One of the great things about having a front office that is disciplined enough to stick to their plan is that after a while – you can start see the method to their madness. By now, many are privy to the idea that the Cowboys don’t spend a lot of money in free agency. They have a simple formula – plug holes in free agency, but build the team through the draft. It’s a really good formula that appears to be working. Using free agency to fill gaps allow you to draft as pure as possible rather than forcing a selection based on need. The Cowboys try to attend to as many of their basic needs as they can during the free agency period so they are free to pluck off the best talent from the tree that is the NFL Draft. And it’s been a plentiful tree full of delicious treats, but before we get to all that goodness, let’s try to dial in what the Cowboys will do in March when free agency hits.
As I like to do from time to time before I put on my fortune teller hat, let’s have a looksy at the Cowboys free agent movement over the last two seasons and see if there is anything we can learn from it.
Starting from most urgent to less critical, here are the snap counts that the team would need to replenish from the 2014 season.
Wide Receiver (1487)
It may have not felt like it, but the Cowboys had some gaping holes at the wide receiver position entering the 2015 season. The contracts of Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Dwayne Harris had all expired. Most people fully expected the team to bring back Bryant and Beasley, and sure enough – they did. All that was really left was replacing Harris’ snaps who signed with the New York Giants. While he didn’t log many reps on offense, he was a significant contributor on special teams. Dallas would find his replacement by signing undrafted free-agent, Lucky Whitehead.
Just as they did with WR, the Cowboys had three linebackers hitting free agency – Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, and Justin Durant. But the Cowboys had Sean Lee returning and if he could stay on the field, he would eat up half the needed snaps. They also loved what they saw from Anthony Hitchens in his rookie season so he also factored into the equation. This opened the door for Carter and Durant to sign with other teams. The Cowboys re-signed McClain to a one-year “prove it” deal. Although McClain played great for Dallas in 2014, his character issues brought about a certain degree of caution so the Cowboys kept shopping by also signing new free agents Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar, and Keith Rivers as they solidified their depth.
It basically came down to deciding which player the team wanted to keep – Doug Free or Jeremy Parnell? The Cowboys went with the veteran blocker, who also ended up being cheaper as well. Free signed a three-year, $15 M deal whereas Parnell signed a five-year, $32 M deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And that decision paid off in a big way. No so much that Free was the better player, but that generous deal the Jags gave Parnell helped the Cowboys receive a fourth-round compensatory pick in 2016 that would be used to draft Dak Prescott.
Defensive Tackle (1016)
The Cowboys let Henry Melton go in free agency as he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While that created a void, they did get a boost in the middle by the transition of Tyrone Crawford from DE to DT during the 2014 season. And they chose to keep Nick Hayden around as they signed him to a one-year deal.
Defensive End (871)
The team parted ways with Anthony Spencer and George Selvie. With Tyrone Crawford moving inside, this left the team severely lacking in talent at the position. The Cowboys decided to sign the troubled Greg Hardy to a one-year deal. It was the most the team invested into an outside free-agent since 2012. Hardy was inconsistent and wasn’t valuable enough to retain after the 2015 season. The Cowboys also signed Efe Obada, but was he released before the season started.
Running Back (783)
The Cowboys let DeMarco Murray cash in on his remarkable 2014 season as he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys partially replaced his services by signing veteran back Darren McFadden to a two-year, $5.8 M deal.
Sterling Moore signed with the Bucs, but the Cowboys would have Morris Claiborne returning after missing 12 games in 2014. Dallas signed Corey White to give them some depth.
The fullback position belonged to Tyler Clutts in 2014, but his contract was up and the Cowboys were searching for a better alternative. They tried to find his replacement by signing free agents Ray Agnew and Jed Collins. But ultimately, the Cowboys went back to Clutts for another year.
Here is a summary of those moves:
So, what does that tell us?
Well, the first thing is that the Cowboys re-signed their own players in each of the top four “most needed” positions. While they did sign three new free agent linebackers, the bulk of their new acquisition were directed at the next four snap count deficient groups.
Let’s take a look at last off-season and see if we can find any trends.
Looking back at this position, it’s easy to think that it had the making of being a giant mess. Morris Claiborne was a free agent and some expected him to be sent walking. Orlando Scandrick was returning from a knee injury that kept him out the entire 2015 season and there was some doubt about how effective he could be. Byron Jones was being moved to free safety. And Brandon Carr had a lucrative cap hit to where he was thought to be a potential cap casualty. There were so many question marks.
But the Cowboys resolved this issue by re-signing Claiborne and restructuring Carr so they could essentially rent their services for a reasonable price. The 26-year-old journeyman Josh Thomas was also signed, but he was injured in preseason and never saw the field in 2016.
Defensive End (1465)
The Cowboys chose not to re-sign Hardy so that left a huge hole on the edge. They would keep Jack Crawford and signed free agent acquisition Benson Mayowa to a three-year, $8.5 M deal.
The team was sitting in good shape at the position until June when news broke that Rolando McClain would be suspended 10 games for a second violation of the substance abuse policy. The Cowboys would add Justin Durant a couple weeks later.
Defensive Tackle (716)
While Hayden has served as stable participator on the interior line, the Cowboys looked for something a little better. They signed Cedric Thornton to a four-year deal. They also had Terrell McClain returning after missing 14 games in 2015.
This was by far the most significant deficiency for the Cowboys in 2015, but the return of Tony Romo would fix that problem in a heartbeat. Despite still having a scary backup situation, the Cowboys did not try to resolve it in free agency. Instead, they drafted Prescott and that has worked out magnificently.
Running Back (277)
Joseph Randle was given the boot and the Cowboys signed Alfred Morris to a two-year deal. They also brought back Lance Dunbar for another season.
Wide Receiver (275)
Devin Street’s departure was easily replaced with Brice Butler, who the Cowboys traded for after Bryant went down with a foot injury. Fun little side note: the Butler trade also came with a swap of draft picks with the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys used theirs to select CB Anthony Brown.
The Cowboys were tired of Cluttsing around at the fullback position so Rod Smith and Keith Smith battled for the job in training camp, with Keith emerging victorious. Not that people care too much, but Keith Smith graded out as the third best FB in the league this season according to PFF. Not bad for a recently converted linebacker.
Mackenzy Bernadeau started all but five games during his first two seasons with the Cowboys, but was used sparingly during his last two. He signed a two-year, $3 M deal with Jacksonville last season. That left the team without a backup center so they signed Joe Looney in free agency. Looney is four years younger and half the cost. Plus, the Cowboys utilized him when they went with six offensive linemen in the “Jumbo Joe” package. He played just as much last season as Bernadeau had the last two years.
Here is a summary of those moves:
So, what does last off-season tell us?
Again, the Cowboys stay in-house when it comes to the most pressing needs. As the need starts to decline, free agents from other teams start showing up. This speaks towards the Cowboys philosophy of using free agency to fill voids.
What does all this mean for the 2017 off-season? Here are their biggest snap count deficiencies for the players they are losing. And for simplicity, the pattern looks like this for where the team looks to fill these holes:
Following in line with how the Cowboys do business, there is a great chance the team re-signs Brandon Carr or Morris Claiborne…and possibly both. The same might also be true for Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. The Cowboys will retain a good portion of this group.
Wide Receiver (1249)
I’m also tapping the breaks on the idea that Terrance Williams won’t be returning. If the market stays reasonable, the Cowboys could meet him halfway and strike a fair deal. Williams is better than a lot of people realize and Dallas might not just let this third-round investment strut away. Brice Butler is fine for a 5th WR, but so are a lot of players. It wouldn’t be too hard to find his replacement in free agency.
The return of La’el Collins means that Ron Leary’s departure can be absorbed. The Cowboys simply won’t be able to afford him.
Defensive End (769)/Tackle(549)
When the Cowboys do start dabbling in free agency it looks like the defensive line will get some attention. It won’t be as sexy as many of us would hope. The team is just laying down the spackle so they don’t sink.
The eventual debut of Jaylon Smith will make the linebacker position nothing to worry much about.
Similarly, this doesn’t bode well for the chances of Darren McFadden or Gavin Escobar remaining with the team. And if the Cowboys part ways with Tony Romo, look for a cheap veteran free agent to have Dak’s back.
It’s still a big guessing game, but it’s nice to have some pieces of the puzzle available. While it is always fun to throw out the names of some of our favorite free agents, we might want to zoom in on the right positions. And although the secondary spots seem like a smoking gun, be guarded that the Cowboys go about things a little differently.