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A Cowboys’ Offseason Plan, Part 1: What Is Their Team-Building Philosophy?

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In a ten-part series, we are going to take a comprehensive look at the Cowboys and how they might get better in 2017. This is part one.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Super Bowl is behind us, there are a lot of ways to look at the Cowboys’ offseason. Mock drafts are in full swing. Quite a few articles have been written about potential free agents the Cowboys might sign, including player-by-player evaluations of the Cowboys’ in-house free agents, and an article that showed how many snaps they played in 2016. We also looked at the Cowboys’ real quarterback rating differential - a stat highly correlated with winning in the NFL - in a series of three articles to see how it could be improved.

Overview

This ten-part series is going to take a step-by-step approach to the offseason, looking at the following:

  1. What is Dallas’s team building philosophy? What factors, other than trying to get better, are going to drive the Cowboy’s decisions this offseason?
  2. Where are the Cowboys strong? To decide how to get better, you first have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the team. This will be the first of three articles on that topic.
  3. Where are the Cowboys just okay? Where can the Cowboys get by if they can’t improve?
  4. Where are the Cowboys weakest? This includes an assessment of the holes that would be created if the team’s free agents leave.
  5. Freeing up money. The Cowboys are above the salary cap for 2017. Before they do anything, they need to get under the cap. How can they do so?
  6. In house free agents. Who are the best candidates for Dallas to try to bring back, and why?
  7. Free agents - offense. Who might Dallas target on the offensive side of the ball? (This might be a very short article!)
  8. Free agents - defense. Who might Dallas target on the defensive side?
  9. Draft - offense. What positions are likely to be bolstered on offense?
  10. Draft - defense. What positions are likely to be bolstered on defense?

We’ll find a way to mention special teams in here as well, and there might be a summation piece as an 11th article bonus. Let’s get to it.

Part 1: What Is The Cowboys’ Team Building Philosophy?

It’s important to look at this question because it tempers what fans might hope the Cowboys do in a given offseason. For example, whether or not the Cowboys have the cap space to do it, we have learned not to expect Dallas to be major players in free agency. The last big multi-year deal they signed along those lines was for Brandon Carr, and that was in March 2012. So there is no way the Cowboys will do what the Giants did last offseason, when they inked players to more than $200 million in contracts on defense. It actually worked for the Giants in year one, but hopefully it will become an albatross on the Giants’ cap over time.

Here are five elements that seem to form the core of Dallas’ approach.

Build through the draft.

Here’s what Stephen Jones said last year.

But Jones said the Cowboys will use the upcoming NFL Draft as the foundation of their improvement and not free agency.

“I think we have been on record as saying I don’t think that’s where you build a football team in free agency,” Jones said. ...

“The big thing as (owner) Jerry (Jones) so eloquently said, ‘we earned the fourth pick in the draft and the third pick in the second round and the fourth pick in the third round.’ You build your team in the draft. So we got to draft well.”

More simply, here’s what he said this year.

So, how do the Cowboys plan to improve their defense?

"Draft!" Stephen Jones said definitively.

This is certainly the model Dallas has followed for the last several years. The only big-ticket free agent Dallas has signed since Carr was Greg Hardy, but he was on a make-do contract that allowed Dallas to be free of him after a year, and he turned out to be a mistake, further souring Dallas on that approach.

Keep your best players.

When you draft well, you also have to decide who is worthy of a second (or third) contract. Dallas has at some point re-upped the following players currently under contract for 2017:

  • Tony Romo - QB
  • Tyron Smith - LT
  • Travis Frederick - C
  • Doug Free - RT
  • Dez Bryant - WR
  • Cole Beasley - WR
  • Jason Witten - TE
  • James Hanna - TE
  • Sean Lee - LB
  • Tyrone Crawford - DE/DT
  • Orlando Scandrick - CB
  • Jeff Heath - S/ST ace
  • Kyle Wilber - LB/ST
  • Dan Bailey - K
  • Chris Jones - P
  • LP LaDouceur - LS

That’s 16 players out of a 53-man roster. To that, expect Dallas to add Zack Martin at a minimum.

There are also 18 in-house free agents, some of whom might be re-signed. Indeed, according to Stephen Jones, he’d like to sign many of them.

Stephen Jones said he'd like to re-sign Carr, Claiborne, Church and Wilcox. He also said he'd like to bring back receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, both of whom are also unrestricted free agents.

"All those are guys we'd like to sign," Stephen Jones said. "You got to make it all work. And sometimes as we all know, you don't get to sign them all back. That doesn't mean you don't try."

It will largely come down to whether or not they can agree on terms favorable or at least fair to the Cowboys.

Plug holes through free agency, but don’t break the bank.

This point dovetails with the next one. If you want to avoid being forced to “overdraft” for need, then you need to fill those needs before the draft so you have at least a backup plan should the draft not fall your way. Thus the Cowboys have seemed to specialize in mid- or low-level free agents to fill spots, including keeping their own players for an extra year. For example, last offseason, the Cowboys signed:

  • Cedric Thornton to replace Nick Hayden.
  • Alfred Morris to be a backup, or even a potential starting running back.
  • Benson Mayowa to provide some edge rushing.
  • Lance Dunbar to reprise his role as a receiving back.
  • Mo Claiborne on a make-good one-year contract.
  • Jack Crawford on a one-year contract.
  • Rolando McClain on a one-year contract.

Go into the draft with holes filled, so you can draft the best player available.

Here’s Stephen Jones this year on the draft. It’s definitely a best player available approach.

"If you ask me, where we've got the best opportunity is to go to work in the draft. Whether that's the first pick, the second pick, the third pick - I can't tell you how the draft's going to turn out. I think that's how you make your biggest mistakes, is to say 'We're going to pick for need. We're going to take the best defensive end in the draft, not the best player in the draft when our pick comes.' So we'll just have to see how all that plays out.

This approach also makes sense. As we showed in our third article on real quarterback rating differential, the way to improve a team is to have more high-quality players on it. Using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value rating, for example, you are better off with a safety or cornerback rating a 13 or a 12 than a defensive lineman rating an 8 or a 9 even if you think you “need” the lineman more.

Stay young. Don’t re-sign any player over 30.

The Cowboys aren’t the youngest team in the NFL. At the start of 2016, they were 12th, right at 26 years on average for those on the 53-man roster. But they pay attention to age. That’s a big reason why they let DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher go after 2013, even though they didn’t have ready replacements.

In 2016, only two starters - Doug Free and Jason Witten - were over 30, since Tony Romo didn’t play. And even among reserves, only Justin Durant and LP LaDouceur were over 30.

Among in-house free agents, Brandon Carr is the oldest at 30. It may be an impediment to re-signing him, even though he’s never missed a game in his career. Perhaps he’ll be the exception to the rule.

Next - Part 2: Where Is Dallas Strong?