer. If things do not go well, there will have to be a frank and thorough self-examination of whether the team is selecting the right players and developing them properly. The draft picks outside the first round have not done well of late. Still, there is even some hope that could turn around, as Morris Claiborne and Gavin Escobar, two of the most frequently cited examples, are both having an outstanding camp so far. You can also count Ryan Russell among that group. And there are some later-round draftees this year that are looking very promising as well, including Anthony Brown, Darius Jackson, and Charles Tapper.
Should things go badly, though, the pressure will be on to make changes, such as taking a more liberal approach to free agency. It would also put the onus on Jason Garrett. He has had the biggest influence in shaping the approach, despite what many outside the organization may think. He was given a new contract after 2014, but it is obvious that the contract of a head coach is little protection if the team is not winning. This year is crucially important for the team and the coaching staff. They have to prove that building the roster through what can be termed a very deliberate approach can take the Cowboys to the playoffs and hopefully to the ultimate goal.